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.
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.”
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.”