Talking About Food as Cultural Resistance with Monserrat Jarquín
By Olivia DurifFebruary 2, 2019
The bar opens in the evening and stays open late into the night, unlike traditional pulquerías; it thus attracts a young crowd. Today, however, I arrive at 10:00 a.m. to sit in on a class taught by Monserrat Jarquín: a self-defined cocinera, one of the founders of La Pulkata, the current owner of a business that buys and sells traditional food products within Mexico, and — happily — my friend. Jarquín is a tiny, lithe woman with luscious brown hair that, when not fashioned in one long braid, flows all the way to her sacrum. Her eyes are always bright and wide, brimming with energy. Her body, too, never seems to be still — or, even in moments of stillness, seems to be dancing. It’s no surprise that Jarquín is also, in fact, a professional dancer.
The subject of today’s class is the history and contemporary cultural significance of pulque, the only beverage served at the bar. The students, undergrads in food marketing, are already lined up at the door, chatting nervously, texting and milling around. I assist by setting out the snacks Jarquín prepared the night before: nopales (prickly-pear cactus), simmered in pulque with salt and onions, and “salsa borracha,” a mild-tasting, almost neon-red salsa prepared with guajillo chiles, soaked in pulque overnight, blended the next morning with salt and garlic, and finished with cotija cheese. The students sit around Jarquín in a large circle — there must be about 50 of them, entirely lining the bar — gazing longingly at the food they’ll have to wait until after the lecture to sample.
The consumption of pulque, Jarquín explains, is recorded in pre-Hispanic codices. The Aztecs had strict regulations on its consumption, which was generally reserved for priests and soldiers. Other community members were only allowed the drink in times of religious ritual, or during festivals. Old people were among the only individuals able to drink as much as they wanted. Pregnant women and children were allowed to consume pulque in moderation. Drinking outside of a social or ritual context was forbidden — one drank in order to become closer with the gods, or closer to the community, never to isolate oneself.
The plant is also botanically significant. The agave salmiana — a.k.a. el maguey pulquero — must grow for seven to eight years before it produces the sap that is fermented to make pulque. Harvesting for pulque is an intensive process. A pulque producer must cut the large, flowering body of the plant — which might be over 50 feet tall — just before it begins to flower. At this point, the plant begins to produce aguamiel — a sweet, drinkable liquid rich in vitamins and calories. The pulquero must scrape the liquid out of the heart of the plant twice a day for several months, as long as the plant is still producing the aguamiel. The pulquero adds a natural fermentation agent that turns it into pulque, a mildly alcoholic fermented beverage.
The commercialization of pulque in Mexico began before the Revolution, with the institution of haciendas — plantation-estates owned by the families of Spanish colonists. Haciendados, or landowners, forced indigenous people, who knew how to cultivate and produce pulque, to work their land as indentured servants. At the turn of the century, pulquerías opened in Mexico City, where haciendados would sell their product in a tavern-style establishment. While women were not allowed in pulquerías until much later, Jarquín says, if you look at old photographs and paintings, there was almost always a señora outside the bar selling tacos.
While pulque has always been consumed widely by the lower and middle classes, its popularity diminished among the upper class over the course of the 20th century, thanks to several anti-pulque campaigns. The most infamous of these campaigns, led by the beer industry in the mid-1900s, insisted that pulque was fermented with human feces. Beer ultimately won out, representing “progress” and Europeanization, while pulque stood for history and indigenous culture. Additionally, pulque cannot really be exported, since it is a volatile, quickly fermenting beverage. The industrialization of pulque met its limit with the pulquería — it was a rurally produced good shipped only as far as the nearest city. When industrialization became more advanced, pulque stayed behind. This, Jarquín thinks, is a blessing. Pulque es muy, muy fuerte — it is strong, politically resistant. It has maintained a market thanks to the local poor and working-class people.
Pulque, with its rootedness in time and place, represents a rupture in capitalism. It is a product that demands not only a different kind of production, but a different kind of consumption as well. It takes a long time to get drunk off pulque. It’s not at all like a shot, a few harsh moments followed by abrupt drunkenness. You can’t pound it like beer or gulp it smoothly like wine. Some varieties of pulque are sweet, but the sweeter it is, the thicker it is (a result, Jarquín teaches, of the altitude at which the plant is grown). The thinner stuff is more acidic. Both types, at the end of the day, take a while to consume. Plus, the alcohol content is pretty low. As we talk about this, Jarquín mentions that even the way pulque makes a person feel is anticapitalist. “It makes you feel good.” That’s it. Just good. “Pharmacies are always selling uppers or downers but nothing in between,” remarks Jarquín. “A thing that makes you feel … okay, content? — capitalism doesn’t like that. Because what’s going to drive you into the next thing, then the next?” The slow time insisted on by pulque offers another way of imagining consumption, outside the urgency of capitalism, which doesn’t like wasted time — time in which you should be either producing or consuming. What happens when you are enjoying the light of the bar at midday, and enjoying it still as day slowly turns to evening, and then night, still content?
Jarquín talks about pulque as “una bebida viva,” a living drink. She is referring to fermentation, of course — how the flavors shift with time and how, like all living things, the drink’s life has a time limit. But it’s hard not to think of the botanical life of pulque as a metaphor. The drink also carries the past with it — it is the living version of something ancestral. Jarquín wants to communicate this, to serve it to you. She wants to plant that historical memory in today’s kids and make it something that they, too, believe in fighting for. Jarquín underscores that the market for pulque thrives on the demand of the poor, who drink not only to get drunk but also for calories, vitamins, and the profound pleasure of drinking for long hours with family and friends. Now, the drink is becoming popular again among young people, and this, for Jarquín, is very important.
After Jarquín’s lecture, the students, all Mexicans, mostly from Jalisco — some of whom are familiar with pulque and some of whom have never even heard of it — finally get to sample the drink along with the snacks Jarquín has prepared for them. With the help of some fresh totopos — which we know in the United States as tortilla chips — the spread is demolished, along with the pulque that Jarquín has poured out. Some is the natural stuff and some curados — pulque mixed with fruit or other natural flavorings like oatmeal or cucumber. In this case, Jarquín samples a curado de cacao, and another of tamarindo. “You can’t be a purist!” Jarquín tells me as we’re serving out the drinks. “You need to understand the world we live in for what it is.” Some pulque fans won’t drink curados, but Jarquín believes in them as a way to communicate — why not make something delicious more palatable to these kids, so that they at least come close enough to explore it? She compares this empathy to the way she gets her daughter to eat vegetables. “I’m going to make vegetables look nice, maybe put them in a smoothie mixed with guava and orange juice. I’m trying, at least, to start something, an attraction to something that history has taught people not to want to get close to.”
Gradually the students spill out. We clean the dishes and clay mugs that the pulque was served in. It’s about 2:00 p.m., la hora de comer, time for lunch. Jarquín takes me to her favorite spot for birría, a traditional jalisciense stew made from either beef or goat, slow-roasted and served in a spice-rich broth. The restaurant — more accurately called a fonda, an informal eating establishment open during the long and lingering Mexican lunch hour (between noon and 5:00 p.m.) — is located on the second floor of a nearby mercado, a market. This floor, entirely comprised of fondas, has large, open concrete windows that help cool the room from the heat of griddles, ovens, and dense tropical air. Jarquín says she always comes here for her birría, a regional dish that’s easy to find all over the city: “Look, that man over there by the oven is the son, and the man sitting down to eat is his father — I’m not sure if he started the place or if his father did. The señora, one of their wives, she’s really running the show, of course.”
She asks the man by the oven what cuts of meat are available, and he takes them out of a small oven, one by one. She orders a small plate of mixed cuts — back meat, rib meat, and tripa, or intestines. The cocinero places each cut on a circular wooden cutting board, concave with age, and hacks the meat brusquely with a large, heavy hatchet, narrowly avoiding his fingers. Then, he grabs a perfectly white porcelain plate from under the counter, and with a delicacy as tender as his chopping was aggressive, places the pieces of meat onto the plate. Moving over to a large pot, he scoops a generous ladleful of the fragrant broth onto the plate and brings it over to my friend, with the jiggling meniscus of meat juice vertiginously approaching the edge but — ultimately — never spilling onto the floor. When the cocinero turns to me, I order the same. He repeats the procedure and brings us warm tortillas, salsa, and lime. Provecho. I ask Jarquín some more questions as we eat.
Jarquín left La Pulkata after her now-six-year-old daughter was born, though she still maintains a close connection with the establishment and her friends who still run the joint. She’s working on a different project now, a business she’s named La Sandunga, whose slogan, “productos que celebran la vida” (products that celebrate life), says a lot about Jarquín’s personal philosophy. “To celebrate life,” Jarquín explains, “means to take advantage of your time on earth, to exploit your human capacity to the maximum, not only for your benefit, but also for your surroundings, your world.” I’m intrigued by the way Jarquín talks about exploitation (though it’s worth noting that the verb “to exploit” in Spanish is identical to the verb that means “to explode,” which for me enriches its connotation). Often, she uses the language of industrial capitalism to evoke a different relationship with production and consumption. She inverts capitalist language, especially as it pertains to time, production, and exploitation; gives it back to both the worker and the consumer; and, in the process, rehumanizes it.
For example, Jarquín talks a lot about the importance of not wasting human time and energy. The idea of “saving energy” does evoke industrial capitalism, which seeks to maximize production and consumption in relation to time. But this kind of maximization isn’t in accord with the human body, and it’s this harmony that Jarquín strives for: “The mentality that the more you buy, the cheaper something is” doesn’t really work. She explains,
You go to the supermarket, for example, and you buy a super two-for-one, three-for-two — or any of these crazy promotions — you bring it to your house and half of it goes to waste before you can eat it. You might say, “It doesn’t matter, it was half off.” But the problem isn’t if it cost you half or not — it’s the quantity of energy that was spent to produce those vegetables, that food. It’s the work of so many people, of earth, of water, of time, of life. And this is something that contemporary culture in general doesn’t teach.
We are not taught to see, much less to care about, the loss of energy in terms that are more than economic.
So the kind of exploitation that Jarquín is referencing is the kind in which a human individual uses their capacities to serve themselves and also the world. But, in her line of work, Jarquín could easily exploit the farmers she buys from — first by buying cheaply, and then again by selling her product for more than double the cost of purchase and keeping the bulk of the profits. This is very typical intermediary behavior. I ask her what keeps her from taking the kind of rake she very well could. She replies:
For me, it’s a strong internal force. Of course I could double the price of the ingredient when I sell it in my store, but that’s not what it’s about. What I am looking for is that consumers have food that is real in respect to flavor and nutrition, and that the vendor’s price, what he makes off his product, is just — that the money isn’t wasted, doesn’t leak through our relationship. My prices allow me to maintain my own ethics.
For Jarquín, it is the relationship between her and the vendors she buys from that makes her continue this work. She tells me a story that she says inspired her work. She was talking to a master mezcalero. After suffering a bad agave sale, his son told him that he wouldn’t enter into the family business. Better to live in the city where the wages are better, where there’s health care, and a chance of success. These, at least, are the city’s promises. “For me,” Jarquín tells me, “this was a very sad story. Because I had just become a mother and I thought about how many other families were in this same situation, where the family’s old knowledge will not be passed down. Because the people no longer have faith that their work is good. This is culture lost.”
Jarquín is right, of course: this story is not uncommon. It is a product of industrial capitalism that the world knows well, especially Mexico. “In the sphere of agriculture,” Karl Marx wrote in the first volume of Capital, “modern industry […] annihilates the peasant, that bulwark of the old society, and replaces him by the wage-labourer.” This is a reality that the world is still in the process of understanding how to deal with. “We’re in this moment of life obsessed with ‘Human Progress’ — where everything happens so quickly,” says Jarquín as she dips a little hunk of tortilla-wrapped meat into the rich broth. “Everything also dies so quickly. And everything is born so quickly. It’s too much.” So what can we do, I ask Jarquín, in the face of this continuing process of mass industrialization, this loss of demand for small-scale labor, to fight the loss of culture?
Jarquín brings up the popularity of urban gardening as a straw man. She sees it as a misguided impulse toward connection with the land. “What seems more necessary,” she says, “is the connection between people who consume and need food to survive and the people who live in the country and need to work, and have the experience, and have the fields, and have the need to produce and to make money.” While I do think urban gardens have a place in city life — in some cities, a really important one, connecting community members to public land and to their power and entitlement to use it — at the same time, I sympathize with Jarquín’s ethos. Is this surge of popularity in DIY gardening and small-scale farming an effective response to the global food crisis? Is it ignoring the existence of generations of farmers who live outside the city and are struggling to survive?
Jarquín goes on to criticize the Western value of individuality, of self-sufficiency. Why do we have to do everything ourselves? Why not work as a team? Why not use the skills of others to benefit our lives and give us more time? There are people with skills and time and space, all of which are being wasted, and the waste is causing poverty and hunger on a massive scale. Jarquín challenges the limits of capitalism within its context, as a kind of activist-merchant who is trying to make a living and support her family and at the same time doing her best to support others in their fight for una vida digna, a dignified life. She reminds me again that one cannot pretend the world is different from how it is. One must begin precisely where one is.
While living and working in Guadalajara, Jarquín still feels very close to her hometown of Oaxaca City. Lately, Oaxaca has become a popular tourist destination, in part because of its rich culture, as exemplified by its regional cuisine. I ask Jarquín a naïve question about the relationship between tourism and tradition: could there ever be a balance between these two aspects of life in Oaxaca? Jarquín answers that her culture has not been surviving due to any kind of balance with tourism, but rather the opposite. There’s a stark divide between foreigners and locals: the popular tourist mercados are not the people’s mercados, in both senses of the word. The prices are totally different. Chains like Burger King and 7-Eleven only survive due to tourist demand.
There is a coldness, Jarquín tells me, that locals display toward foreigners, at least at first. “They will not welcome you into their arms immediately. First they will ignore you, or pay close attention to what you do, what you say.” It makes sense. “We are a community that was — that is still being conquered. Muy fuerte.” It’s good, according to Jarquín, that there are some places tourists won’t go. These mercados have their own economy, one that has nothing to do with the economy of the city’s tourist-catered “center.” It’s good that there are still places where people can go and buy their ingredients, where they can eat the food to whose flavor and prices they are accustomed. This is part of their resistance. This two-sided economic world, the internal and external economies of Oaxaca City, are necessary reactions to the beast of capitalism — smaller models of production can’t stand up against the industrial model and thus need to protect themselves.
This divide, Jarquín explains, is not sad. It should not be breached. It should, in fact, be fought for. She describes seeing tourists expressing pity toward a woman selling produce laid out on a blanket on the street. “They say, ‘pobrecita!’ [poor thing!] But why ‘pobrecita’? It’s her job, it’s what she does — and what she does well.” The real outrage is that the same pitying visitors ask the woman to lower her prices, as if bargaining is what you’re supposed to do in the Global South. As a foreigner, Jarquín says, you should ask yourself if your reasons for visiting a place are in accord with what you say and do there: pitying the señora with the best plums, or tortillas, or fresh-shelled beans, and then also insulting her. But, as Jarquín continues to underscore, the people of Oaxaca are resilient. They fight against their children’s teachers who prohibit them from speaking their mother tongues at school, the idea that without Spanish the children will never progress. They control their own prices in the marketplace — will sell an item to a tourist for 50 pesos, and to a local a few minutes later for 15. This isn’t behavior to be scorned. This is how a people maintain autonomy in the face of an impossible economy. This keeps the heart of the city safe.
“I don’t want your economy to get near my center, you know?” Jarquín is talking about the economic center of the city, but also about something else — the opposite of the thing that made the son of the master mezcalero quit the family business: a faith that your work is good, that the beliefs that have been passed down to you are worth believing. What stands to be protected is more than just economic freedom. “The stories that your grandparents tell you,” says Jarquín,
about animals, stars, plants, food … the Westernized mind teaches you not to believe what you can’t see — but that’s not what it’s about! For us, no — it’s like this. It’s as you believe it. I believe it because the knowledge has existed in the imagination of my family, of my people from a long time ago. It’s not something I’m going to question. It exists because I believe it.
Jarquín talks a lot about health — a sketchy value that often slips easily into a kind of “purity” rhetoric that evokes eugenics and carries with it the colonial essence of gentrification. But Jarquín’s idea of health interests me. For her, health really just means knowing yourself: knowing your historical context, your body, your needs — and being square with them. “You, be cool with yourself!” she demands, as if speaking to the unknown masses she would like to address. “Do yourself a favor and be happy. That way you won’t cause problems for the people around you.” I sense that Jarquín is speaking to people who are not destitute, people mired in the consumer end of capitalism — and not to the small-scale laborers struggling to make ends meet in the face of global industry. Jarquín believes that, ideally, one ought to seek health not for the self alone, but for others — to do your work so that the world will be less of a shitshow for other people. The way Jarquín talks about health reminds me of the ancient regulations on drinking pulque: one ought to drink, not for oneself, but for one’s community. Getting drunk meant achieving a level of sensitivity that made people able to commune with the gods and each other. Similarly, you don’t seek health for yourself (read: all antisocial health fads) but, rather, to make the world around you calmer and more spacious for others. Health, by Jarquín’s definition, is a communal state.
It’s important to note that Jarquín’s ideal of healthy equilibrium is by no means puritanical. She believes in a good party. She attributes this to her heritage: “Oaxacans are fiesteros.” She comes from a long line of partiers. “Life is a party,” she tells me. That’s part of being healthy. “Your healthiness is your own.” Ultimately, you are the only one who knows what you need, and what you don’t need — what will serve you. Sometimes having a few too many, reveling among loved ones or strangers, is an integral part of personal health. She welcomes a night out as she would welcome a handmade mole, a fresh orange, a hike up a mountain. “Capitalism doesn’t want you to be satisfied,” says Jarquín. It wants you to be reliant on consumption of goods in the constant wild goose chase toward success. Capitalism says that “women, certainly women with children, should no longer enjoy life.” But why not, she asks, if you have the energy? Why not try to build your life so that you can keep some of that energy for yourself and extend it outward toward others? “I think being happy,” Jarquín tells me, “is one of my most anarchistic movements.”
Olivia Durif is a writer based in Mexico City. Her essays can be found in Hypocrite Reader and the Mexico City–based Cuaderno Fronteira.
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