Bubble Bubble, Toil and Tequila
Fantasma de México is made with Blanca or Reposada tequila on the rocks, fresh lime juice (or three limes, if you don’t trust it’s fresh) with a splash or “float” of mescal shaken or not. The mescal imparts just a ghost of smokiness to remind the drinker of old Mexico. Mescal, the ancestral form of tequila, harkens back to the raw bitterness of Pulque, tequila’s origins. The fresh lime fractures the refined tequila and harsher mescal into a greater sum of the parts. You won’t find Fantasma in a mixologist’s encyclopedia. I made it up.
While sipping my drink, I’ve always wondered how some guy sitting in the desert staring at a spiny cactus declared – “I’m going to make tequila out of that.” Every other hard liquor is produced from a grain or a starch. I once asked local Son Jarocho musician Jorge Milangros this question. He is a master Jarana maker – the guitar carved from a single block of wood – and knower of Mesoamerican arcanum. He explained that first of all, it’s not actually a cactus – the species of Maguey is related to the aloe plant – a succulent. Secondly, tequila came from the discovery of Pulque.
As the Maya, Aztecs, and Huastecs scoured the desert for water they learned to stab a big wooden straw into various kinds of desert plants to find the sap inside. Turns out, a cactus is not actually a spine-covered basin of fresh water. Only Prickly Pear and Barrel Cactus are candidates, and they can make you sick. One of the early fathers of tequila poked his straw into the Maguey plant, found Pulque and experienced something Divine. The god Quetzalcoatl got the credit, but that’s a longer story.
The Maguey seems to be one of the few plants that internally ferments its own sap. In the great Mesoamerican civilizations of the central highlands, Pulque was served as a ritual intoxicant to priests as well as those sacrificed.
Before tequila, pulquerías were the rage, some were luxurious. Rich and poor establishments featured humorous names such as “I’m Waiting for You Here at the Corner” or “The Recreation Center of Those Across the Street” or “Memories of the Future.” The facades and interiors of pulquerías presented, according to Diego Rivera, one of the most important opportunities for muralistas. The tequila-art connection is unavoidable. In movie-making, it made George Clooney the highest-paid actor, less for his acting than his tequila.
I view my “Fantasma” as a tiny contribution, a link in the long history of tequila. It’s become my handshake in the whirl of alcohol-based social activity. I “invented” my drink with bartender Greg Brichbiel when I first moved to Santa Barbara because I was bored with just tequila, I wasn’t inclined to drink the Montecito Martini – an infinity pool of vodka without the Martini trimmings – and I needed to create my microbubble.
I learned about microbubbles in New York City. See, die-hard New Yorkers don’t buy a seat to a Yankees game – that’s too easy. Instead, we wait until we meet someone with box seats behind home plate then wait a bit longer until they offer us tickets. In New York, we find a restaurant and say, “That’s my restaurant.” Microbubbles give meaning in the Big City. Everyone owns “their” New York, their microbubble, and when they leave that particular New York pops, and it’s gone.
Historically, Santa Barbara has been at the forefront of “bubble living.” The alternative name “Santa Bubble” is familiar to residents. The moniker isn’t always complementary. Partly because normal size bubbles tend to get big and flabby, epitomizing instability.
With its nine sunny square miles squeezed between the ocean and the mountains, Montecito’s Macondo existence immediately qualifies as bubble material. But what happens when the bubble gets squished or worse by tragedy and the full blow of nature? Give up on bubble living? Or reconfigure to microbubbles?
Microbubbles are more resilient. After finding themselves on the forefront of environmental changes, microbubbling seems to be one way people in Montecito have figured out how to pick up and move on. They’ve made their bubbles smaller and fortified them. Microbubbling is a good survival practice in the face of adversity.
Cynics ridicule my drink as tequila with a splash of tequila. They’re not wrong. It takes some willful suspension of disbelief to continue living in the bubble, maybe living at all. But that’s where the magic happens, when tequila with a splash of tequila becomes a Fantasma and life is worth living.