One country’s or time’s commonplace is another’s obscurity.

Yesterday was the first time I’d heard of pulque, a fermented drink made with the sap of the agave cactus, or “maguey plant”. I was at the British Museum’s new Moctezuma exhibit, and it was occasionally mentioned as an exclusively ceremonial drink for priests and sacrificial victims among the Méxica (or Aztecs). It was served in elegant spherical pitchers with long necks, widely consumed among the nobles and priests of early sixteenth-century Méxica, but not the majority of the population. One such jug was on display, decorated in swirling black and red.

Post-conquest, its consumption grew, peaking in the nineteenth century. An entire industry, with dedicated trains and delivery services, revolved around this form of alcohol. A campaign for beer, as a “hygienic and modern” drink, finally succeeded in largely killing off the drink, its consumption declining over the last century. It is largely a poor and rural drink in Mexico these days, and demand is dying. From an eGullet commenter, here’s a (largely unappealing!) description of its consistency and taste, along with a recipe for its use in salsa.

Pulque is also known as octli. At the end of the exhibit, a recent excavation in Mexico City unearthed jewelery made in honor of “the goddess of pulque”. Not named on the label, she is Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey and thus, by extension, of pulque.

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*© S. Worthen 2009