Health Fitness

Agave distillates and the women who make them: Oaxacan mezcal and the female of the species

Despite the common belief among most mezcal aficionados, women are integrally involved in the production of the Mexican agave distillate, at least in the southern state of Oaxaca. Its distillation and the first phases of production depend on women in many aspects. However, the participation of women of our species, on the other hand, is largely determined and restricted by the same criteria used to understand sexual roles in other vocations in rural Oaxaca; physical limitations, parenting and other needs of and for the family in general.

Traditional distillers (often referred to as mezcaleros, or here in and around Oaxaca as palenqueros) are taught by older family members, rather than reading about distilling online or in magazines or watching videos. Young women, like young men, almost from birth begin to learn the trade. They can be called mezcaleras or palenqueras, but for the purposes of this article let’s generically say palenqueros.

Typically, women raise families, dating back to humanity’s hunter-gatherer division of labor. The mothers stayed close to home with the children, gathering fruits, nuts, berries, etc., and preparing the meals, while their male companions went on long hunting expeditions; they often require them to be light on their feet and sometimes require more physical strength than the women can muster. With mezcal production, cultivated agave fields are often far from home, and if looking for wild maguey, the palenquero often must walk a couple of hours into the hills before finding his reward. The same applies to the supply of firewood for ovens and stills. In addition, lifting the pineapples (heart of the succulent used in production) often requires more strength than women usually exhibit. Although sometimes while the palenquero is still in the field, the piñas are cut into smaller pieces for later cooking, either whole or in halves, they can weigh hundreds of pounds and must be loaded onto trucks, donkeys, or mules.

Once back in the palenque (artisanal mezcal distillery), which is usually next to the farmhouse, the women’s work in making mezcal begins in earnest, subject of course to their priority obligation to prepare food and attend to the guests. kids. However, they are often an integral part of the cooking, crushing, fermentation and distillation processes, working alongside and even directing the men.

It is true that men are more often engaged in cutting the agave into appropriately sized pieces in the palenque to prepare it for baking, again for reasons related to stamina and strength. Similarly, splitting logs and loading the kiln with large, heavy tree trunks is often a man’s job. But when it comes to filling the oven with stones, wet bagasse (fiber residues from distillation), pineapples, tarpaulins and earth, women participate on an equal footing with men. Even in the face of any remaining remnants of the perceived Mexican macho, once the rocks in the kiln have heated up sufficiently, it is important to second as many helpers, both male and female, so that the rest of the work is accomplished in the most fast as possible. and then hermetically seal the oven.

Both women and men take the pineapples out of the oven once the carbohydrates have turned into sugars or caramelized. Subsequently, in preparation for further baking, again individuals of both sexes empty the chamber. Women are daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers, partners, nieces and granddaughters. I regularly see you all participating. They are as much a part of the process as their male counterparts, they are even in charge of decision making.

When the grinding of the baked agave is done by hand, then yes, it is almost exclusively men who attend to this arduous task. But the rest are usually shared tasks in equal parts: working the horse; determine when the pieces of maguey have been sufficiently pulverized; loading vessels for fermentation, whether in wooden slatted tanks, lined burial pits, bovine hides, or otherwise; and distillation. They decide the optimal ABV (alcohol by volume) and how to achieve the best possible flavor.

But suppose that the palenquera is also in charge of typical household chores, including preparing family meals and raising the children, including taking care of their health, education, and general well-being. Of course, she cannot reasonably be expected to deal with all of this, as well as partner with her husband, for example, in terms of directing and attending to all the above tasks required in the production of the spirit. However, when hearing the scream or receiving the phone call from her partner, cousin, son or father of hers, she is there, as needed. Also, she is the one who stays at home in charge of sales. She usually also prepares food for the men and, in fact, when the house is not next to the palenque, it is customary for the women to bring food and drink for those (men) who are in some stage of producing the spirit. .

Economic necessity sometimes dictates that a woman, to the near exclusion of men, become a palenquera. She sows, cares for, cuts, and harvests maguey; she splits logs and shreds by hand. In one case, a husband/palenquero died suddenly in a car accident, leaving behind his wife and four young children. She became a palenquera in the traditional sense, doing everything that her late husband did before, as well as raising the children. In another case, a single mother’s two children left home for the US in their late teens, leaving her and her mother as heads of household. She had learned mezcal production from her grandfather. She currently has the reputation of being one of the few palenqueras that does it all, producing one of the finest mezcals in Oaxaca. She instructs her subordinates, i.e. male cousins ​​and neighbors, on how to produce mezcal based on her exacting recipe. The above are two exceptions to the tradition of both men and women working together, in cooperation with members of their families and communities.

A paradigm shift is warranted and strongly suggested when it comes to our perception that the industry is primarily within the purview of men. Women deserve to have their own and important place recognized in the world of Oaxacan mezcal production.

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