The other day I was walking by the library at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and noticed a series of tall, skeletal-like trees next to me. They were “spent” magueys; once the plant reaches sexual maturity it sends up a flowering stalk about the height of a small tree and then withers. It made me think more concretely about the incredible time investment that people in the pulque industry made in these plants. It can take between eight and twenty-five years for one plant to reach maturity and, if you don’t “castrate” the plant in time, it’s impossible to harvest it for agua miel (the unfermented precursor of pulque).
Since trying a “curado” pulque (flavored with tomatoes) from Xochimilco—a place that keeps coming up In the eighteenth-century records I’ve been looking at—I’ve been thinking a bit about the risks of a lost investment in a maguey in terms of the liquid itself. Pulque spoiled quickly—within a matter of days—and If you didn’t judge the market correctly, you could lose an investment measured in terms of years. I’ve found repeated mentions of colonial-era prosecutions for the adulteration of pulque through the addition of fruits, roots, or herbs. Of course, most of these records emphasize that the purpose of said alteration is to make a stronger beverage, but I wonder if this doesn’t reflect more the prejudices of colonial record-makers than the realities on the ground. Mixing juices and other materials with soured pulque (in the period I study, referred to as tepache) would result in a stronger drink, but mainly because the pulque itself becomes stronger. The question becomes, is the adulteration of pulque mainly a way of disguising the flavor of soured pulque in order to sell it? And how does one find the answer to this?
Furthermore, the desiccated plant remains were, at the time of the Conquest, a form of fuel for Tenochtitlán. Looking at the spent plant, I could certainly see why… but what happened to them during the colonial period? I’ve been spending some time with the AGN search engines trying to find this info…
PhD Candidate, History