Lucinda Hutson shares her lifelong love of tequila and Mexico in new book

Lucinda Hutson remembers the moment her lifelong study of tequila was born.

The El Paso native was in her late 20s, traveling in Mexico with her then boyfriend, who happened to be a matador.

They found themselves at a tequila distillery that prominently featured a mural depicting the jubilant, bacchanalian moment that Mexicans discovered the figurative and literal spirits contained within the agave plant.

In the middle of this grand painting was “a lone blonde, dancing barefoot to her own tune,” Hutson recalls in her new book, “Viva Tequila!: Cocktails, Cooking, and Other Agave Adventures” ($34.95, University of Texas Press).

“She looked just like me!” says Hutson, still blond, often barefoot and always dancing to her own tune after 35 years of exploring the history, culture and seductive power of Mexico’s endemic liquor.

Tequila hasn’t been the only thing on Hutson’s mind over the past three decades.

She first moved to Austin to study cultural anthropology at the University of Texas, a subject matter that allowed her to continue her study of Mexican culture — specifically food-related proverbs, or dichos, which appear throughout her new book — even after she moved away from her hometown along the border.

One of her first projects at UT was exploring the medicinal herbs used by Mexican women, but “what interested me more than the medicine was the food,” she says. Once the conversation turned to food, the women suddenly opened their kitchens and recipe collections, which took Hutson down a road she is still exploring.

“I got to interview people and tell their stories,” she says, and all that informal education about cooking and growing herbs inspired her first book: “The Herb Garden Cookbook,” which first came out in 1987 and, remarkably, remains in print more than 25 years later.

Hutson turned the success of that book into a freelance writing and teaching career, which includes a monthly column in Edible Austin magazine and speaking engagements across the country. (Next week, she will talk to the Garden Club of Austin, which is hosting a book-signing. See box for more info.)

But as she continued to travel and write in the 1980s and early 1990s, Hutson’s fascination with tequila lingered. In 1995, Ten Speed Press published “Tequila! Cooking with the Spirit of Mexico,” a collection of Hutson’s tequila stories and recipes, as well as information about the budding boutique tequila industry.

“That book was really ahead of its time,” she says now. Boutique tequilas were just hitting the market, and mezcal was practically unheard of north of the border. Mixology — craft cocktails or libation specialists or whatever buzz word you’d like to use — wasn’t the craze that it is today, but now you’ll find tequila in an array of cocktails that taste absolutely nothing like what comes out of the frozen margarita machine.

With more than 175 distilleries in and around the state of Jalisco, tequila and mezcal have become a multi-billion-dollar (and celebrity-studded) industry trying to cater to an increasingly international clientele, including those who would rather tequila not taste like tequila.

Hutson says it is frustrating to watch her beloved spirit become so commoditized, to the point where gimmicky bottles in all shapes and sizes cost more than the liquid that is inside.

“I’m a bit of a traditionalist,” she says, which is a bit of an understatement, but Hutson does try to stay supportive of fellow enthusiasts, even if they don’t share the same taste for extra anejo served neat with a side of sangrita, a strong aperitif flavored with fruits and/or hot sauces.

“With the different styles (including blanco, reposado, anejo and muy anejo), it’s a mixologist’s dream,” she says. Though you won’t find her serving it with foams and bitters, “there’s a place for that because it shows the versatility of tequila.”

“I’ve always tried to preserve the culture, the heritage, the traditions of how Mexicans enjoy their tequila,” she says. Take the torito, a michelada-like brunch drink made with beer, orange juice, tequila, a splash of hot sauce and a garnish of red onion and peppers. This is a drink you won’t find on the drink menus at even the most “authentic” Mexican restaurants, but is one that Hutson discovered on one of her many trips to Mexico.

When asked if “The Herb Garden Cookbook” might be ready for the same kind of revamp that her first tequila book got, Hutson says that she’s ready to move on to a new project but has been thrilled with her partnership with the University of Texas Press.

“The UT Press let me tell my story,” she says. “If it had gone to a big New York publishing house, I couldn’t have done that.”

The publisher assigned her book to staff designer Lindsay Starr, who incorporated some of the thousands of photos Hutson took during her many trips deep inside the heart of Mexico, as well as images of the many pieces of Mexican earthenware and folk art, including calaveras (skeletons), diablos (devils) and sirenas (mermaids), that she has collected since her first trips as a child.

“It looks like the inside of my house!” she exclaims as she flips through the bright pages during a recent visit to her famously purple Rosedale home and its even more noted gardens, which have been featured in national magazines, including Southern Living.

Some of those photos, as well as parts of the text, were published in the first version of the book, but so much had changed in the industry that Hutson had to rewrite most of the chapters about the kinds of tequila available in the market and the state of the industry, as well as add new stories from more recent trips.

“Thirty years ago, women didn’t travel alone. Women did not go to pulquerias,” she says, referring to the bars dedicated to serving a fermented drink made from agave. “I would speak Spanish and they’d answer back in English.”

She recalls stories of taking buses to small, then-unknown distilleries that now have tourism marketing departments to draw those same kinds of curious visitors, and making friends with just about anyone willing to open their homes to a curious Americana from El Paso who wanted to know more about the magical agave.

“I was just kind of fascinated by this plant,” she says. “It’s like chocolate or vanilla. I wanted to find out what has to happen to those plants before they can be turned into something edible.”

What she discovered wasn’t just the literal steps a distiller takes to turn agave into tequila; she found a portal that allowed her to explore a country and a culture that have become as familiar as her own.

“I’ve been doing this for more than half my life, and I’m still learning new things.”

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