Cantina la Lucinda

By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by John Pozdro as appears in ¡Viva Tequila!

My affinity for tequila seems to be a natural one, a legacy from growing up in the border town of El Paso. In the late 1960s, our coming-of-age initiations included escapades to rowdy Juárez cantinas on Saturday nights. Looking back, we were young and life was an uncomplicated fiesta. While my companions guzzled Singapore Slings and Zombies—cloying concoctions promising speedy inebriation and horrific hangovers—I slipped into the kitchen of our favorite cantina, where Tío Mauro Orozco, the uncle of my family’s housekeeper, was the cook.

He’d pour me a shot of tequila reposado, and with ranchera music blaring on the radio to the rhythmic patting of tortillas, I learned how to cook and how to sip tequila.

Mexico’s comida y canciones (cuisine and songs) and the generous spirit of her inhabitants filled my heart. Often, I felt more at home in that country than in my own. Speaking Spanish fluently (which gave me an insider’s perspective of Mexican culture and traditions) and longing for adventure, I had no fear of riding buses to visit small tequila towns, the only güera (fair-skinned female) aboard.

Throughout tequila’s heartland, I visited fields planted with endless rows of blue agaves—formidable plants with a profusion of swordlike blades exploding from a central core. I learned that these noble agaves take nearly a decade to reach maturity for harvesting. In rustic and modern distilleries alike, I watched the agave’s magical transformation into tequila, the true spirit of Mexico. I tasted shimmering silver tequilas straight from copper pot stills and amber-hued ones from fine oak casks. I dined in distillers’ fine haciendas and with humble field workers, where often that precious bottle of tequila or mezcal was poured for a toast to la vida buena (the good life).

Tequila is indeed my soul mate; Mexico in a bottle. Its flavor is as melodic to the mouth as a mariachi tune is to the ear—bold, spicy and full of life! Upon the first taste, it gives a liquid jolt to the senses that makes our tongues trill, trumpets resound in our ears and throatily bellows of “ay-ay-ay!” fill the air. Tequila makes macho men burst into passionate lyrics of unrequited love and shy women dance with abandon. How could I not have my own tequila cantina?

Nestled behind the detached garage of my bright purple 1930s “Texican” bungalow in Austin is my Cantina La Lucinda. Painted screaming turquoise, it’s like a barrio (neighborhood) cantina on a dusty road south of the border. I built a traditional Texas split-cedar ramada (porch-like structure) for shade, instead of one roofed with palm fronds frequently found in Mexico. The cantina holds a rustic bar table for serving punches and tequila drinks, and a saloon cabinet that stores bottles of tequila and mezcal for parties. A large, rusted metal sculpture of an agave perches atop the ramada, and like in cantinas in Mexico, a calendar hangs on the wall to mark off each blessed day. Nearby, a small statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe gives protection.

To the side of the cantina, a handcrafted wrought-iron bottle tree “grows” upside-down bottles of tequila from its branches—“fallen soldiers,” a friend calls them—instead of the blue bottles found on most bottle trees placed to scare away evil spirits. Many Mexicans seem to have an innate ability to turn found objects into art, like the sculpture of a trio of huarache-shod mariachis that greets guests to my cantina—each with a distinct personality (one has exchanged his musical instrument for a bottle of tequila). Resourceful Mexican craftsmen fashioned them, with incredible attention to detail, from rusty oil drums and found objects.

My cantina has some recycled items, too. Dumpster diving has afforded me plenty of empty tequila bottles with which to line the cantina’s garden beds, mulched with wine corks salvaged from local establishments or brought to me by friends. Previously used oak whisky barrels double as my cocktail tables when upside down or serve as planters filled with small palms. Horseshoes collected at the local Mexican pulga (flea market) now line the peak above the cantina. But perhaps my favorite embellishments are the big copper pot once used for collecting mezcal that I got in Oaxaca and the blue agaves that I grow in big pots started from “pups” I brought back from Mexico.

A picnic table and its benches covered with cheerful Mexican oilcloth—brightly patterned fabric covered in a vinyl laminate that’s used throughout Mexico as tablecloths—await my cantina’s patrons, and there’s a whimsical tin outdoor shower, just in case a merry reveler gets out of hand! (It’s actually used after gardening.)

The image of cantina that I choose is about ambiance. You may only have a small space, perhaps just a liquor cabinet, in your home to devote to a bar, but it’s the hospitality and spirit of entertaining with which you welcome guests that gives them that celebratory and unforgettable cantina experience. I’ve distilled the essence of Mexico into my home cantina—its flavors and character, its spirit and soul. May you be inspired to do the same—create a warm and inviting atmosphere for the celebration of agave spirits and amistad (friendship). And don’t forget, Mexican hosts typically honor each guest with the raising of a glass and a gracious “¡Salud!” or a dicho (proverbial toast) to personally acknowledge their visit. And remember: Tequila es para saborear, no para emborrachar (Tequila is for savoring, not for inebriating).

•••

Lucinda Hutson’s first book, Tequila: Cooking with the Spirit of Mexico (Ten Speed Press), was published in 1995, way ahead of the tequila craze. The new book, ¡Viva Tequila¡! Cocktails, Cooking, and Other Agave Adventures, was just released in May by University of Texas Press. The three-in-one compilation is a natural history, a cookbook, a bar book and filled with everything you want to know about agave spirits. Peppered with personal anecdotes and illustrated with documentary photographs and folk art from Hutson’s collections, ¡Viva Tequila! celebrates traditional Mexican libations and homemade concoctions used to highlight the flavor of tequila, such as: tequilas curados (tequilas “cured” or infused with fresh fruits, herbs or chiles); flavored salts, like hibiscus flower and orange zest salt, for rimming and adding zip to drinks,; flavored syrups like jarabe tinto (ruby pomegranate syrup) and luscious liqueurs to end the evening. You’ll  also find  festive recipes—from appetizers to desserts—to enliven your next fiesta.

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