Pedro Páramo and I walk into Gallo Pelón in downtown Raleigh. He insists that to read his pages I need to drink in earth and water of Oaxaca, and I need to do it now before I let my eyes fall on his first page, his first words. We tell the hostess we’re serious about drinking mezcal, and she guides us up the stairs, a long flight of stairs, to a bar where two men passionately shake and stir ancient alchemical concoctions putting us in mind of great philosophers of alembics and stones, alchemical flight artists such as Avicenna and al-Razi, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. The air burns with the promise of agave and fire, clay pots and spring water.
We order a Barrel-Aged Mezcal Flight featuring Los Amantes and receive a wood board set with three glasses and orange slices topped with roasted grasshoppers (chapulines)–a classic example of Oaxacan cuisine. A few burning, toasted sips with citrus swirling through clouds of smoke, cracking of charred locust exoskeleton, and Pedro Páramo begins to speak.
I came to Comala because I had been told my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hands as a sign I would do it. She was near death, and I would have promised her anything. “Don’t fail to go see him,” she had insisted. “Some call him one thing, some another. I’m sure he will want to know you.” At the time all I could tell her was I would do as she asked, and from promising so often I kept repeating the promise even after I had pulled my hands free of her death grip.
We’re on fire now and thirsty for more. We ask the bartenders for a recommended pour of a favorite mezcal and they bring out Los Siete Misterios. Mezcal varietals grow from a wide-ranging agave species. Coyote may be a wild-variety of agave and then again it may not be, what’s clear is a wonderful combination of smoke, citrus and vanilla.
It was the hour of the day when in every little village children come out to play in the streets, filling the afternoon with their cries. The time when dark walls still reflect pale yellow sunlight.
At least that was what I had seen in Sayula, just yesterday at this hour. I’d seen the still air shattered by the flight of doves flapping their wings as if pulling themselves free of the day. They swooped and plummeted above the tile rooftops, while the children’s screams whirred and seemed to turn blue in the dusk sky.
Now here I was in this hushed town. I could hear my footsteps on the cobbled paving stones. Hollow footsteps, echoing against walls stained red by the setting sun.
Pedro Páramo and I finish our mezcal and then walk out into the night and a town suddenly empty with hot winds sweeping through the streets, our hair, only to find our footsteps falling and clacking on different concrete and a new city. What happened? Has time and space altered? Is this the mezcal? No time to wait for an answer as Pedro Páramo and I walk into The Crunkleton. Our bartender suggests a Rey Campero mezcal, delicious, and then hits us with Mezcal Vago. An immediate smoky burn reminding us of smoky scotches like Talisker. Oh my, this is a beast begging for a cigar!
From end to end. Like they say, as far as the eye can see. He owns ever’ bit of that land. We’re Pedro Páramo’s sons, all right, but, for all that, our mothers brought us into the world on straw mats. And the real joke of it is that he’s the one carried us to be baptized. that’s how it was with you, wasn’t it?
“I don’t remember”
“The hell you say!”
“What did you say?”
“I said, we’re getting there, señor.”
“Yes. I see it now . . . What could it have been?”
“That was a correcaminos, señor. A roadrunner. That’s what they call those birds around here.
“No I meant I wonder what could have happened to the town? It looks so deserted, abandoned really. In fact, it looks like no one lives here at all.”
“It doesn’t just look like no one lives here. No one does live here.”
And Pedro Páramo?”
“Pedro Páramo died years ago.”
A closing of our eyes, breathing in of burning agave, and we open our sight into a new bar, maybe a new town, and in front of us a wondrous concoction of mezcal, tequila and champagne–a Mexican 75 at Down House. Genius. Somehow we’ve travelled from Chapel Hill to Houston in the wink of an eye. Not to worry I tell Pedro Páramo, we’re not far from my house so let’s find a bottle of mezcal and continue the story.
Of course, another Mezcal Vago–this time Espadin with its smoke, citrus, coconut and quite clean taste.
From time to time I heard the sound of words, and marked a difference. Because until then, I realized, the words I had heard had been silent. There had been no sound, I had sensed them. But silently, the way you hear words in your dreams.
“Who could he be?” the woman was asking.
“Who knows?” the man replied.
“I wonder what brought him here?”
“I think I heard him say something about his father.”
“I heard him say that too.”
“You don’t think he’s lost? Remember when those people happened by who said they were lost? They were looking for a place called Los Confines, and you told them you didn’t know where it was.”
“Yes, I remember. But let me sleep. It’s not dawn yet.”
We’re thirsty, and as if in answer to this thirst, I find two more bottles set outside the front door, as if Mixtec ghosts riding on jaguars and left a gift. These Mesoamericans must be keeping watch over us because it was in Cancun where Pedro Páramo and I first sampled Baluarte Reposado tequila–what an epiphany! Agave cores for the oven reveling in oak, pear and honey notes. And then the Elote from Mezcal Vago which doubles down on the Espadin with a deeper smokiness and very bright citrus notes swirling our minds into second sight.
“That was my ‘bad dream,’ and the one where I learned I never had a son. I learned it very late, after my body had already shriveled up and my backbone jutted up higher than the top of my head and I couldn’t walk anymore. And to top it off, everyone was leaving the village; all the people set out for somewhere else and took their charity with them. I sat down to wait for death. After we found you, my bones determined to find their rest. ‘No one will notice me,’ I thought. ‘I won’t be a bother to anyone.’ You see, I didn’t even steal space from the earth. They buried me in the grave with you, and I fit right in the hollow of your arms. Here in this little space where I am now. The only thing is that probably I should have my arms around you. You hear? It’s raining up there. Don’t you hear the drumming of the rain?”
“I hear something like someone walking above us.”
“You don’t have to be afraid. No one can scare you now. Try to think nice thoughts, because we’re going to be here a long time here in the ground.”
With all the thirst and glasses, hunger grips Pedro Páramo and me. Fortunately, I have two pig heads that have marinated overnight in a South Carolina Mustard-based BBQ sauce. I also happen to have a handful of Pasilla peppers and a pot full of black beans. I set up my smoker with apple wood and turn those pig heads a dark red full of a sweet smoke. After the heads cool, I scoop up all meat and delicious fat. Meanwhile, Pedro Páramo has rehydrated the dry Pasilla peppers, then blends with tomatoes, onions and apple cider vinegar. I put two smoked pig ears in the black beans along with a healthy pour of molasses and let that bubble away for hours. The bones of the heads simmer in a pot making a wonderful stock. I take the pig head meat and stir it into the Pasilla sauce. Smoky, hot and delicious.
As the cooking continues, Pedro Páramo and I open another bottle of Mezcal Vago, the gloriously delicious Ensamble en Barro. The secret? Plant, earth, rock, clay, fire, spring water, hands, and time. So sweet with a salty burn. Earthy, ripe fruit, piney finish. On Pedro Páramo’s nose, pine forest and rich soil–the pine continuing into a lovely sourness. He tastes roasted grasshoppers. He tastes voices talking in dark soil. Mecal Vago bottles speak to the gourmand who loves to add to their taste experience by understanding saliva revelations. Mezcal Vago’s website continues this love affair between taste and knowledge by introducing us to the mezcaleros and their traditional methods of honing this superb drink. Consider Salomón Rey Rodriguez or “Tío Rey” (Uncle Rey) who crafts the mezcal we’re drinking right now. This is the language of terroir, to continue the love affair analogy, a shared passion between the thing-in-and-of itself and language’s attempt to craft an experiences as close as possible to that object and sensory experience. Agave core to fire to tongue to words. I love the details of the landscape of Villas Sola de Vega, that exact measuring of time for Espadin and Coyote which makes up this particular mezcal, the wonderful description of the clay pots, the ollas de barros. Pedro Páramo expresses his love in words,
“I know that within a few hours Abundio will come with his bloody hands to ask for the help I refused him. But I won’t have hands to cover my eyes, to block him out. I will have to hear him, listen until his voice fades with the day, until his voice dies.”
He felt a hand touch his shoulder, and straightened up, hardening himself.
“It’s me, don Pedro,” said Damiana. “Don’t you want me to bring you your dinner?”
Pedro Páramo replied:
“I’m coming along. I’m coming.”
He supported himself on Damiana Cisnero’s arm and tried to walk. After a few steps he fell; inside, he was begging for help, but no words were audible. He fell to the ground with a thud, and lay there, collapsed like a pile of rocks.