Never mind the tacos, tlacoyos, tamales and other quintessential Mexican foods beginning with ‘t’ (tortas, tortillas…). To understand Mexico, you needn’t go much further than exploring its beverages.
That was my conclusion after visiting an enlightening exhibition called ‘Que te tomas? Las Bebidas Mexicanas’ (What are you having? Mexican Drinks) at MODO – the Museo del Objeto del Objeto (no, that is not a typo), in the leafy heart of Roma Norte here in Mexico City.
The most celebrated of Mexico’s pre-hispanic drinks is pulque, possibly enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, and in the first room at MODO I saw brightly coloured jicaras for drinking the strange milky, viscous stuff out of. They looked unfeasibly large to me, but then again pulque is not very alcoholic and if you go to a contemporary pulqueria you’ll often find yourself served a capacious jug for one. In the same room, what looked at first sight like a slaughtered pig was actually a cuero, a container made from hide that was used for transporting pulque.
Meanwhile, a Jose Guadalupe Posada illustration in a satirical broadsheet showed a cheery sombrero-d man and was accompanied by Cancion del Pulquero – a pulque seller’s song. I’ll drink to that.
I also learned that bars, as we know them today, arrived in Mexico alongside the US troops who invaded the country in the 1840s. Cocktails followed hot on their heels.
Moving away from alcohol, the exhibition taught us about atole, that wholesome drink – typically made with corn dough, but also with rice flour or oatmeal – still popular with labourers needing to fill their stomachs before a long morning’s work building new apartment blocks. Like pulque, it is not a drink that has crossed the Atlantic to Europe. Hot chocolate, or chocolate full stop, is a very different story, as cocoa seeds are easy to transport. Very fortunate indeed for those of us who are addicted to the stuff.
Talking of addictions, few nations have a greater affinity with Coca-Cola and other sweet soft drinks than Mexico. Down in the MODO basement was a wall’s worth of shelving displaying old-style bottles of well-known brands alongside specimens of now-defunct sodas.
No tasting was possible, alas, but the shelves of old and not-so-old Mexican wines, and arrays of beer bottles sporting vintage labels – or everything, to be honest, including the tequilas – made me want to go off at once and let my tastebuds do some exploring. Definitely an inspirational exhibition.