By Jim Lee
Well, Monday is St. Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of Capt. James Cook’s murder on his third visit (in 1779) to what is now Hawaii, and the 102nd anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor.
Before we all pop the champagne corks and prepare for a seizure of uncontrollable giggling, I should mention this week’s column is about none of the above.
Today’s topic is the use of a New Mexico variety of the mescal plant. Wait a minute. Don’t yawn yourself to death because this gets pretty doggone interesting.
Why on earth would I write about something so irrelevant to Feb. 13? Being who I am, how could I possibly do anything else? Besides, I’ve been thinking about this since August. It all started on a drive to El Paso with my friends Dr. Charles Brooks and Dr. Elwyn Hulett.
As we neared the Mescalero Apache Reservation, I wondered out loud about why this subtribe of the Apaches was called “Mescalero.” I knew that “Jicarilla” was Spanish for “little basket,” but where did the Mescalero name come from?
I didn’t expect to hear an answer to such an off-the-wall inquiry, but much to my surprise, I did indeed hear a reply, and a very erudite one at that. I shouldn’t have been surprised because Charles and Elwyn are really intelligent guys. I like hanging out with smart people because I hope it will rub off on me. Well, I can try, can’t I?
Charles, who is knowledgeable about anything New Mexican, said the name came from the Mescaleros’ extensive use of the mescal plant, according to the Spanish conquerors back in the 1500s. He even did some research and provided me with a printout of it. I thought he was pulling one on me till I read that hard copy. Not only was he right, he came up with something that really had me intrigued.
Mescalero is a Spanish word. I think a rough translation would be Mescal People. This does not come from hallucinogenic use or fermentation into something similar to tequila. The type of mescal growing in the Southwest, particularly what is now southern New Mexico, was an abundant food source.
The roasted heads (or hearts), 20 pounds to 60 pounds each, were a food staple of the Mescalero people. Mescal is a type of agave closely related to the blue agave from which tequila is made and the maguey from which the fermented drink mescal is made. Mescal is also related to century plants and yucca.
Mescal the food source should not be confused with what many call hallucinogenic mushrooms. None of the mescal and related plants produce any sort of mushroom. In reality these “mushrooms” are the buttons or beans from other types of mescal, also known as peyote. Buttons or peyote or “mushrooms,” whatever one calls them, contain the alkaloid/drug mescaline.
This is not what the Mescaleros used as food.
Mescal is one of many examples of the Apache genius for finding food, as demonstrated to the U.S. Army about 150 years ago. The Apaches also demonstrated remarkable skills in camouflage. We can learn much from our Mescalero neighbors, and I’m indebted to Charles Brooks for helping me realize this.
Curious about the taste? If so, try the Mescal Roast this May. This is a Living Desert State Park event, not some company’s ad. Close to a half ton will be served, so bring a big plate. Call the park for information at 505-887-5516.
By the way, the name for “Apache” is N’de, Inde, or Tinde; meaning The People.
Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail: