It’s all very well to talk about how the use of fire changed the course of human evolution but then in the deep past, as now, standing in front of the fire is just part of cooking. Lots of other things have to go on: skinning, cutting, carrying, and storing.
That’s perhaps why the humble gourds were some of the first plants to be domesticated.
The term “gourd” or “calabash” is not a botanical one but what you might call one of “use.” It covers a variety of hollow hard-shelled globular or bottle-shaped parts of plants (and is often extended to the plants they grow on). Many are in the Cucurbiticaea family, others grow on trees in the Bignoniacaeae family. Worldwide, the most important is the bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria.
Very handy, and often very beautiful containers could and can be made from gourds. They range in size from ones you can barely get your arms around to little ones that you can hold in the palm of your hand.
With all the pumpkins and gourds around for Halloween and Thanksgiving, it seemed a good moment to honor the gourd.
The more so as last week, when I was in Wolfmueller’s Books in the small town of Kerrville in central Texas, my eye fell on what remains the best overview even if a little dated, The Gourd Book (1979) by Charles B. Heiser. It’s been on my wish list for years, and there it was for a mere $5.00 on the sale shelf.
Here’s an opened gourd that I bought in a market in the south of Mexico City (for scale see the following photo). Cut this way it makes a dipper or spoon. Cut across the lower globe, it makes a bowl. Cut across the top, and plugged with wood or straw, it makes a jug. A hole cut in the side turns it into a nesting box.
So a few examples of the possibilities opened up by gourds.
- Here, from Senegal on the west bulge of Africa, is a gourd cut in half to make a spoon, holding millet porridge with raisins. The tablespoon gives the scale.
Senegal. T.K. Naliaka. CC Att-Share Alike 4.0.
- Around the world, gourds are used to store and carry water. The Hawaiians, for example, went deep into lava tubes to collect dripping water in gourds. In this way they could inhabit the surface deserts on the leeward side of the islands where fishing was easier than off the rugged windward cliffs.
- Water was not the only liquid stored in gourds. In Mexico, gourds are used to collect the sap of the agave for agua miel (honey water), which can be fermented into the nutritious drink, pulque, an important traditional staff of life on the high, dry central plateau.
- In East Africa, the Masai use gourds to collect the blood and milk of cattle, primary sources of food. The gourds also serve as vessels for fermenting milk.
- In Africa, gourds were used to brew beer from bananas.
- In Peru, archaeologists are studying starch grains preserved in gourds to understand the early history of chica (maize beer) and a whole range of root crops.
- In southern Mexico, people drop hot stones into gourds containing water, fish, and vegetables to make a soup.
- The Lacandon Maya use gourds as beehives. They are not the only ones by any means.
- The Maoris used large gourds to preserve small birds twenty or thirty at a time.
- Many people use gourds sealed with clay for the long term storage of grains and legumes. They also serve as measures for grain.
- In Southeast Asia, gourds serve to store the lime used for chewing with betel nut. In South America, they are used to store lime used with coca leaves.
- In many parts of the world, gourds are used as floats for fishing nets.
- Everywhere gourds are decorated.You have to love the images of Europeans on this Azande gourd from north central Africa.
- Frequently gourds form part of an exquisitely wrought container like this 19th century Peruvian utensil for for mate drinking with a silver bombilla (straw) and silver stand.
- Gourds enter into myth and literature. This late Roman carving from Asia Minor shows Jonah under the gourd vine. Scholars now think that “gourd” was a mistranslation from the Hebrew but the sculpture shows that gourds were quite familiar to the Romans.
- In fact, pottery vessels might be made in the form of the elegant gourds like this gourd-shaped porcelain and enamel ewer made in Japan in the late 17th century.
Art Institute of Chicago. Daderot. CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain
- And last, a stunning decorated gourd probably to hold mashed taro root (poi), the staple food of the Hawaiians.
From Africa to the Americas, from Rome to Japan, and out into the far reaches of the north and south Pacific, people used gourds for many purposes other than the culinary, ranging from snuff boxes to tobacco pipes, to cricket cages to musical instruments. One of the more intriguing uses is as a penis sheath. In Papua, New Guinea in the 1970s, a campaign was mounted to persuade men to abandon gourds for cloth pants.
How the bottle gourd in particular traveled so far is the subject of a scholarly debate that has been going on for more than half a century.
From the point of view of food history, though, gourds were in no sense primitive. Lightweight, available, they were porous enough to cool liquids by evaporation, sterile enough to make cheese and butter, resistant enough to heat to cook by steaming water, strong enough to store meat and grains. Moreover the care with which they were incised, stained, adorned, and burnished suggests that not just today but way back in human history eating was far more than simply a matter of nutrition but central to social, cultural and religious life.
- Should you ever be in Kerrville, don’t miss Wolfmueller’s Books. It’s a lovingly cared for bookstore, much of it devoted to things Texan but ranging much more widely, where it’s real pleasure to spend an hour browsing.
- As many readers of this blog will know, Charles Heiser who was Professor of Botany at Indiana University was author of Seed to Civilization (1981), a pioneering survey of the world’s food plants.
- There is a Gourd Society of America with a tempting glossy magazine, The Gourd. You, can, I discover, be a gourder, which is defined as someone who makes a gourd container, but actually seems to cover much more than that.
- A gourd museum in Kenya, part of an effort to preserve and monetize the use of gourds.
- The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew has an interesting collection of gourds.
- Finally, google gourd and you will stumble into a whole world of crafters served by a multitude of books. All new to me.