A Drink of History

Posted on April 26, 2016


Seeing them anchored in Mexico City’s touristy Centro Historico I wanted to cry. Pulquerìas de la moda. Clean, smart, yuppie. Customers in button-down collars, shiny alligator boots. Trim-waisted women in tailored slacks. Bartenders accustomed to serving politicians, German tourists. Not the way they were during my student years in then less-than-respectable Colonia Escandòn. And not at all the same clientele.


The nearest pulquerìa to where I lived was The Bull With a Twisted Horn. How could one not like a place with a name like that? One entered through an old-fashioned butterfly door, the wooden kind that bang your elbows when you swing through them. The ceiling tilted upward from head-high as one entered to twice that height behind the bar, a heavy remnant of nineteenth century drinking, its varnish chipped, its surface roiled and scarred. Bulbs suspended from long ceiling cords thrust murky shadows across the faces of the drinkers beneath them, faces at first glance hard to distinguish because The Bull had no windows and the low-wattage bulbs barely penetrated the tobacco smoke nimbused around them. The bartender-owner, a small man with unruly black hair and a smile that seemed like a snarl, greeted everyone who entered by his mote (nickname) or first name, most of which he invented. I was gringo, tufo, ojo’zules, Cheri (because he thought I looked like Jerry Lewis) depending on the day, the time and his mood. Also dependent on the day, the time and his mood was a free refill now and then and the admission of itinerant musicians whose Jorge Negrete imitations barely could be heard over the arguments, clatter of dominoes and immense variety of insults that pulque could inspire among football fans, political foes and cheated lovers.


The Bull had neither heating nor ventilation. Tables, walls, ceilings and clients shared the pungent, fetid odor of pulque. Fermented from native maguey and thick, almost chewy, pulque isn’t nearly as potent as its odor (alcoholic content about 5.5 percent) and its taste, at first seeming to have a sour tang, grows on one. Pulque was Mexico’s most commonly imbibed beverage long before Spaniards arrived in Mexico and retained its popularly well into the twentieth century. The beer industry usually is (dis)credited with having brought about the disappearance of pulquerias but modernization largely was responsible for their demise. Pulque doesn’t keep well, even refrigerated. Until the mid-twentieth century refrigeration in Mexico wasn’t common; cold beer gained in popularity and pulque diminished as more and more establishments acquired refrigeration. Never was pulque successfully bottled or canned commercially and it absorbed the stigma of being a poor person’s substitute for beer as Mexico surged towards industrialization during and after World War II.


The Bull’s clientele certainly wasn’t upscale but neither was Escandòn, a crowded primarily residential area of concrete walls, pegged-together buildings and upswept pitted streets. Like most pulquerìas the Bull catered primarily to men and financial transactions; bets on horses, dogs, chickens and bullfighters were commonplace. So were exaggerated accounts about prostitutes, fistfights, horse races and bandido attacks. A smudged but clearly legible sign on the entranceway announced: ENTRANCE PROHIBITED TO BEGGARS, UNESCORTED WOMEN AND UNIFORMADOS (uniformed soldiers or police) but only prohibitions to the last named were strictly enforced.


No such limitations, no such bartenders, no such prices exist in the tourist district imitation pulquerìas in Mexico City today. It’s a shame. I could use a long draught of the creamy brew along with that old bartender’s snarly smile and the yips of drinkers massacring a ranchero melody.


Photo by Manuel Valmorisco

Robert Joe Stout’s books include Monkey Screams (FutureCycle Press) and A Perfect Throw. A novel, Where Gringos Don’t Belong, has just been published by Anaphora Literary Press. He is a freelance journalist in Oaxaca, Mexico.