My taste for mescal started on a road trip through Oaxaca, a stopover on a journey down the Pan American Highway in a vintage 1968 camper. Modern day Oaxaca is not particularly camper-friendly; the streets are narrow and filled with empanada stalls and hippies selling hemp necklaces. But thirty minutes up the hillside above the city we found an American who operated an RV-park of sorts in a field of experimental mescal plants. Here’s an excerpt I wrote in a journal I kept on that roadtrip:
“Douglass is a twitchy 52-year-old, originally from California, who looks like he should have a long surfboard strapped to the top of a VW bug. He is convinced that mescal can be distilled from more than just the 16 varieties of agave plant customarily believed to be possible in the industry. It’ll take nine years to fully prove his theory; these plants don’t grow to mescal maturity quickly, but we sipped two varieties from recycled glass jars that Douglass filled with a plastic funnel. The youngest, cheapest variety scoured my esophagus. But the more expensive variety, aged in oak barrels like a fine cognac, passed through my throat with a smooth, low vibration and a hint of woody sweetness. When Douglass bottles and sells this line of “El Scorpion” mescals, he puts a dried scorpion exoskeleton in each bottle. Local Indians who once laughed at his horticultural ideas now stop by his house everyday to fill their own plastic containers.”
Leaving Oaxaca on that roadtrip, near a village called Santiago Matitlan, we found an indigenous mescal maker named Martin Garcia whose spirits we like even better (and have returned many times to buy more). But it turns out Douglass-the-American got the last laugh. His “El Escorpion” is now exported and available for close to $40 a bottle in the U.S. The mescal industry has gone from Mexican moonshine to the new, hip drink in swanky cocktail lounges – lauded in articles in such unlikely places as Garden-and-Gun and the Wall Street Journal.
All of which is part of the reason Martin’s mescal has also gone up in price – from $5 a bottle three years ago to $25 a bottle now. It’s still worth every peso. Not only do you taste nothing but the agave plants he roasts on site, but it has meant a better living for Martin and his wife. They’ve expanded, from a one-horse operation ten years ago to two today. They’ve planted more acreage and built a proper stand from which to sell their varieties. Martin wasn’t shocked to hear that high-end mescal bars in neighboring Oaxaca sell shots of the best stuff for $10 each – because he says the government has its hand out now. Taxes have skyrocketed, both on the land and the product he makes from it. Banditos have taken to stealing agave plants in the dead of night. Still, he’s making a good enough living that one of his sons wants to take over the family business. He’s even modernized the label – from a rustic image of a sombrero and the name “Mi Gusto Es” (It’s My Pleasure) to a stylish skeleton festival scene under the name “La Comparsa” – costumed carnival-goers. A perfect invitation to join the band wagon.
I’ve traveled and worked in dozens of countries around the world, and usually find something about the experience that makes me appreciate the United States all the more when I return. Odd things, usually, like safe building codes and the rule of law. But sometimes traveling shines a spotlight on what needs changing in this country. It took a one-woman performance art show in Oaxaca to make me pay attention to genetically modified foods and multi-nationals like Monsanto. And ironically this Saturday a Chilean friend and former model is organizing a protest march and information session at Waterfront Park in Beaufort. Josefina Blanc isn’t trying to radicalize her new home town; she just wants us to pay attention to a policy and apathy that our country is foisting on the rest of the world. Our ambivalence about genetically modified foods has consequences far beyond the junk we feed our children. I just didn’t realize that until I met a dancer who goes by the name Violeta Luna.
We heard about her show on the street, a flier thrust into the hands of tourists passing by a beautiful Colonial building in downtown Oaxaca. I knew, vaguely, about the tortilla riots in Mexico after NAFTA flooded the market with genetically-modified corn so cheap that local farmers couldn’t compete. Honestly though, it was the chance to sit under the graceful arches and magnificent tile work that motivated me to go inside for her performance. But once the music started, I couldn’t take my eyes off Violeta Luna.
She transformed herself from a beautiful indigenous dancer into what threatens her people most: genetically modified corn. It was a dramatic, shocking, creative representation of what she feels has happened – she “modified” herself on stage, literally injecting herself with water and layering artificial coverings over her body until she almost suffocated. At one point she left the stage and walked to where I was sitting. I was embarrassed, and a little ashamed. It’s my country that is pushing this unnatural process on hers. She knelt before me and patted clay over my legs and feet. I felt conspicuous and yet it was logical that she assumed I had the power to spread the word beyond Oaxaca. But when I looked into her eyes I saw so much more. It was not so much a symbolic anointing of a white woman in a crowd of natives but an offering of protection.
Today would have been Byrne Miller’s 101st birthday, and I’m celebrating by sharing a photograph from a birthday party long ago in Mexico. My thanks to another sister-by-Byrne, Pam Susen, who found this image in a box of slides. Byrne’s own handwriting is on the label – but all it says is Chihuahua, November 3rd. Dates never did matter to Byrne – she lived to be almost 92 and had no qualms about getting older. She never called it “aging,” but “advancing.” As in – the day I met her, she helped me carry my heavy television lights onto her porch to interview Duncan. In the book I quote her as telling me, “I am not as feeble as my advanced age implies.”
She appreciated every year she got to spend on earth – even the tough ones, after Duncan was gone. I love this photograph for the exuberance it catches – she’s thrilled that friends went to the effort, on the road, to surprise her.
So tonight, on the porch where we shared many a slice of cake and glass of wine, I invite my brothers and sisters-by-Byrne to raise a glass again at sunset. To the woman who still makes us beam. Happy Birthday Byrne!