A Mystical Journey on the Wings of the Maguey

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My journey through Mexico in January can be traced back on the wings of the magical, mystical maguey plant: it marked my time there not in any particular objectively obvious way, but in the way that the majestic rolling hills unfold towards the horizon, and it is only on second glance that you notice they are actually dotted with maguey (a type of agave), leaves outstretched like hawks taking flight. Just as the miracles of the natural world start to accumulate in your eyes once you acknowledge a single miracle, just as the curtain is pulled and the light finally pours irrevocably in, once you see a single maguey on the rolling hills you end up seeing a thousand or more; all around you are its manifestations and permutations.

I traveled to Puebla and Oaxaca, and rural areas outside those cities, with a group of fellow Food Studies graduate students from NYU. We sought to understand the Mexican food system and the effect that NAFTA, Walmart, and globalization have had on subsistence farmers and on Mexican cuisine. The more you know, the more you realize how little you know: we left knowing how to ask better questions, though not necessarily having the tools, perspective, depth of experience to know the answers just yet. We did see just how complicated the Mexican food system actually is in reality.

One thing we knew for sure was that the maguey was magical, omnipresent, poetic.

It left its mark on me, in the form of a long scrape on my arm midway through a hike in the mountains outside Oaxaca. As we came to a clearing, out from one pine forest and just before entering another, we navigated along a narrow path filled with maguey.  I should have known, as I wove my body in and out of the plants, attempting to avoid not just the maguey leaves but also the goatherd walking past with his goats, attempting to not be distracted by the farmer down the hill with his mules plowing the field, that I would not get by unscathed. I looked at my arm as I entered the next pine forest and found a long, 4-inch red scrape of the maguey, a scrape of the sharp pointed end of the leaf, commonly taken off the plant and used to make needles.

It left its mark on me, in the form of my first-ever Ernest Hemingway moment (minus the drunk writing/sober editing, minus the visit to the Havana compound where he did some of his writing), providing additional courage to allow me to jump into a bullfighting ring at a hacienda outside Puebla, courage to leap in completely uninitiated, a dilettante, to leap in without compunction. It was the pulque that must have been jumping into that ring. Pulque: the fermented sap of the mystical maguey plant, the drink that I had tried at the migrant community of La Preciosita a few days earlier, hardly able to finish the small glass poured for me. Under the overcast skies, clouds threatening, on this day at the hacienda, I gave the pulque another try: the bull was waiting just outside the ring. The clouds cleared as I stepped in, and I took off my sweater. The bull entered. I faced down the angry animal that wanted nothing more than to shred that red cape I held in my hands. Whether I was shredded or not meant nothing to him. The matadors from the hacienda yelled out “Mas cerca! Mas circa!” “Closer! Closer!” I got closer, and so did the bull, closer and closer and closer…then farther and farther and turning and coming closer, closer. We danced, we spun, and I was not impaled as I rode the magical wings of fermented maguey sap.

Later in the day at the hacienda, we ate lamb barbacoa, traditional Mexican food. But what does traditional mean here? Barbacoa is traditional in the sense that it pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish. The lamb, however, does not. Before the Spanish arrived, the meat for the barbacoa would have been armadillo or deer meat. There is a smart question we learned to ask: what are we talking about when we are talking about “tradition?” The barbacoa consists of a 3-foot deep pit, with hot coals, where meat is cooked for around four hours. The meat was wrapped in the outer skin of the maguey leaves, to add taste. The barbacoa pit itself was covered with the full wide-winged maguey leaves as a way to seal the heat in the pit. As we watched the slaughtering and butchering of a lamb, I was filled with questions and conflicting feelings: the lamb tasted amazing, but this was pretty graphic and bloody; yes we domesticated these animals for this purpose, but I was witnessing a life being taken from this world in a very matter-of-fact way. Yet it somehow felt gentle to me, at least somewhat gentler and more humane than what I witnessed at the industrialized pork ranch our group visited the day before.

With the maguey, there is no conflict, no paradox, just a huge array of functions and echoes throughout the food tradition of Mexico: when planted on the side of a sloping cornfield, maguey plants can act to prevent soil erosion; the leaves can be used as a rich organic amendment for soil and for making ropes, lassos, collars for mules; the worms found on the plant are considered a delicacy; the sap itself (called agua miel, or honey water) is delicious, and (sometimes) the fermented sap, or pulque, is too. When I think of our journey through Mexico, I can taste the pulque. I can see the influence of the maguey in the movement of my arms in the pictures of me bullfighting. I can see the maguey waving its wide leaves at me across the desert, from the slopes of the hills, reaching out to touch me in ways tangible, mysterious and mystical all at once.

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