The question readers of my blog ask most frequently is “Where in the United States can I buy a metate (the shaped stone slabs on which Mexican women traditionally ground maize and other foodstuffs)?” Or, to be picky, the grindstone and accompanying “mano” as the stone used to grind on the base is called.
So rather than answer these questions individually, here’s a generic answer.
Finding a metate in the United States
In two words, not easy. Not easy at all.
EDIT. Thanks to terrific crowd sourcing (on FB and Twitter), all kinds of opportunities are opening up. See below.
The trouble is that metates weigh between forty and a hundred pounds. Their legs tear through cardboard boxes, shipping costs a fortune. When I lived in Mexico, I tried for a while to help friends in the US who wanted them. Ha. A quick google reveals that several companies have tried and given up. I entirely understand why.
Short of taking a trip to Mexico, or leaning on a friend who is coming back across the border by car and can be persuaded to buy and haul one for you, you have basically two options.
First, metates in your local Mexican flea market.
In Austin, Texas, where I live, there is a weekly flea market that caters almost exclusively to Mexicans. In the one in Austin, amidst the stalls selling tacos and vegetables and embroidered tortilla holders and bright, shiny dresses for quinceañeras (girls’ coming-of-age 15th birthday parties), one gentlemen sells molcajetes and metates.
Casting an eye over them, I remarked, in a piece of total one-upmanship, “oh you get these from Comonfort in Guanajuato, I see” since I was once on friendly terms with the metateros (metate makers) in Comonfort.
In fact, I suspect, although the seller knew they were from the state of Guanajuato, that he had only the vaguest notion of where Comonfort was. There is an active cross-border traffic of pickups and trucks supplying Mexicans in the United States with everything they might want from their home country.
I was not bowled over by the quality of the metates and their accompanying manos. The workmanship was much rougher than the best work. Few Mexicans in the United States are likely to regularly grind maize on a metate so they are purchasing for nostalgia, for the memory of their grandmother’s courtyard with the metate sitting on its hard beaten earth. But the price was reasonable, if I remember right well under a hundred dollars.
Since Mexican communities are now to be found in just about every city in the US, I assume most cities have such a flea market, so it is a question of a bit of sleuthing to find out where and when. There are now about seven places in Mexico that make metates, so depending on the where the local Mexican population comes from, the metates may look significantly different.
EDIT. Mely Martinez, whose Mexico in My Kitchen blog always makes me homesick for Mexico, says that in Dallas (and presumably other cities with large Mexican populations) some of the bigger Latino stores have metates.
EDIT. Jay Francis sends me this. If any of your readers who want to buy one live in Houston, I know of at least 10 places that I can recommend to them. You may have given me an idea for my next (www.houstonfoodexplorers.com) blog.
Second, metates from commercial sellers
One company, Tierra Dulce, about whom I know nothing whatsoever, sells old metates for between $200 and $300, shipping included. Given my experience trying to ship the things, this does not seem unreasonable. If anyone knows of any others, please let me know and I’ll add them here.
Things to bear in mind when purchasing a metate
For maize, the metate should be of medium size, that is just over a foot wide and about eighteen inches long. The bigger ones are for chocolate, the smaller ones for spices. But this size is ideal for the pass needed for turning maize into masa.
Most metates are made of volcanic rock, basalt or andesite. No need to worry about the geology of this.
What is important is that these rocks are both hard and have pores. You need hard so bits don’t come off too easily when you are grinding. You need pores because as you grind down the surface stays uneven, meaning you don’t have to have the metate picada (pecked) to restore an uneven surface so often.
Diana Kennedy recommends smooth stone. After talking to a number of metate makers and grinders, I have to say that I believe the more porous stone is better.
If you buy your metate second hand, watch out. Normally they are sold if the mano (the grinder) has broken which, amazingly, it does. Then the vendor adds a new mano.
The new mano often does not fit the metate well and you have to work twice as hard.
The mano, by the way, is not a roller. It is pushed to shear the grain (or spices or chocolate or whatever), not rolled to crush them. So expect it to have a somewhat squared cross-section.
So it’s perhaps better to buy new. And here watch out too. At La Merced, the main market in Mexico City, they sell metates made of concrete. Not good news. Check it’s real stone.
And I have reason to believe that those made with traditional metal picks are much better than those made with electric drills because there is less likelihood that bits of stone break off and get into the digestive system. But I need to do a bit more work on this.
Once you’ve picked out a metate, begin by using an electric drill fitted with a metal brush to remove bits of stone, not traditional but effective. Then go to the old-established custom of grinding rice until it comes clean.
Some other posts on metates.
Which reminds me that I have three or four other posts that I must get to on grinding in Mexico and elsewhere.