Holy, Hated, or Hip?: The Circuitous History of Mexico’s Pulque

We here at Points are very excited to present the first installment of guest blogger Gretchen Pierce’s new three-part series. Gretchen is an Assistant Professor of History at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.  Her research focuses primarily on the social and cultural history of Mexico, a topic she will exploring in today’s article on the Mexican culture of pulque.

Mayaheul, the Aztec goddess of the maguey plant.

Dr. José Siurob Ramírez (1886-1965), legislator, Chief of the Department of Public Health, and ardent temperance advocate during the Mexican Revolution, would be turning over in his grave if he knew that pulque, a beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant, has been making a comeback in the last few years. An ancient concoction whose roots trace back to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, pulque was once a holy beverage associated with the goddess Mayahuel.  For centuries elite Spaniards and then many Mexicans hated it, equating it with the poor and largely indigenous population of Central Mexico.  Today, young urban Mexican hipsters consume it as a way of reconnecting with their indigenous history and defying mainstream cultural norms.  It should be noted that a similar trend has taken place with European and American young people, who have rediscovered the formerly blacklisted absinthe or the déclassé Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Until recently, intellectuals like Siurob viewed pulquerías, Mexican taverns that serve pulque, as dives that only catered to poor men looking to get a cheap buzz.  Today, they are hip and happening gender-neutral joints catering to the twenty-something college crowd.  Two such bars are Pulquería La Risa and Pulquería Las Duelistas, both of which were founded in the opening decades of the twentieth century.  Although they are proud of their heritage (La Risa, or The Laugh, has a plaque stating the establishment was opened in 1903 and belongs to the Historical Zone of Mexico City), the owners have consciously worked to modernize their businesses, introducing brightly colored Aztec-style murals, loud jukeboxes, and Facebook pages.  Arturo Garrido of Las Duelistas (The Duelists) says, “I have totally changed the image of the pulquería, a totally new concept, with different clientele.  Most of my clients are young, and it is my way to continue giving life to pulque.”

The pulqueria is now, apprently, a “thing” with young, educated Mexican urbanites.

Pulque is not only cool with Mexico’s trend-setters but is going global. At the New York restaurant-bar Pulqueria, patrons can choose between seven types of pulque, including ones infused with ingredients like tomatillos, maize, and watermelon.  Pulque is now even showing up at gourmet and other specialty grocery stores, most commonly in the southwestern United States.  For several years, Boulder Imports has been bottling and canning the fermented agave nectar as Pulque La Lucha.  Others may want to experience pulque in its natural habitat; No Reservations’ Anthony Bourdain broadcast his visit to a pulquería in 2009.  Thirsty tourists can even sign up for tours which allow them to travel to several different pulque estates over the course of a few days, giving them the chance to not only consume the beverage, but also to see it being made.

These developments would be shocking to someone like Siurob. Like many of his contemporaries, not to mention his predecessors, he believed that pulque was the scourge of the nation.  Reformers claimed that the abuse of the beverage led to cirrhosis of the liver and made the drinker more susceptible to typhoid and venereal diseases.  Temperance advocates also linked it to crime and domestic violence. Further, the besotted could not go to work or be trusted to participate in the political process; thus it challenged nation-building goals of the revolution. Because of all of these problems, at a congressional debate over taxation of the beverage in 1917, Siurob explained “pulque is opposed to the principal idea of the Revolution, which is to raise up the spirit of the masses.” 

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Laughing at / with the Dead

I recently had the pleasure of attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of medicine in Baltimore. It’s a great conference, filled with friendly and interesting people doing what academics generally do at such events – talking, schmoozing, drinking, and so on. If you work on the history of health, disease, or medicine I heartily recommend attending. There are always at least a few panels about drugs, and there are always people around who know a tremendous amount about the history of addiction and related topics. Plus, there’s always good food. This year they gave away free Haagen-Dazs ice cream and warm chocolate chip cookies. What’s not to like?

Anyway, I attended a number of interesting presentations at the conference, two of which got me thinking – not so much about the topic of the talks, but about the question of how we talk about the past. The first was a presentation on biomedical research in which the presenter made a number of amusing comments, some of which were at the expense of the people she was talking about. This is actually a pretty common dynamic at this conference – speakers will sometimes describe something objectionable that physicians did in the past, for example, and then sort of smirk or otherwise indicate their disdain for the behavior they are describing; audience members will react by chuckling or perhaps groaning in a sort of “I can’t believe they did that” type of response. In this particular case, the presenter made a few humorous comments about the research subjects who had been experimented on, at one point poking fun at one of their poems that she had discovered in an archive. The poem was admittedly quite bad, but there really wasn’t any reason to include it in the talk except for comic relief. Those people sure did write terrible poetry, didn’t they? Hah hah!

This sort of thing always makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me that we should be respectful of the people we study, even if they are dead and even if we disagree with what they thought or how they behaved. I’m not sure why I feel this way, but I do: it just strikes me as sort of rude to make fun of people, especially if those people don’t have the opportunity to make fun of you back. Of course, I also realize that I’m a bit uptight when it comes to these types of issues, and I recognize that I sometimes come off as a bit of a prig. I mean, really, what’s wrong with poking a bit of fun at people, especially if they aren’t around anymore to take offense? Beats me. All I know is that it makes me squirm in my chair and want to go out and get one of those cookies that I mentioned earlier. So there I sat, listening to the jokes about people being experimented on in years past, feeling both slightly offended and somewhat defensive about my own stuffiness. I probably should have just called it a day and gone back to my room for a nap.

Not Funny!

On the other hand, I also saw a talk in Baltimore in which the presenter was very serious – and I mean very serious – and spent a significant amount of time chastising other historians for not adequately addressing the suffering of the many people who died due to a certain catastrophic event. The speaker didn’t seem to realize that he was speaking to a friendly audience – I mean, historians of medicine are more than happy to talk about death and destruction, and to assign blame for said death and destruction – and he came off as both insufferable and self-righteous. That was a decidedly unfunny talk, and I can’t say that I left it any more pleased than I left the talk about medical experimentation. One was too funny, or perhaps funny in the wrong way, while the other was decidedly not funny enough, or at least not enjoyable enough. In both cases I probably would have preferred to be somewhere else.

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The Points Interview–Michael Reznicek

Editor’s Note: Today’s twenty-sixth installment of our author interview feature offers some compelling reporting from the trenches of the drug war, by Michael Reznicek.  Here, he discusses his recently published book, Blowing Smoke: Rethinking the War on Drugs Without Prohibition and Rehab (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). Though Blowing Smoke obviously focuses attention on contemporary policy regimes and alternatives, Reznicek takes the historical roots of these regimes seriously–the first four chapters are dedicated to a broad history of prohibitionist and disease models in American history.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

This is a report from the trenches in the war on drugs where things are not going well.Cover of Michael Reznicek's Blowing Smoke Blowing Smoke is a criticism of the disease model of substance abuse, which I believe lies at the heart of all drug war efforts. Drug warriors are not moral scolds; they are concerned about public health. Punitive sanctions more often than not are used to force people into rehab, and prohibition laws are an important extension of the disease model: if drug abuse is a brain disease, then drugs are pathogens that need to be banned. Prohibition laws didn’t start out that way, but I think that is how they are popularly understood today.

I’m a clinical psychiatrist who has worked with substance abusers for over 27 years. I currently work in a state prison system where about ninety percent of inmates have had extensive drug problems. Blowing Smoke reviews the history and science behind the disease model and argues that the model misjudges the problem of addiction and that it leads to important unintended consequences. Essentially, I believe the disease model enables the problem. I offer a competing model—the habit model—that I believe more accurately captures addictive behavior. The habit model also leads to dramatically different responses.

My criticism of the disease model is not limited to the “NIDA paradigm” but to all models that view substance abusers as passive agents who are merely responding to forces within or around them. That is not how substance abusers view themselves while they’re using drugs, and not how they recount their experiences years later.

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The Points Interview: Aaron Hoffman

Editor’s Note: The Points Interview series continues on its alcoholic binge, with a third consecutive glance at the world’s most notable psychoactive resource.  Our twenty-fifth distinguished author is  Aaron Hoffman, currently an Associate Professor of History at the Community College of Allegheny County (PA), and a recipient of a Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.  Aaron gives back to that latter community with the recent publication of The Temperance Movement in Aberdeen, Scotland 1830-1845: ‘Distilled Death and Liquid Damnation’ (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011). 

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

In its simplest sense my book attempts to find out why so many people wanted to stop others from drinking alcohol in the second quarter of the nineteenth century in Scotland.  While there are many obvious answers to that question, generally when most people look at it they rely on the words of the leaders of the anti-drink movement.  I wanted to take it to the next level, to actually see who the members of the temperance societies were.  Once you find out who they are you can try to figure out what motivated them to not only personally stop drinking but to join organizations dedicated to convince others to abstain.  This was too large of a project to undertake on a national level, so my focus is one Northeast Scottish city.  Aberdeen proved to be an ideal local-study, large enough to have several temperance groups, but small enough to be studied in detail.  My study begins with the establishment of the first temperance society in the burgh in 1830 and ends in 1845, when the cause experienced a decline in popularity.

Taking the pledge to abstain was a dramatic lifestyle change that broke with traditionally accepted social practices.  Unlike supporting a bible or missionary society or donating money to a charity for the poor, abstinence set an individual apart from the rest of society and, in many cases, was a difficult stance to maintain.  So what type of person did this and why did they do it?  I attempt to explain that by looking at the place of birth, age, occupation, religion, and political affiliation of every person I could find identified with the temperance cause in Aberdeen.  Would this same type of individual be inclined to support other radical causes?  I address that question by examining the connections between temperance and the anti-slavery and Chartists movements in the city.

Since the only temperance manuscript available was a brief Rechabite minute book, the majority of my two hundred and twenty temperance supporters and two hundred and six subscribers to the non-pledge binding “Union of Parties for the more effectual Suppression of Intemperance” were found in the local newspapers.  Many historians have tried to explain temperance with broad classifications, but instead I show that in Aberdeen, in the fifteen years under consideration, the abstinence crusade was not one uniform movement, but three separate movements: anti-spirits, total abstinence, and fraternal.  Furthermore, from my in-depth analysis of the socio-economic background of the Aberdeen abstainers, I discovered that the broad motives often applied to temperance reform may need to be reassessed.  In the Granite City, no one general cause motivated them, but several and more significantly, these motivations changed as the movement changed.  This approach allows for three dominant themes to emerge influencing the reformers: religion, public order, and self-improvement.

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Call for papers: Under control?: alcohol and drug regulation, past and present

Papers and panel proposals are invited for an international conference on the history of alcohol and drug regulation to be held in Bristol, UK 21st-23rd June 2013. The conference will explore all aspects of drug, tobacco and alcohol regulation. Work covering all periods and places, including recent history, will be considered. Confirmed keynote speakers: Professor …

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A Perfect Partnership: Gun Smugglers and Drug Traffickers:

The fallout from Operation Fast and Furious has demonstrated the desperation of the U.S. government to deal with the flows of drugs and drug violence from Mexico.   At the heart of Operation Fast and Furious are guns: AK-47s, AR-15s, FN Five-sevens, and AK variants that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) permitted to pass into the hands of gun smugglers so the arms could be traced to the upper echelons of Mexican drug cartels.  These traceable firearms have been used in an estimated 150 murders of Mexicans as well as the shooting death of a U.S. border patrol agent.  That murder triggered an investigation of the controversial operation  now ensnares the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Justice Department in hearings.

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Dr. Bob’s Home, Part III: Creating a Fellowship of Historians

Last fall I described the process through which a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan researched and wrote the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home, the residence of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Dr. Bob Smith and his wife Anne, to be a National Historic Landmark (NHL).  This week we completed the next step in the process, the formal presentation of the nomination to the Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service.   Like our trip from Ann Arbor to Akron to see Dr. Bob’s Home for ourselves, which I recounted in previous posts, this step required a literal journey, as we drove from Michigan to Washington, D.C. for the presentation.  It has been a journey in other ways as well, as we have learned even more about collaboration, about fellowship, and about the many ways that history matters.

After months of research and writing a lengthy and detailed document, the students were charged with compressing their argument about the significance of Dr. Bob’s Home into a ten-minute presentation, following the protocol of the Landmarks Committee meeting.  Dr. Bob’s Home was one of approximately a dozen properties presented there over two days.  The meeting itself was a fascinating mix of procedural formality and impassioned statements about the power of historic places.  We were joined in Washington by a representative of the Founders’ Foundation, the non-profit organization that has restored and now maintains Dr. Bob’s Home as a museum—the same person who had served as our host when we visited Akron and who has partnered with us through this process.  Sharing this experience with him and his family deepened our appreciation of the importance of fellowship and the power of history.

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A Footnote to Pauly (1994): Yandell Henderson’s Lusitania Letters

Phil Pauly, 2007

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the late Philip J. Pauly’s (1) 1994 paper on the unlikely story of Yandell Henderson’s role in bringing about the legalization of 3.2% beer in the U.S. in April, 1933 — eight months before Repeal’s ratification in December, 1933 — then you have a real treat in store.  Pauly’s paper showed how Henderson, a Yale physiologist, and incidentally someone with no previous background in alcohol studies, managed to persuade U.S. Senate and House committees that low alcohol content beer did not meet the 18th Amendment’s standard for an “intoxicating liquor.”

In addition to providing Prohibition-weary legislators with a partial escape from the 18th’s increasingly unpopular reign, Henderson’s rhetorical success also sprang from a number of his personal attributes.  He was an adept scientific showman, he enjoyed the limelight, he knew how to pitch arguments effectively to a nonscientific audience, and, perhaps most important of all, he liked a good fight.  Henderson’s Laboratory of Applied Physiology at Yale would become — less than a decade after Repeal and under his successor as the lab’s director, Howard W. Haggard – the home of both the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies and the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, two key institutions in the rise of a post-Repeal mainstream alcohol science establishment in the U.S.  Pauly’s account of how expediency drove Congress’s favorable embrace of Henderson’s pronouncements also represents a dramatic case study in self-serving selectiveness and baldly dubious scientific assertions stemming from the interface between science and policy. In what follows, I’ve added merely a footnote to Pauly’s paper, offering further evidence of Henderson’s gladiatorial  contrarian inclinations with respect to hot political issues.

In the U.S. in the pre-World War I period, the anti-beer layer of temperance movement rhetoric was fueled a growing wave of anti-German sentiment.  Many of the nation’s major brewers had German company names and German-American chief executives.  World War I began in Europe in July 1914.  Thereafter, a series of aggressive events – including attacks on U.S. merchant ships by German submarines, the sinking of the Lusitania, and, finally, British intelligence’s interception of the Zimmerman Telegram – led the U.S. to declare war on April 6, 1917.

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