Monday, June 28, 2010

Mezcal Is Less Selfish Than Tequila

...said the waiter at Casa Mezcal. And what he meant by that is still unclear to me, but I'll assume he is referring to something about the oak barrel and distilling process. In popular culture mezcal is known as the bottle of tequila with the worm at the bottom, which I recently learned is more of a present-day gimmick that garnered a mystique of virility, hallucination, etc. Too bad it's bunk. However for the aficionado or neophyte, it's a whole new world of complexity and flavor notes in the vast, but tightly monitored, world of Oaxacan finely crafted mezcal.

My first real mezcal tasting came with a range of emotions including excitement, trepidation, confusion. I have had mezcal before in various incarnations, mixed with a variety of ingredients that essentially masked its true essence, but at Casa Mezcal, a new mezcaleria in the Lower East Side, I was able to experience this liquid for the gods unadulterated by mortal sweetners. Before smoke, there is fire. As you swirl the amber potion take a deep inhalation and you will feel the hairs singed one by one from your nostrils as the flames course their way up to your brain where it signals: FIRE. DANGER. 911. Ignore your sympathetic nervous system and forge ahead taking careful fairy sips of this dragon fuel. Feel the fire and smoke conspire in your mouth, nose, earlobes and chest. It's a mighty drink and those who are expecting the smooth velvet of top-shelf tequila are gravely mistaken. This was just the beginners stuff; the joven or un-aged stuff recommended by our waiter. The aged stuff, resposado and anejo are for warriors only.

Perhaps what our server really meant when he said that mezcal is less selfish than tequila was that it welcomes myth. Since its early inception by the Aztecs, its potency and distinct characteristics have inspired many myths and tales which are continually created, altered and embellished on its journey through time. To perpetuate its mystique, I would like to tell a small tale of my own:

Long ago, a Spanish conquistador fell in love with a beautiful Aztec princess. He vowed his love and wished to marry her. Her prince brother found out about this courtship and became enraged with anger. He told his father, the mighty Aztec king, about this scandal in the city involving his sister and a uniformed Spaniard. The king, furious, told the princess of the Spaniard's fate. The princess escaped the city to try to warn the Spaniard to leave before his father's men come for him. The Spaniard was not scared and told the princess he will defend his right to marry her if it means having to fight 10 of her father's men to prove his love. Hearing footsteps of not 10, but 1000 men marching into town, the princess quickly produced 5 bottles of amber-colored liquid with a fleshy caterpillar at the bottom. "Drink this now!" she told him. But he hesitated. "You have to drink every one of the 5 bottles if you love me. Quickly!" So the Spaniard gulped down this smoky liquid bottle by bottle, slurping in every last of the 5 caterpillars. As the sound of an army of footsteps grew louder, the Spaniard became jovial swinging the princess around the room in a joyous dance. They laughed and they kissed and they danced twirling around the room to a song the Spaniard hummed. "I will profess my love for you to your father's entire army. I will shout from the top of this balcony to the world!" Not understanding the gravity of his new fate, he laughed and they kissed and they danced twirling around the room in a song that the Spaniard whistled. "I will not leave without you. They will have to fight me if they want to separate us!” The Aztec princess and the Spaniard continued in merriment as if they were dancing on clouds. They will spend the rest of their lives together in bliss he assured the princess. So they laughed and they kissed and they danced twirling around the room to a song that the Spaniard sang. The footsteps sounded like rolling thunder just outside the door, but the Spaniard didn’t notice and the princess pretended not to notice and they just continued on as if the world existed between the gaze of their eyes, as they laughed and they kissed and they danced twirling around the room to a song the Spaniard and the Aztec princess shouted together louder than the thunderous footsteps. Down came the door and behind it was the princess’s brother and behind him, his father’s warriors. As the Spaniard waved his sword at the throngs of men of duty, he professed his love for the prince’s sister. The prince did not hear him nor notice the sword flailing about in the air. The men behind the prince entered the room and with little force, took the Spaniard. The princess was forcefully constrained by her brother, who uttered not one word to his scandalous sister. Satisfied by the Spaniard’s now delusional state as he told each of her father’s men he passed, row by row, how he will marry the Aztec princess. The Spaniard didn’t know his new fate, but the princess was certain of it. It was her fate that was now in question. When they arrived at the city, they were taken to a pyramid where two slabs positioned side by side awaited them. Restrained by their captors on the stone slabs, they looked at each other, as if the world still existed only between the gaze of their eyes. The Spaniard now barely conscious, looked toward his beloved Aztec princess and told her “See I told them. I am not leaving here without you.” And down went the flint knife into the Spaniard's chest. The princess was next. She didn’t struggle, but glanced at her father who did not look at her, but ordered the captor hovering above her. The princess's mother, the Aztec queen, fainted and fell to the ground next her father's throne. The captor didn’t go for the heart, as this was not a usual sacrifice. Instead, he split open her torso from sternum to pelvis. The crowd gasped is horror than in awe gazed upward toward the sky, as out from the belly of the princess flew 5 orange butterflies.*
(*The expression “I have butterflies in my stomach” or “You give me butterflies” came from this TALE of the Aztec princess and the Spaniard in uniform. Again, totally untrue.)

A chaser of orange slices and sal de gusano or worm salt, a mixture of ground worms, chilies and salt help cool off your taste buds. But this is yet another tall tale because the worms in the sal de gusano and the poor bloated souls at the bottom of the mezcal bottle are actually caterpillars of mariposa butterflies which hangout in the agave plant. I should like mezcal. I want to like mezcal. Everything about it makes me like it: the lore, the earthiness of roasting a huge pina from the agave or maguey plant in an underground pit, the smoky quality...but it's a drink that takes focus, determination and guts to drink. I'll keep trying, but for now I want my tequila to taste like Fiji water... Or maybe when I'm 80 and my taste buds have shriveled, and my nose hairs are overgrown, I too, will be able to drink mezcal like a warrior.

Casa Mezcal
86 Orchard Street (btwn Grand and Broome St.)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 777-2600

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Goodbye, Beard Papa's, Hello, Popbar!

In the West Village space that once proudly housed the robust pipe-toking, yellow beanie-wearing old bearded man and his crack puffs, aka Beard Papa's choux pastry cream puffs, now offers a more svelte sweet that's just in time for summer in the city. Today it was drippy hot, with a slight breeze to push the hot air around in circles and like an oasis in the dessert, there appeared gelato, sorbetto and yogurt on a stick. It felt like I was walking into a nice large ice box to peruse the rows of frozen treats. An oasis indeed.

Back in my day it was all about the Popsicle brand treats like Fudgecicles and immense Big Sticks and those patriotic red, white and blue rocket ships... oh and Push-ups and sickly sweet non-Popsicle Otter Pops and running after the sketchy ice-cream trucks playing Music Box Dancer through an otherwise quiet suburban neighborhood. Today there are gourmet Italian hormone-free, gluten-free, Kosher gianduja gelatos custom-dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in fine coconut shavings in fancy city storefronts dedicated to popsicles. Oh goodness. Though I do concede that the concept is borderline ridiculous, and the cost is considerably more than the coins I scavenged from my parents pockets to pay for popsicles as bright as the neon 80's, I was so glad that as I rounded the corner in my sopping wet shirt that I wasn't staring at some old bearded man smoking a pipe, but a large refrigerated glass box of popsicles.

(Here's a ditty from the 60's by The Murmaids called Popsicles and Icicles.)

5 Carmine Street

New York, NY 10014

(212) 255-4874