A Cocktail to Make You Weep

Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did!

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.

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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.

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Agave field in Oaxaca       Photo: Lora Adams

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.

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Blooming agave with saguaros in Arizona

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.

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Shaman’s Tools      Photo: Lora Adams

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.

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They are bigger than you think.

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.

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Piñas ready for roasting

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.

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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.

La Llorona

You have to begin by making jamaica, a sweet drink from hibiscus flowers. You can find the flowers in any Mexican grocery.

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Lovely jamaica flowers

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.

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It gets pretty strong.

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.

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Isn’t it beautiful?

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.

An Anthropologist’s Take on Food

Have you heard that joke about the anthropologist? Her student was preparing to go to her field site, where she had worked many years earlier. As she was giving the novice advice, she said, “Don’t turn down any food they offer! It’s very insulting to them if you say no.” When the graduate student got to the village, she began to ask older members of the community if they remembered her mentor. Oh yes, they replied, we remember her well! The student noticed that they were grinning a bit, and making eye contact over her head. What was so funny?, she asked. Finally, one of the older men burst out, “That woman would eat ANYTHING!” And they all rolled around laughing.

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I had been a vegetarian for six years when I started doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. I ate fish and dairy, so I was pretty low down on the vegetarian meter. I was comfortable asking to be accommodated, and although I sometimes dreamed (literally) about eating bacon, I had no intention of changing my dietary practices. I had traveled internationally with no issues or need to eat meat. Then I started working outside my own cultural boundaries.

The first time I ate meat again was at the U.S.-Mexico border. I’d been working with a middle school and had made some real friends there. One friend, who I will call Maricela, asked me if I’d ever eaten a torta.  When I said no, she got excited and insisted on taking me directly to her favorite torta guy for lunch, who had a food truck close to the border fence in downtown Nogales.  As we drove, she explained that a torta was a kind of sandwich on a bolillo, a soft white roll, smeared with avocado, usually some lettuce and tomato and onions and pickled jalapeños, and your choice of meat.

Okay, I thought, maybe there will be some kind of fish option. And if not, maybe this one time I could eat the chicken. As we walked to the truck, I scanned the sign that listed today’s choices. There was no pollo. In my memory, there was only carne, and carne of many types. Standing there with my friend, who was so thrilled to be introducing me to the very best torta, I just couldn’t say, “I don’t eat that.” And as I asked about the different meat options, it turned out that each one had a story of its preparation, a time when you might prepare it at home, who might be invited, a memory of the best one you ever had. All this in a sandwich. I got carnitas that day, I’m pretty sure.

I didn’t change my regular eating habits immediately after that day, but that scene began to repeat over and over again as I fully engaged with ways of living that were not the ones I had grown up in. When I was invited to people’s homes, they had always prepared something very special for me. Often, that included meat. An Arab man in Jerusalem, who I had just met hours earlier, arranged a feast for me that included many small meat dishes. (That led to a very exciting stomach-related adventure the next day, which I will write about if you ask me nicely.) A favorite treat might be a strong cup of instant coffee, served without my usually required cream and sugar. It might be the beans your grandchildren love and say that no one can make just like you do. As people offered me their favorite dishes, I stopped being able to say no or ask how it was prepared on my way to declining it.

Have you heard that joke about the anthropologist? Her student was preparing to go to her field site, where she had worked many years earlier. As she was giving the novice advice, she said, “Don’t turn down any food they offer! It’s very insulting to them if you say no.” When the graduate student got to the village, she began to ask older members of the community if they remembered her mentor. Oh yes, they replied, we remember her well! The student noticed that they were grinning a bit, and making eye contact over her head. What was so funny?, she asked. Finally, one of the older men burst out, “That woman would eat ANYTHING!” And they all rolled around laughing.

I’m not suggesting that I feel the need to eat everything. I’m not suggesting that vegetarian anthropologists don’t do great work. But I do think that food is an avenue into culture in a very deep sense. The memories of eating a particular dish tell us about social relationships. The act of eating together across cultural barriers can bind people in a way that few other social acts can. Sharing and accepting food symbolizes a willingness to engage.

I’m also aware, because of my work as an anthropologist of borders and globalization, of how our food is produced. Many favorite dishes are born of poverty and the need to make do with what was available. Dishes that we think of as “authentic” to a region could only be possible because of global movements, trade, and migration. And the people who farm and harvest our food are among the most exploited people on our planet. (Yes, look for a follow-up piece on another reason I grow my own berries.)

 

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On this blog, I want to share my love and passion for exploring other ways of life through food. Some of the posts will be about the food where I live – Arkansas, in the southern United States. Others will be about food in the places I have traveled and worked as an anthropologist. I hope all of them will entertain, and will help you to entertain family and friends, and to cross cultural boundaries whenever you can.