It's a rite of passage for the college crowd, for girl's night out, and for gabachos who want to play Mexican for a night: the tequila shot. Salt your hand, lick it off, down the shot, then suck a lime slice. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, FLOOR!
Mexicans do it, too, although not as much as we'd like to admit given we must always proclaim our authenticity above Americans. But the tradition of combining salt with lime when drinking tequila is very much a Mexican invention--and it turns out we've been doing it backwards for nearly 85 years.
One of my chapters in my coming book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (out April 2012!) will address tequila's conquest of American livers. In my research, I found what I think is the oldest how-to guide for Americans on how to drink tequila, in a 1924 Los Angeles Times article.
It was the height of Prohibition, but that didn't stop the Times from helping its readers navigate the cantinas of Tijuana, so a nameless writer penned "Tequila Drinking: And the Mexican Way, with Salt and Lemon Recommended." They advised the use of the latter two, as the reporter said most people who tried tequila wished "that the bartender had substituted hydrochloric acid or hair tonic in its place."
But instead of advising people to drink shots the way we do it today, the Times' advice seems backwards to us:
One picks up a slice of lemon, salts it generously, pops it into his mouth and chews it vigorously. While the mouth and eyes are still puckered from the effects of the lemon, one picks up his glass and hastily empties his tequila into himself, after which he gasps a little, blinks his eyes three or four times, and indulges in a convulsive shiver."
The Times went onto note that "this is the Mexican method of drinking tequila, and although Americans have experimented industriously with other methods, they have never discovered one that would cloak the slightly sour taste of the tequila so effectively."
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The dispatch does call into question why people would use salt and lime in the first place. The salt ritual remains before the tequila, to cut its richness--but what's the point of sucking on a lime afterward? If the point is to mask the flavor, why not chew or suck on the lime beforehand (have no idea where the Times got "lemon" from). And at what point did this tradition change? Is there an older how-to guide out there? Inquiring minds want to know!