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What we really know about the past
I am currently house-sitting for friends as they take their new son on a world tour. Joining me in this amicable arrangement is the sister of one of these friends. She’s awesome. She has her own business teaching affordable vegan cooking and she is very, very good at it. I have taken to hanging-out in the kitchen looking for off-cast morsels of her preparations.
We have been playing a very nerdy game, or- more accurately- I have been playing a game and Julie has been tolerating it with good-natured charm. Julie introduces me to a new food, and I go and look up the history of its use. Because I thrive on context. And coconut carob balls-of-awesome.
Julie asked me to look into the history of the agave plant for her because there has been some controversy over the use of agave syrup in the last little while. As I will do almost anything for someone who feeds me, here is my short history of agave and its uses.
Agave is a succulent plant, grown mainly in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. It is a very cool plant. It looks like aloe, though it is not related to aloe at all. It has large spiny leaves, tipped with a large spike that have the well developed ability to do some serious harm to the leg of an unobservant archaeologist. Mine can attest to that.
It’s often called the century plant, because it takes a stupid amount of time to produce a flower. Though it doesn’t need a hundred years, it can take up to 10 years for it to bloom. When it does, the effect is awesome. I saw some first-hand last year while I was working in Arizona and I can affirm said awesome-ness.
The most common variety, Agave americana, typically has a flowering spike that can grow upwards of 8 meters tall. That’s just over 26 feet tall for those of you who don’t think in meters. For those of you who think in buildings, its about 2 and a half stories tall. Or more than four times my height, for those of you who measure things by units of ‘me’. After growing, the spike produces cool looking flowers at the top, which look like little clusters of coral. Then the plant dies.
But never fear, the plant lives on! Why? Well, because the clever thing produces adventurous shoots.
As well as being fantastically named, these shoots continue to grow after the main plant dies. Flowering time varies, but the big ones tend to take around 10 years to bloom, while some species of agave flower more (or less) frequently. Transposed plants very rarely flower. There was one in Boston that lived until it was 50 years old and then grew a 10 meter stalk- which required the owner to cut a hole in the top of the greenhouse. Another in Britain that apparently took 80 years(!) to flower, but that report is from the early 19th century and I’m not sure how good the source is.
You can cut down these stalks and eat them. I’ve eaten one we found knocked down by live-stock. (We didn’t want to harvest any ourselves). Imagine a mix between sugar cane, sweet potato and a very stringy asparagus. Not the best description, I’ll admit, but it’s what I thought it tasted like. To cook agave in the tradition of the Southwest, you slow roast them, preferably in a roasting pit. Archaeological evidence of agave roasting pits go back at least to 7000 BC and you can find them all over Mexico and the Southwest. The group of archaeologists I was working with last year in Arizona stumbled across one of these pits while we were out looking for a Pueblo. We didn’t know what it was at first, so we played a game called “What the hell is this”. This is a common archaeological field game. It’ goes by many different names; “Is this a thing”, “Is this anything”, “What the hell is this”. Eventually we figured out it was a roasting pit because of the large amount of rocks that has been cracked by heat. and that ended another round of “what the hell is this”?
Oh what fun we have.
Besides eating it, indigenous groups used the fibres of the agave plant to make textiles and the needles to make a variety of utensils. The sap was also collected and fermented into a local drink called pulque. As far as I can tell this is the primary historic use of agave nectar. While the roasting pits attest to the fact that the plant was eaten, and I can personally attest to the fact that it is sweet, I have found no historic evidence for the harvesting and reduction of agave nectar into the type of sweetener you can buy at healthfood stores. I doubt the behaviour would leave much evidence, so maybe people did it and we just can’t tell. Or maybe it didn’t happen it the past. Archaeologists love the word maybe.
I can tell you that agave production made up a substantial amount of the pre-Columbian  economy in Mexico and pulque seems to be a driving force behind Agave cultivation. This makes sense to me, because if there is a constant universal behaviour across all human cultures, it’s that we love to get drunk. We make alcohol out of anything we can get our hands on. Palque is made from any one of six different species of agave and has a long history of use in Mesoamerica. Originally it was seen as a spiritually important drink, and consumption was restricted to elites. Highly decorated vessels from mesoamerica show elites consuming the drink, which may have been associated with the souls of high-status warriors. There is also reference to the sweet nectar of the agave being the blood of the Goddess Mayahuel. Other stories link the drink to other Gods, my favourite being the story of Tlacuache– who is sometimes described as the first drunk god.
Tlacuache was responsible for the flow and shape of rivers and his love of pulque (which he found by digging up fermented agave) is given as an explanation for the meandering nature of some rivers and not others. When a river ran strait, it’s because Tlacuache was sober and focused. When a river meandered, it was following Tlacuache on a bender. The curves of the river follow Tlacuache as he stumbled from bar to bar getting loaded. Other versions claim he just came up with idea while he was drunk. Like most good ideas. Either way, I do love a good origin story that involves drunk gods.
After the Conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, pulque became much more popular with the general masses, especially since the religious over-tonnes had been removed. I assume this happened with the removal of the Aztec religion itself. That kind of thing usually goes hand-in-hand. Because of this, pulque reached its heyday in the 19th century before losing an economic fight to beer during the early 20th century. It is making its way back now, but mostly as a tourist item.
Tequila, or mescal, is made from a distilled version of pulque, but can only come from the Blue Agave plant. It is this plant, the Agave teuilana, that most agave syrup is made from. The syrup is squeezed from the heart of the plant, and is then heated to form the simple sugars from the fructose, a process called hydrolysis. Another species of agave, Agave salimiana, is processed by using enzymes to hydrolyse its sugars rather than heat. You can also eat raw agave nectar, though it is very mild in taste. I should also point out that the juice from many species of agave, included the common Agave americana, can cause blistering and reoccurring dermatitis. So be careful what plant you’re touching!
I’m not going to come down on one side or the other about agave nectar being good for you. I’ll leave that to people who know much more about the science of nutrition than I do.
I will say that the plant has been used for centuries, especially roasted as food or drunk as beer. Also Aguamiel (honey-water), which comes from the heart of the agave and is essential raw unprocessed agave nectar, is recorded as tribute payments in Aztec documents, so the history of its presence in an unprocessed form dates back to the time of Spanish arrival, and probably much earlier. I have no information on what the Aztecs did with it once they got it however. My bet is on “made beer”, but they may have used it as a sweetener. Even if it was used as a sweetener in the past, it doesn’t mean it was good for you. Remember, we are talking about a group of elites that sacrificed humans and wore their flayed skin.
So maybe they weren’t too concerned with healthy living.
Pre-Columbian is a term historians and archaeologist use to describe the period before the Western colonization of the New World. Sometimes we call it ‘pre-contact’, or ‘pre-historic’. We like making up terms almost as much as we like the word maybe.