In Some Versions of the Ice (Les Figues Press, 2016) — a collection of short, fabricated histories and improbable stories — Adam Tipps Weinstein explores the connections between fiction and nonfiction. He takes quotes and anecdotes and arranges them into mystical explanations of the mundane, leaving the reader guessing how much truth lies within these essays. In this book, history, theory, philosophy, and myth merge into poetic facts.
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Graveyard Shoes (Pulque)
“This organism is now acknowledged by naturalists as belonging to the animal world.”
Indeed, it is common to find Graveyard Shoes after heavy rainfall, deluge, land swells, &tc. If the shoes are of natural material — cotton, for instance — they may degrade as they rise, and surface as nothing but thin, worn-through sleeves. These are usually poisonous, and should be handled with care if at all; in a matter of days they will thoroughly decompose, leaving behind a shade of shallow muck. Leather, especially cordovan, fares better. These ascend like bubbles and, reaching light and fresh air, ripen to maturity in loamy soil. They are often camouflaged amongst the overgrown weeds, wildflowers and ivy; yet with patience and a keen eye, one discovers them in abundance.
Traditionally, Graveyard Shoes are used for pulque, a refreshing drink made from the pulp pressed from the shoe. Once the shoes have sprouted, the main cavities are well-equipped to hold rainwater, which insures against the periods of drought that often follow the monsoon or hurricane season in which the shoes typically appear. Some survival manuals mention that the water from the main cavity can be collected and drunk in emergency situations. However, shoe cavity water is not immediately potable. It is constantly exposed to the elements, and because it is not protected against bacteria or insects, it often becomes fetid, or burdened with mosquitoes and the larva of flies. Graveyard Shoes are, however, outfitted with capillary-like nylon webbing, which filters the water as it is slowly absorbed from the main collecting cavity into the shoe’s vascular system, effectively treating the water of harmful microorganisms and particulates. The function of the vascular webbing is not unlike that of the liver and kidney in the human body, which cleanses the blood of toxins. It is from the vascular water, then, that the pulque is made.
Pulqueros first empty the shoes of the cavity-water, and then cure them upside down on long shoe racks for two to three days. The cure allows the cavity to completely dry so that only the vascular pulp remains. The shoes are scrubbed of any muck or debris, and then run through a press, and the pulp is squeezed out and collected. The spent shoes may be saved and dried for processing into sponges.
Shoes are squeezed a number of times to ensure all the pulp is removed. The extractions are rated in three qualities: first, second, and third natural pressings. First pressing produces the most concentrated, and therefore finest quality pulque. The flavor is deep and rich, with notes of loam, cherry, and sandalwood. The second pressing yields a lighter pulp, much more watery, which is less concentrated but still very flavorful. Some would say that it is more refreshing; thus, second pressings are often used for pulque frío, which is served on ice. Before a third pressing, the shoe is finally chopped and ground, so as to better enable the final squeeze. Third pressings were traditionally used for pulque pequeño, a holiday drink made for children. However, it is now more commonly used for inferior commercial pulques.
There are also methods of extraction using heat and chemicals, but these produce very inferior pulps. The delicate shoe molecules are easily damaged.
Once the pulp is collected, it is gently heated in a copper cauldron over a standard wood fire. A small amount of lye or potash (both highly alkaline substances) is added, and the combination of heat and alkalinity helps to break down the fibrous pulp into a more uniform liquid. It is important to use a copper cauldron as copper ions bind with shoe proteins, producing a more stabilized pulp, which holds up better during storage. The mixture is then strained through cheesecloth, cooled, and stored in cedar ewers.
“When I was a boy I first learned how much better water tastes when it has set a while in a cedar bucket. Warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar trees smells.”
In many regions, particular pulques are protected using controlled designation of origin specifications. Thus terroir is essential: the errata common to particular graveyards (rusted nails, bits of natural bone, torn scraps of paper or clothing, and hat bands). In some areas, for example, it is traditional to add litter-wood to the ewers — splinters of wood found in Graveyard Shoe fields, and debris that may accrue from nearby houses that have been blown down and shattered. The litter-wood can be added raw; or it is sometimes smoked with peat, adding what some identify as a sanguine flavor. It also turns the water a deep, earthen color.
When the pulque has been prepared to one’s preferences, the ewers are corked, and then stored in basements, cellars, or any place that stays cool and dark (a good rule of thumb is: if you can store your potatoes there, you can cure pulque as well). After a period of months, the fermented water is transformed, and is highly palatable and delicious.
“The water which thou seest springs not from vein ... but issues from a fountain safe and certain. Which by the will of God as much regains as it discharges, open on two sides. Upon this side with virtue it descends, which takes away all memory of sin; on that, of every good deed done restores it.”
The alcohol content is low, and yet there is what many describe as an ethereal high.
For those who plan to collect Graveyard Shoes for home pulquing, make sure to be out in the graveyard before the sun rises. Graveyard Shoes are delicate, and they will toughen in bright sunlight. Furthermore, they will eventually bolt: the shoes will send up a quiote, which contains spores to be scattered by the wind. Once the Shoe has bolted, the pulp will be sapped of essential sugars, and will taste bitter and dull, like gunmetal.
If you are a novice hunter, do not despair if the shoes are not immediately visible. After time, you’ll develop “Shoe Eyes,” and you’ll spot them quickly and easily. The best times to go out looking are after severe deluge, as mentioned above. Look for places where the ground is lumpy, where a bit of bone is exposed, or where there are large amounts of wood litter — especially if the wood is highly varnished or glossy. It is also important to be considerate of the shoe ecosystem, and other hunters. Though it’s tempting to take every shoe one sees, some must be left behind to ensure future crops. One should be respectful of one’s environs — remember: leave no trace.
Usually, shoe hunters are the only people one will encounter, as residents of blown-down and deluged communities will have fled; or they will be stuck in some such intractable situation, and will be unable to join in the hunt. In recent years, however, as pulque has become renowned and commercialized, shoe-hunters have become numerous, and some are extremely protective of their territories. High-quality shoes can fetch a hefty price in export markets. Therefore, it is not unknown for territorial shoe-hunters to be carrying firearms or explosive devices, and so it is best to proceed with caution, or avoid the larger graveyards, sticking instead to family plots or church squares.
As for hunting equipment, only a spool of sturdy, braided twine is necessary. As the shoes rise to the surface, the naturally occurring laces are degraded and cast off. Even laces that have been retained may be too brittle to be useful. The twine can be used to string multiple shoes, and in this manner, a great many may be carried away, slung over one’s shoulder. This also leaves one’s hands free for the collection of other interesting and valuable finds.
After collecting a sack or two of good quality shoes, there are any number of commercial kits for making the home-brewed pulque. There are also specialty shops that have the necessary supplies, and can offer excellent advice. It is our experience that, once one acquires the basic brewing skills, additions can be made to the home-brewer’s liking. It is often fun to experiment with different recipes, and pulque brewing can be a fun experience for the whole family.
If one follows the above guidelines, one will have a lovely drink that can be shared with friends and family for years to come, and will often be received with excitement and enthusiasm at the occasional dinner party, where, relating one’s stories of the particular graveyards one has visited will also be riveting additions to the conversation.
Reprinted with permission from Some Versions of the Ice by Adam Tipps Weinstein, published by Les Figues Press, 2016.