When my daughter was about two years old, we visited some good friends in Phoenix. She was sitting on their low garden wall, entranced by their elusive (to her) cat. She reached out for him and toppled backwards, right onto a small cactus. It wasn’t until we pulled her up that we saw the cut under her eye, sliced ever so neatly by the spine of a nearby agave. She cried bitterly as we pulled the cactus spines out of her back. Fortunately, her pain drew that little cat to her; he wove around her legs and let her pet him, finally, which stopped the tears. She still has a thin scar under her eye all these years later. She has had a thousand cuts and scrapes over the years. None of the others left a permanent mark.
Anyone who has spent any time in the Sonoran Desert knows the agave plant, though hopefully not in such a bloody manner. In fact, their range extends much farther than the Sonoran Desert, reaching north into Utah, throughout Mexico, and even down into parts of South America. Though I lived in Arizona for years, it wasn’t until I spent some time in Oaxaca, Mexico that I fully came to appreciate agave and all it has to offer.
Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did! Before you leave this post already, let me reassure you that I was not a big drinker of mezcal before going to Oaxaca. My prior exposure to mezcal and tequila always seemed to be hearing about people wanting to get drunk quickly and then regretting that decision rather fervently. That is not what this post is about, I promise!
Agave flavors everything in Oaxaca in some sense. It has been cultivated for thousands of years across its growing region. People decorated pottery with agave designs. They stored it in caves. They used different varieties for needles, cloth, thatched roofs, paper, food, and for both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. Recently, archaeologists Paul and Suzanne Fish of the University of Arizona (and others) have argued that agave wasn’t merely planted widely in the ancient U.S. Southwest, it was domesticated. That means that they see evidence of techniques used to make these plants more beneficial for those farming it. Indeed, we may need to speak of a fourth “sister” crop, complementing corn, beans, and squash, when considering its importance to indigenous people.
While I was in Oaxaca, I saw fields of multiple varieties of agave. I was also delighted to sample pickled agave flower buds. I might have eaten more than my share of those little honeys.
I was fortunate enough to meet with a shaman, or traditional healer, on one visit. A group of students and I participated in a temazcal. A temazcal is a kind of sweat lodge, and we used several plants during the sweat – coffee, mango, bouquets of basil, and definitely mezcal. Before the temazcal itself, the healer worked on two or three members of our group. Mezcal was used as a substance to purify both healer and the person in need of healing. At one point, our host filled his mouth with it and sprayed it vigorously all over the patient. It was offered many times throughout our visit, and he explained repeatedly that it was very pure. It could not give you a hangover, he said, because it was nothing but agave. The intention was never to get someone drunk, but to cure.
Our group was still shy about mezcal at this point. The idea of drinking early in the day, and right before sweating profusely, didn’t entice us.
Later in this trip, we visited a mezcal producer. Now, if you visit Oaxaca, you can take many tours of palenques for mezcal. They are made for tourists and export, and have numerous flavors and types available. That wasn’t where we went. On our way to Juchitán, a community on the coast, our wonderful guide took us by his favorite producer of mezcal. No one was around that day, and we were intimidated (okay, I was intimidated) by the family of turkeys roaming the site protectively.
Happily, we returned in a few days to find Telésforo Martinez and his sons available to show us their excellent mezcal. They produced every aspect of the spirit. They harvested the plants, keeping different varieties separate; they roasted the piñas, or hearts of the plants; and they distilled the alcohol.
To give us samples, they put a rubber tube into a cask and sucked until it began to flow into a small dried gourd. We then passed around gourd after gourd of mezcal, trying each type. This one is small and grown in the wild, this one is aged for so long, this one is the most popular. To take some with you, you simply paid for the amount you wanted and transferred it into a bottle that you brought with you.
Our kind and encouraging guide assured me that we would have no trouble getting them through U.S. customs. I just couldn’t believe him, so I bought labels at a store in town and decorated them to fool the agents.
Don’t laugh. That is totally convincing. Also, they didn’t stop any of us or question it at all.
One night in the city of Oaxaca, we ate at a wonderful restaurant called Zandunga. I had their fantastic red mole, but the highlight was truly my cocktail, La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), made with local mezcal. People in Mexico and the United States tell many versions of the story of La Llorona. Always, she drowns her children and is doomed to cry for them forever. In some places, the tale contains elements of class inequality (she was poor but her love was a wealthy man who scorned her after she bore him children), in other places she is a warning to women (she was a neglectful mother who prefers the attention of men to caring for her young children). Some of you may know the gorgeous Mexican folk song of the same name, which originates in Oaxaca. Check out Lila Downs’ version if you are feeling weepy. (When the song came on as I watched the movie Coco with my daughter, I totally burst into tears.)
I approximated my own version of the cocktail when I got home. I swear I get a little teary with nostalgia for Oaxaca when I drink it.
You have to begin by making jamaica, a sweet drink from hibiscus flowers. You can find the flowers in any Mexican grocery.
Bring 6 cups of water to a boil and then add 2 cups of dried jamaica flowers and 3/4 cup sugar. Boil for one minute. If you are using a non-corrosive pot, leave it there to steep for about 2 hours, or transfer to another container you can’t stain. After it has steeped, pour the liquid through a sieve over a pitcher to strain out the flowers. Push out all that liquid! Check for intensity. Sometimes I need to dilute the strength with cold water.
Enjoy over ice and keep in the fridge for a refreshing drink on its own.
For the cocktail, fill a tall glass with ice. Combine 2 shots of pineapple juice, 1/2 shot simple syrup, and 1 shot of mezcal. Top with jamaica. Add some freshly grated ginger to taste. I also sometimes throw in some Penzey’s crystallized ginger for extra fun. Stir and enjoy! I make this without alcohol as a special treat for my daughter.
If you aren’t listening to Lila Downs right now, I need to know the reason why. And before you ask, it is NOT just as good with tequila.