Yesterday, I went into a Crate and Barrel store in Austin, Texas. There, just to the right past the entrance, was a Mexican mortar and pestle (or, as it would be called in Mexico a tejolote, pronounced teh-o-lot-eh, and a molcajete, mol-ca-het-eh).
My goodness. I was so pleased to see that this marvelous Mexican instrument is readily available in the United States.
And I would recognize that particular style of molcajete anywhere. Unless I am badly mistaken, it’s from Comonfort, a prosperous small agricultural center of about 25,000 people in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico.
So I thought others might be interested in who makes these utensils. I first encountered the mortar and pestle makers in 1995. An acquaintance, Gustavo, fiercely proud of Comonfort, the town in which he had been born and raised, asked me if I knew that the town was famous for its molcajetes and metates (grindstones, pronounced met-a-tays). Would I like to see them being made?
Would I ever? Grindstones were the point where my interests in food, in the history of technology, and in world history converged. Without grindstones (and/or pestles and mortars), it’s very difficult to process grains into food. Without grains, it would would have been very difficult for cities to have been created. And without cities, well, the history of humanity would have been very different indeed.
I spent the week end imagining, since this was the twentieth century, a small factory, a long single room with benches along the side and men working at them with hand power tools turning out these kitchen utensils. I imagined trucks loading up and whisking them off to the markets of Mexico.
The following week at eight in the morning, Gustavo and I barreled in to Comonfort, squashing the heads of broccoli that had fallen from the trucks taking it to Birdseye de México and Gigante Verde in nearby Celaya to be frozen for the American market. We parked in a dusty lot next to the main railway line from Mexico City to Laredo, skipped over the tracks, and made our way up the hill on a street paved with blocks of stone, the impenetrable facades of the small houses forming a wall on either side.
Gustavo knocked on a low red door, we stooped to enter, stepping down on to a low concrete slab at the top of a steep slope. Twenty feed down was a tangle of crimson bougainvillea. Seated on the ground under the tangle in what appeared to be a pile of wood ash was the metatero (metate maker), Manuel Olalde.
So much for the factory. Metate making was clearly still not a mechanized enterprise.
Introductions completed, Manuel showed us the toy molcajete he had been making to pass the time until we turned up. He selected a hammer from a pile of half a dozen or so, and chipped away at a piece of rock that he held steady with his bare feet. Chips and dust fell around him. It was not ash he was sitting in, it was rock dust.
From a piece of cloth strung in the bougainvillea over his head, Manuel fished out a battered notice of a crafts fair in Mexico City burnt in places by the sparks from his hammer. He had entered a sculpture that he had made, an Aztec warrior copied from an image on a bank note, in the miscellaneous category. To his chagrin, he had not won or even been placed. His choice of subject, though, was a tacit recognition of his pride that molcajetes and metates had been made on this spot for generation upon generation.
The higher part of the hill had been declared a historical monument. The metateros found old obsidian knives up there when they wandered around the remains of old construction around the levelled off top. They knew they had been brought from far away. There is no obsidian in the area around Comonfort. And from the top of the hill they could gaze across the valley at the silhouette of a pyramid on the other side of the Rio Laja. Mexico has so many historic monuments that it’s quite impossible to excavate them all, so these two sites lie undisturbed.
So the metateros, who belong to about forty families in this one barrio of Comonfort, continued to mine rock from the hillside to make metates and molcajetes.
In the mid-1990s I thought I was observing a dying craft. Mexicans were grinding maize for tortillas and tamales in mills, not on the metate. They were making their salsas in blenders, not in molcajetes. And the metateros were depressed; their earnings were low, and they did not want to encourage their sons to follow them into the business. Manuel himself had emphysema, almost certainly the result of years of inhaling rock dust.
Over the succeeding years, I continued to visit the metateros and saw their fortunes improve so that they are now doing quite well by the standards of small town artisans in Mexico.
So upcoming posts on the sources and quality of molcajetes in American stores, on how the rock is quarried and worked, and on the changing fortunes of metateros.
Meantime, a few references.
Michael Searcy, The Life-Giving Stone: Ethnoarchaeology of Maya Metates (University of Arizona Press, 2011) is an excellent, recent account of metates in the Mayan regions, superceding earlier works. There are more similarities to than differences from the making and the role of metates hundreds of miles away in central Mexico where I was.