The Agave: a plant and its story
by Jan Kolendo
The Uses of Agaves
1) Food source
good archeological evidence that man has used agave as food for at least
9000 years. Research work by Callen (1965) on mummified human faeces dated
by carbon14 techniques showed that between 7000 B.C. and 1500 A.D. agave
formed 25--60% of the studied excreta. One should add that these samples
were obtained from cave sites and that they represent perhaps a rural as
opposed to an urban diet.
There is evidence of the use of agaves from
discovered specimens of chewed agave fibre, from artefacts made from agave
fibre and also tools used in these processes. As man gained more and more
experience in the utilisation of these plants he was able to select for
his use species which had better yields in terms of fibre, food and drink.
As he travelled more widely he took his favoured species with him and
these were crossed with new varieties producing new and better specimens.
He was then further able to refine the plants for his own uses and
becoming gradually more sophisticated he was able to produce plants suited
to his specific needs. In the words of Gentry (1982) " even though he had
no concept of genetics, he quite innocently fostered an explosive
evolution in agave diversification". Even today agave portions are widely
on sale in Mexican markets.
The chief source of nourishment is carbohydrate and
sugar in the body of the plant and in the bases of the leaves, excluding
the green parts, the content and consequent palatability increasing with
increased maturity. Recent analysis of agave juice reveals a pH of 5-6
with a calorific value of approx. 300 per 100mls. There is a fructose
content of 90-93%, also glucose, other reduced sugars and a minute iron
content. Young flowering stems and also the flowers are quite edible and
are prepared for eating by roasting or by boiling. There is also good
evidence of agaves frequently being eaten raw.
One of the main ways in which agaves were cooked
was the so called pit baking. This appears to have been more widespread in
the more northerly parts of Mexico and also in in the American southwest.
There is not much supportive evidence for this communal method further
south.Work by Achmann(1959), who obtained evidence from archeological
reports and accounts written by colonial missionaries, suggests that
edible agaves were a very important resource for the Indians of
California, comprising 28% of their annual food consumption. This figure
rose to 45% in springtime when other forms of vegetables were in short
In comparison to territories further south the use
of agave for the production of drink here appears to be minimal or non
existant and it was primarily employed in the production of food.
Miguel del Barco, a Jesuit priest stationed at the
Mission San Javier in the Sierra de la Giganta between 1738 and 1768,has
written a lengthy account of the history of the region and describes in
some detail the use of agaves by the natives. He clearly states that they
knew well that the plants were useless once they had flowered and died and
were able to recognise a plant about to flower in order to utilise it.
They used special hardwood tools with beveled ends to cut both the trunks
and the actual bodies (called mezcales) of plants, removing especially the
upper parts of the body (called the head of the mezcal or cabeza), this
being the most tender,thick and juicy portion and the best for eating.
Having beheaded the mezcal they also removed the leaves. He went on to
give an excellent account of pit baking , which has also been fully
described by Castetter et al. (1938).
Pit baking tended to be a family or community
orientated ritual. Tasks were separated into the gathering of wood and
making the fire by the females ,whilst the males tended to concentrate on
the actual harvesting of the plants and building of the pits. These were
dug in the ground and lined with stones. When the baking was about to
begin, the plant parts were placed in the pits often on a layer of leaves
or grass. there was also a covering layer of similar material or earth in
order to keep the heat in.
The cooking process took generally one or two days
and then the plants were ready either to be eaten then or to be stored to
be eaten cold later. The process often meant that the plants were cooked
on the outside but still raw within. Agave leaves, as might be expected,
are rich in fibre content and parts of the leaves were discarded post
chewing , thus leaving archeologists with material to research on. It was
also clear that not every type of agave was suitable for eating as some
were quite unpalatable and some positively totally inedible so selection
was made as time went on of the most suitable species.
In the Tehuacan area of Mexico agave flowers have
been noted to to have been boiled and then scrambled with eggs. The
Indians of Oaxaca use the outermost leaf layer to make a clingfilm type of
covering to preserve and protect food, especially that taken by workers to
their place of work in the local fields. In some parts leaves and
flowering panicles are used as cattle feed.
Jan Kolendo has written, and maintain 'The Agave
Pages', a major site about Agaves and about growing them in