Penca is one of those fantastic wandering words in Spanish that has picked up a number of connotations. In the mezcal world it means the leaf of an agave plan. Pencas come up all the time when talking about mezcal because you have to cut them off in order to get to that starchy core, the piña, without which you wouldn’t have any mezcal. But literally it translates as “main rib” in a botanical sense and is used to describe the ribbing in vegetables like cabbage and spinach. In Mexico it’s also used to describe the pad of a prickly pear cactus. In Chile it’s used for “prick,” and I don’t mean to prick your finger… In Spain it can mean big nose or a chicken’s rear end, the area colorfully known as a “parson’s nose” in Oxford English.
But back to the mezcal world! Pencas occupy a big role in Mexican culture because they have been used in an incredible variety of roles. Today most are left in the fields as compost but historically they’ve been used for all their fibrous goodness. Their tips have thorns so those were used as sewing needles, fishing hooks, ornaments, and additions to weapons. The fibers of the pencas are so strong and long that they were frequently used as thread. The whole leaf is also really strong so it was occasionally used as a building material for a roof or siding. Dried they are also a fuel for fires. Still today some mezcaleros use them to fire their stills, thus completing some cosmic cycle.