Views From the Pioneer Village: The Mescal

by Dr. Bill Boverie

President, Board of Directors, Sacramento Historical Museum

The Mescalero Apaches were so named by the Spanish because of they ate the mescal plant.  Also known as the century plant and the agave, it is a large spineless, globe-shaped cactus with blade-like leaves.  It rapidly (seemingly overnight) sends up a huge seed-bearing stalk as tall as 15-20 feet whenever there is adequate moisture.  In the desert this does not happen every year, and hence it was called the century plant because, supposedly, it only produced its stalk once every hundred years.  After producing the stalk and hence seeds, the plant dies.  It is said to give up its life to produce life -the seeds.  Actually the plant does not die because it comes back from the roots.

Mescal was a favorite food of the Mescaleros – Mescalero means “mescal maker.” The plants were harvested in late spring by the women in a communal effort when the stalks began to push upward.  (Once the plant bloomed, the plant ›was unusable for food.)  They roasted the base (the bulb) of the plant, first cutting off the blades, roots, and stalk.  A large number of bulbs were roasted together in a pit dug into the ground, big enough to hold up to a ton of bulbs.  Pits were typically four to fifteen feet long and four feet deep.  If an old pit was available, the women cleaned and used it; otherwise they dug another one in the dry, rocky soil.  The bottom was lined with stones, and a fire was built on the stones to heat them.  Then the ashes were removed and the raw mescal was put in and covered with a thick layer of grass.  Dirt and rocks were then piled on top to keep in the heat and steam.  A number of detached blades protruded and were used to determine when the mescal was done.  Cooking required about 24 hours, and the mescal was uncovered when the test blades were done.  The stalks were sometimes also roasted, either in the same pit or in a smaller one.

Roasted mescal has a sweet, molasses-like, flavor, but is stringy, tough, and sticky.  Roasted mescal spoils quickly if not preserved by drying.  Whatever was not eaten was pounded into thin sheets and spread out to dry on flat rocks.  Dried mescal keeps practically forever and was carried as a snack when on the move.  It tastes somewhat like squash.  The Mescaleros would barter it if they had extra – it was practically the only thing they had for trading purposes.

The Mescaleros also harvested and ate stalks from the narrow-leaf yucca.  These stalks emerged before the mescal plant and were one of the first foods available in the spring.  The stalks were harvested before the blossoms appeared – they were not good for food afterward.  Stalks were roasted on a bed of live coals or in a small pit.  The burned outer skin was pealed off and the s˝talks eaten.  After baking, they could be dried and stored for up to a year.  Before eating the stalks, they were soaked to soften them again, or else pounded into a powder and mixed with fruits, such as that of the broad-leaf yucca.  The yucca stalks were not considered the best eating, but were plentiful and they kept well, which made them important in dry years.

And mescal had other uses. Thread was made from its fibers and used to make ropes and cords (the Mescaleros did not weave cloth).  And it could be fermented to make an alcoholic drink they called tizwin.  The cooked mescal hearts were squeezed to extract the liquid, which was set aside to ferment.  Today tequila is made from it.  They also made a potent corn beer called “tula-pa” from corn sprouts.  It had diuretic properties and was a powerful laxative.  Both tula-pa and tizwin had a legendary taste that, according to whites, only an Apache could appreciate.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 print edition of the Mountain Monthly.