i remember wondering about plants when i was small, wondering who was the first to try a coconut, a cranberry, a toadstool, a tapioca root. i also wondered who figured out how to make something of universal usefulness with papyrus, cotton, hops or bayberries. i wondered if they considered themselves something like scientists, observing closely, blessed with imagination and fearless leaps of faith. and i wondered how many died in the learning process. the truth is that i still wonder, and i'm taking my expatriate memorial day to remember with a good deal of respect all those nascent nature experts who have, in their way, served so honorably that they've become the stuff of myth and legend.
i started wondering again yesterday afternoon in cahuacán, as the cow's head, prepared barbacoa style, appeared from inside it's maguey leaf wrapping. i briefly wondered who first ate a cow's tongue, because my first time eating it was an unexpectedly pleasant experience. slices of that mouthy muscle, resting in the middle of a tortilla and smothered with lime juice, green salsa, and prickly pear cactus salad, were both tender and toothsome. patricio, stationed at the butcher's block, was particularly pleased.
but i couldn't help thinking of those maguey leaves, and the plant itself, and the myriad manifestations it's parts have had here. a member of the agave family, the maguey is one hundred percent mexican, and seemingly one hundred percent useful. the picture to the left shows doña julia's row of magueys. following is my top ten list of how those magueys could be used (they're already serving as number 7):
1. if the flower stem is cut without flowering, "honey water" gathers in the plant's center. this can be served right away as a sweet drink, fermented to produce pulque, which can be distilled to make mezcal.
2. it's a bottle of mezcal, not tequila, that comes with the worm, and that same worm is one of two kinds that live in maguey plants, harvested more often to cook up and eat than to drown in a bottle of mezcal.
3. the leaves, or pencas, can be used to wrap up barbacoa meat, infusing it with flavor. they are also known, when roasted, to cure various illnesses--either applying the penca on the skin over the affected area, or reduced and ingested like cough medicine.
4. the pencas are very fibrous, and those fibers are used to make rope, brushes, matting, coarse burlap-like cloth, embroidery thread, or the cords to tie up a penca full of barbacoa.
5. pencas make good roofing material, much like a palm leaf.
6. speaking of roofs, the flower stalks, or quiotes, can also be used as roof beams.
7. the spikiness of magueys lends itself to good fencing, too. planted side by side, rows of magueys often make effective boundary lines.
8. those spikes found on the tip of each penca make excellent nails or sewing needles.
9. its roots can be worked into brooms and baskets.
10. the maguey can also be used to make furniture, toys, ornaments, paper, and soap.
i first saw a maguey in arizona when i was nine, pointed out as a "century plant" that sends up its stalk of flowers only at the end of its life--usually eight to twelve years, despite it's hundred-implying name. the otomi people call the maguey "el árbol de las maravillas," or the "tree of wonders." i also call wondrous the discoveries of that maguey's multiple marvels; those ancient discoverers, lost from memory, have left behind a legacy that still effortlessly renews my childhood wonder.