Just before I left Mexico, I picked up a lovely book, Barro y fuego: El arte de la alfarería en Oaxaca (Clay and Fire: The Art of Pottery in Oaxaca) in 2011. (For details of the organizations and government agencies that supported the years of research it took to produce this book, see below.)
Mindling visited thirty-seven pottery-making villages (carefully mapped in his book) and recorded how the pots were shaped, how they were fired, the diversity of designs and how they are changing. Oaxaca probably has a particularly rich heritage of pot making but across Mexico pottery making villages still exist even if threatened by plastic.
I always hankered after doing a similar study in Guanajuato. Understanding pots and how they work is so important to food history.
All these pots embody considerable technical skill, the mix of clay and sand, for example, being adjusted to the use to which the pot will be put, or the thickness of the clay being varied across the pot depending on the structural support needed. And it’s important to realize that these pots are made without a potter’s wheel. Only two of the thirty-seven pottery villages utilize a wheel. In all other cases, the pots are built up by hand using a variety of different techniques. Thanks to Ken Albala for the comment that prompted this clarification.
Indeed, I think archaeologists could learn a lot from the author’s careful analysis of the technology.
Anyway I’ve taken the liberty of copying a tiny portion of the photographs because I’d like this lovely book to get a bit of exposure outside Mexico. (And forgive the gutter shadows. My enthusiasm for sharing this book did not extend to breaking the spine).
Much of Barro y fuego is given over to recording the three basic cooking vessels in a traditional village kitchen in Mexico. Here is a small sampling of ollas, used to simmer the beans, cook maize, prepare guisados (stewed dishes). They can also be used to store grains or as a safe haven for chicks. Many come in standard sizes depending on whether you usually prepare a half kilo or a whole kilo of beans at a time. For festivals there are some are big enough to prepare a whole goat. (The small print under each olla identifies the village of origin).
And below are the comales, the basic griddle usually big enough to hold four or five tortillas expertly flipped in sequence by the cook. She also uses the comal to roast onions, tomatos, tomatillos, squash seeds and other ingredients for salsas. They are seasoned with lime (calcium hydroxide) to prevent sticking so the cook can even use them to fry an egg.
And here’s the third basic, the cazuela (which goes by a variety of other names). It’s a wide open pot, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, sometimes with handles sometimes without. Different varieties are used for cooking, particularly moles, for serving, and for eating.
These three basic forms are far from exhausting the pottery repertoire. There are tall, handled jars for carrying water (cántaros), tall jars with wide mouths (tinacos), pierced pots (pichanchas) for draining the calcium hydroxide solution in which maize is briefly cooked and that makes it possible to make tortillas when the wet maize is ground, bulbous jars with narrow mouths (jarras) for serving liquids, cups for drinking chocolate, oval serving vessels, bowls with ridged interiors (molcajetes) for grinding, mezcaleros (very tricky to make) for distilling mezcal, braziers for burning the incense, copal, and one of my favorites, the ingenious patoja.
Looking at these pots, it’s no wonder that one ancient Greek theory was that the world was made of earth, air, fire and water. For that is all they are, earth and water dried in the air and finished by fire. And sometimes the pots seem almost to spring to life.
Barro y fuego was produced by Innovating Tradition, a non-profit
organization. Funds were provided by AECID (Spain), FONCA (National Fund for the Arts), and the government of Oaxaca. An English edition is in preparation.
Where can you get this book if you want it right now? I found Barro y fuego in the Coyoacán branch of the bookstore chain, Gandhi in Mexico City. It’s possible that you could order it on the preceding link and that it would reach you.