In Ron Cooper’s new memoir Finding Mezcal, the artist and founder of Del Maguey shares fascinating stories about the people, places and culture surrounding mezcal, a spirit he’s largely responsible for popularizing over the past two decades. One of our favorite stories is how copitas became synonymous with mezcal consumption. In the following excerpt from his book, Cooper explains how these tiny terra cotta cups came to be.
As civilization evolved, so did vessels. Humans learned to form and then fire clay. The first pots used for storing food and water probably date to 10,000 BCE. When I started looking for a vessel I could use for tasting mezcal, I settled on clay, an organic material. I wanted to mimic the traditional vessel used to taste mezcal, the jícara, a thin-walled, hollowed-out gourd sometimes decorated with etchings on the outside of the bowl. As a material, the gourd skin is porous, it breathes. When you pour mezcal into it, the jícara drinks its share. Over time, the mezcal cures the bowl, but the bowl imparts nothing to the spirit. When you bend your face to it for a sip, you’re enveloped by aromas from the mezcal. There is no intense alcohol burning your nose, just the smell of roasted maguey, mineral, fruit, flower overtones.
I met the Benítez family in the Central de Abastos market, where I’ve found so many treasures over the years. They were selling their pottery, which they make on Cerro del Fortín. It’s the hill overlooking Oaxaca where the traditional dances for the annual Guelaguetza festival are held. (Guelaguetza, held on consecutive Mondays in the second half of July, celebrates native culture through costume and dance. The event is ancient, with roots in pre-Hispanic sacrifices offered to the god of corn. The word Guelaguetza comes from the Zapotec for “exchange of gifts”; the dances performed are considered offerings from one tribe to another.) I once saw a photo of the Cerro del Fortín from the 1930s or ’40s: there were no roads. Just old cars and people scattered like ants across the hillside. The Benítez family has made pottery there for generations.
I worked with them to design a copita that, like the jícara, would breathe. We worked on the shape, which has morphed slightly over the years, but is basically a squat cup that stands roughly an inch high. It holds a perfect measure of mezcal and sits comfortably in the hand. It’s the perfect size for hiding in your pocket. I always carry mine in my jeans or my jacket—you never know when someone will want to pour you a nice mezcal. No one has ever been able to shape the copitas like the Benítez clan. The family’s old abuelo passed away a while back, but I remember him clearly, leaning against a wall before his wheel, kicking a four-foot-tall volcano of clay around and around, shaping copitas by the hundreds per day.
The copitas have taken on a life of their own. I’ve read misguided articles that claim they are traditional Oaxaca artifacts. They are not. They’re all me. They were invented out of necessity, but I’m always pleased when a bar or restaurant wants to use them for serving our mezcal. When people come to visit me in Oaxaca, I give them a copita and make a little drawing on the foot of it for them. It’s my way of saying thank you.
As I’ve mentioned, vessels are a recurring theme in my art. In my early works, they held water. I’ve always found water to be a beautiful and powerful element to work with. In later works, my vessels held mezcal, the sacred juice. The vessels were like goddesses: the womb, the container of life. Mezcal was the food, feeding the skull, the container of light. For me, a work of art is successful if, in the making of it, a question is generated. The answering of that question becomes the next work. The sculpted vessel led to the liquid contained therein; working in the avant-garde led me to the ancient.
I’ve always liked a passage the writer and mythographer Marina Warner wrote in a 1991 essay for the art magazine Parkett: “The beast within begins to look like a sign of grace compared to the vices and disorders of industrial man.” It’s about finding peace and salvation in the primordial, taking refuge from the dysfunction of modernity in the primitive. Embracing the ancient has allowed me to pursue the progressive unencumbered by its dogma.
Reprinted with permission from Finding Mezcal: A Journey into the Liquid Soul of Mexico with 40 Cocktails by Ron Cooper with Chantal Martineau, copyright © 2018. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
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