May 7, 2010

Birthday Weekend Blowout

Here we are in Carlsbad celebrating my Mother’s 102nd birthday. After the cool days in Denver last week, it is hot here. Yesterday was 100F, more like Baja than Denver. It has been a busy couple of days catching up with other family members, like a long visit with your best friends. Today when we were visiting at my Mother’s an old family friend, Sally, dropped in to wish my Mother a happy birthday and tell us about the Mescal Roast and Mountain Spirits Dances event sponsored by the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park on the north side of town.

Worthy of a visit

The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park is a zoo and botanical garden displaying animals and plants of the Chihuahuan Desert in their native habitats. It is located atop the Ocotillo Hills overlooking the city and the Pecos River. The zoo features more than forty native animal species, and the gardens feature a greenhouse and hundreds of cacti and succulents from around the world.

The Mescal Roast and Mountain Spirits Dances is a Powwow put on by the Mescalero Apaches and features a dinner with traditional Native American food, dances and singing of the Apache peoples. The mescal was essential for their survival in the harsh desert environment of the Southwest. Historically, both the Pecos River Valley and Guadalupe Mountains here were the traditional hunting and gathering territories for the Mescalero Apaches. It was the Apaches' dependence upon the mescal plant, better known as the familiar spiked-leafed agave or century plant, for food which led the early Spanish explorers to call these people the "mescal makers" or Mescaleros.

Dances at the Powwow
Their mescal roasting pits are the best known archaeological sites in the Guadalupe Mountains. Mescal was a very important and nutritious staple food for the Mescaleros. The roasted mescal was sun dried and used in much the same manner as the Plains Indians used dried meat or jerky. Recent tests by New Mexico State University found that dried mescal leaves contain 85% soluble carbohydrates, 1% protein and 14% insoluble fiber and are roughly equivalent in food value to oats.

Chopping the leaves off the plant in preparation for roasting

Our friend Sally said the celebration this weekend was a noteworthy event. In the conversation that ensued my uncle piped up with, “I thought mescal was a drug.” “No,” said someone else, “you are thinking of peyote.” ”Well what is peyote?” someone else asked. I said, “I will look it up on my new Blackberry phone.” Sally said, “Gosh, I’m hooked, I can’t leave until I know the answer.” It turned out peyote was the dried fruit of a kind of cactus which produces halucinogenic dreams and was incorporated into the southwest Native American culture about 100 years ago from the indigenous peoples of Sonora, Mexico.

“But what is mescal?” my sister Hermana asked. “Oh,” I said being the know-it-all I am, ”that is like Tequila, it is distilled from the agave plant from anywhere in Jalisco state. Any other agave, or blue agave produced elsewhere in Mexico is called mescal. First they roast the agave cores, from which a sweet honey wine is made, then they distill it to make the hard liquor. I know this because we went on a tour of the Jose Cuervo distillery in Tequila,” I added. (Dumb me, the Mescaleros were eating mescal long before anyone ever thought of making alcohol out of it.)

“Wow!” said my niece. “I never thought I would come to Grandmommy’s room on her 102nd birthday to talk about drugs and alcohol!”

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