Pozol (poh-ZOLL) is one of the most traditional of all indigenous American drinks. The basic recipe is to soak corn kernels overnight in water with a little quicklime in it, then grind the much-swollen and softened kernels to form a moist paste, called masa, stir the masa into water until a thin emulsion is created, maybe add a pinch of salt or sugar, and drink. Even today when backcountry Mexican farmers leave their villages for distant fields often they carry with them a handful of masa so they can make their midday pozol with springwater. Masa for first-class pozol may be flavored with ground-up cacao (chocolate) beans.
In 28 de Junio, pozol appears to be at the center of a certain tension between the old ways and the new ways. Traditionalists stick with pozol but the kids and modern folk insist on Coke and the rest.
In fact, our most dedicated traditionalists go a step further and insist that only a certain kind of pozol is best for you, and best tasting. It's called pozol agria, or bitter pozol.
Bitter pozol is made like the regular kind, except that the resulting masa is allowed to rest for about three days before it's used. During this time microbial action imparts to it a specific taste. The taste is of rancidness, like milk that's been left out a couple of days.
Bitter pozol's presence in the culture is easy to explain: Microbial action on the resting masa makes available certain vitamins and other nutrients not found in regular pozol, or found in much smaller amounts. Somehow once upon a time Maya culture became aware that bitter pozol, despite its awful taste, nourishes the body better than the non-bitter kind. It's an amazing example of a people sensing more than knowing that a less-pleasurable path was better for them than other options, and they chose the less-pleasurable, more sustainable one.
The other day I was at Don Andrés' house in Carranza and was offered pozol. He presented me with a sizable plastic bowl of it. It was at ambient temperature and the ground-corn emulsion was reddish because the corn it had been made from was of the traditional blue, almost black, kind. And its bitterness was sharp.
After I'd drunk most of it Andrés placed a large, empty, plastic Coke bottle before me, made in Mexico but bearing the English words "Super Big." "Pozol is better than this stuff, right Jim?"
With kids standing all around waiting for my reply I had a flashback: Back in the 1950s, my family's tobacco fields in Kentucky, hoeing all day in the heat and humidity, sweat, dust, boredom, nothing but tobacco, corn, soybeans, the swamp, little woodlots for as far as the eye could see, and then up at the little general store late in the afternoon if my father felt generous the sheer delight of an ice-cold, sparkling, syrupy-sweet 5-cent Coke.
And now today on this dusty, fractured, trashy, overcrowded, cacophonous slope, this rancid-milk pozol being compared to a Super Big Coke... ? It was a moment of truth in that family's cultural conflict and I had to pronounce one way or another.
But, this matter of taste is a tricky thing. For example, have you ever eaten so much rich food that for days you lost your taste for it? Maybe you decided to not eat anything for a long time, and then once you did start nibbling, instead of eating something sweet or creamy maybe you chose something simple, like a carrot stick. Remember how surprisingly good that simple thing tasted, how its straightforward flavor somehow cleansed your palate, gave you a sense of starting over anew, maybe even cleared your mind? Suddenly you were Spartan, you had control of yourself, you had a vision of something better you could be... That carrot stick's simple, wholesome taste was good because it made you feel good.
I think bitter pozol serves the carrot-stick function in traditional indigenous American cultures. It tastes "good" in the sense that people not only recognize its nutritional value but also, at least on a subliminal level, they associate bitter pozol with their own cultural continuity, family cohesion, harmony, and hope.
"Bitter pozol tastes better than Coke," I declared unequivocally.