Tag Archives: Grinding

Classes, Curry Stones, Borlaug, War Photos, and Cornish Pasties

  • Historical Cooking Classes

Anne Bramley of Eat Feed is offering historical cooking classes, on line I think. You’ll get not just recipes (duh) but the whole cultural background. A great opportunity if you are interested particularly in her specialty, early modern English food.  Eat Feed » Classes.


  •  Curry Stones

The Old Foodie is always worth reading but when she gets on to the topic of grindstones (here called curry stones because they were used for grinding spices in India), then I can’t resist.  Have any of those interested in historical kitchens run across these stones?  Or are they just ignored as “only stones?”

“I don’t know how common genuine curry stones were in the kitchens of England in the late nineteenth century, but the great interest in ‘curries’, and the instructions in the above recipe, suggest that they were not unknown. Cookery books of the time catered for the great interest in ‘curries’, and one in particular makes much of the use of curry stones to grind one’s own curry powder. The book is The Curry Cook’s Assistant or, Curries, How to Make them in England in Their Original Style (3e 1889) by Daniel Santiagoe, General Servant.” via The Old Foodie: Using Your Curry Stone.


  • Reminiscences of Borlaug

Some years ago, I went to vist a colleague at Texas A & M because she was an expert on what actually happens in nixtamalization (the process of treating maize with alkali so central to Mexican cooking).  I had parked illegally, that being about the only option on most university campuses.  “I don’t think Norm will be in today,” she said. “Why don’t you take his slot?”That Norm.   Oh my goodness. If I had had my camera I would have snapped my car in Norm’s slot.  Here’s a long personal account of Borlaug, thanks to Agrobiodiversity. Worth reading the whole thing for many reasons, including the India-Mexico interchanges.

“Borlaug wanted me to join his program as postdoc in Mexico, and accordingly I accepted the offer to work with Glenn Anderson and the Rockefeller Foundation in India for a period of six months. This life-changing decision came at a time of momentous change in the world, when questioning and protests were the order of the day, and after three months, the postdoc offer in Mexico matured. At the same time, a temporary offer from IARI was made, with a view to permanency. Swayed by Glenn Anderson and lured by the challenges offered by Borlaug and CIMMYT, I reluctantly declined the offer from IARI and set my sights on Mexico in May 1969.” via Norman Borlaug: The Man I Worked With and Knew – Annual Review of Phytopathology, 49(1):17.


  • Photos of a fair in Regents Park, London in 1943

Not just of food, but plenty of food there including chocolate substitute ice cream. And the auction of a small banana that sold for five pounds sterling, a large sum of money in those days.  Don’t miss the last photo. Wow. The Passion of Former Days: War Fair.


  • Ah, Cornwall asserting rights over the pasty tradition

One of my arguments at the recent Taste of Home conference in Brussels was that it was highly likely that Cornish pasties were created as much, probably more, by the Cornish diaspora to mining communities around the globe than by the Cornish in impoverished late nineteenth-century Cornwall.  And that the overseas Cornish had no need to cede pasty authenticity to Cornwall itself. But there’s money in culinary heritage. Here’s Cornwall asserting its pasty rights.

“Amery is one of the cooks, professional and amateur, who have journeyed from across the globe to compete at the inaugural World Pasty Championships this weekend at the Eden Project in St Austell.” via Pasty competition brings international flavour to Cornwall | Life and style | guardian.co.uk.

Who Farms, Who Processes? Men or Women?

In my earlier post I suggested that traditionally farming was men’s work and post-harvest processing women’s work.

That may be the general pattern.  There are lots of exceptions though. Women do a whole lot of farming, including the staples in many societies.  Men do a lot of post-harvest processing, threshing of grains, for example.  In Hawaii men traditionally cooked the sacred staple, taro.  Preparing was forbidden to women, though in fact they apparently did so when there were no men about.

In Mexico, though, although women helped farm, men did not grind.  Absolutely not.  The women who taught me to grind progressed from amazement to nervous titters to outright hilarity when men friends of mine tried their hand at it.

How Long did Traditional Mexican Grinding Take?

Heike Vibrans asks a number of good questions about my earlier post on the human energy required to grind maize the traditional Mexican way before the appearance of mills beginning in the 1920s  but still not in remote villages in the 1990s.

Five hours sound too much. You don’t need an almost an hour to grind 1 kg. I did fieldwork in Tlaxcala in the beginning of the 80′s, and maize was sometimes ground by hand on a metate, usually between 5 and 6 or 7 in the morning. And I’ve tried it out myself, too, though to rather uneven results. Yes, it was hard work, but five hours? And there were more than six family members, plus the dogs that were also fed tortillas. Considering all the other stuff a rural housewife has to do, apart from the tasks you mentioned – wash clothes by hand, cook, feed the domestic animals, go out to buy stuff, keep the house and patio in working order, look after kids, help with the field work, it also sounds unrealistic.

From the way Heike phrases it, it sounds as if this village already had a mill so that the metate was used only on special occasions.  So was the dough (masa) for the day or just for a special meal?

Grinding (pineapple in this case, not maize)

Getting a clean measure of the time to grind for a family is hard.

  • Family size and family appetites vary.
  • Children interrupt or grandma pitches in to help.
  • It is hard to grind continuously because it is such hard work.  In my experience, at first it goes really quickly because a metate plus woman is a very efficient machine.  Then it gets harder and harder as you tire. So do the breathers the grinder takes count as part of the time?  I would say so. For tortillas, you usually have to make five “passes” across the metate, that is starting with a handful of nixtamal (maize heated with alkali and drained) you move it from the top to the bottom of the metate with a series of back and forth strokes.  Then you gather it up with your fingers and move it back to the top, a small breather.  Then repeat four more times, with a few seconds’ rest leaning back on your heels between each repetition. Then a slightly longer breather as you put the dough (masa) in one container and take nixtamal out of another.
  • Some women are better grinders than others, producing a consistent dough quickly.  Why there should be differences I am not sure, but it is a widely repeated claim.
  • The dough for tamales and gorditas takes less time than the dough for tortillas (though tamales then take longer to make than tortillas).

Even given these problems, I’m pretty certain that grinding was the dominant task of the day, day after day, for whoever it was that did the grinding, taking not just an hour or so but hours and hours.

What about the other chores Heike mentions?  In the past washing would have been less of a chore because there were fewer clothes and yet fewer bed linens.  Keeping the house and patio clean (largely endless sweeping) was often handed off to girl children (who did not go to school), as well as the care of chickens, dogs, pigs, and younger children.

Child care, I think, often got very short shrift as women had to balance turning out the tortillas with spending time with the kids.   It’s purely anecdotal, but I remember being very taken aback in the mid 1990s to hear Eugenia Ricaud, then working for DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, the government family welfare agency run by politician’s wives) in San Miguel de Allende, say that the very best way to improve childrens’ lives was to put a mill in the village.  This allowed women to spend time with their  children (or take paid employment or develop handicrafts).

Of course, the ladies of DIF varied in their grip on life in the villages so I went back to Eugenia several years later to find out if I had really understood what she was saying.   Her answer was yes.

Leaving Mexico for a second and going to western Eurasia where simple grindstones were the main way of reducing grains to meal until Roman times (and in backwaters long after), grinding was work reserved for the lowest in society, usually slaves/prisoners so far as I can see.

The Roman army adopted rotary mills, I think largely because they ground more rapidly.  Even so it took a hefty legionary an hour and a half to grind enough meal to feed his group of eight for a day. And not only was the mill faster and less tiring because it was not driven by the weight of the grinder, the meal was almost certainly not as fine as the dough for tortillas. (Anyone who can get me a rotary mill so that I can do some comparative studies with the simple grindstone will win my unending gratitude).

But this is to get into Nick Trachet’s questions which will have to wait for tomorrow.

Heike also asks where I got my information on maize processing.  The answer is from observing, cross-questioning and working with women in different villages in Guanajuato: Margarita Muñoz Ramirez, who started grinding at the age of twelve in a village outside San Miguel de Allende, AltaGracia Sanchez Torrez and Maria Jesús de Cabrera Parra of Rodeo San José and Emily Bonilla of El Capulín, both outside Guanajuato.  I am also grateful for the input of the metateros (metates/grindstone-makers) in Comonfort, Guanajuato, particularly Manuel Olalde and Rafael Hernández Laguna and families.  Comparing notes with José Rodriguez of Mexico City who is finishing a Ph.D. thesis on Mexican metates and grinding for the University of Barcelona was also very helpful.  And of course my own experiments.

I also know the article by Arnold Bauer that she mentions originally published in Agricultural History 64 (1990), 1-17 and updated in Enrique Florescano and Virginia García Acosta, coord., Mestizajes tecnológicos y cambios culturales en México (Mexico: CIESAS, 2004), 169-99.  He suggests five to six hours, and cites various studies going back to one by Miguel María de Azcárate in 1837 that come to similar conclusions.  Jeff Pilcher has a good discussion of the mechanization of masa grinding and tortilla making in chapter five of ¡Que vivan los tamales! (University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

While we are at it, here is my response to the question “Why didn’t Mexicans abandon the metate?  And if you search under grinding you will find lots more.




Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...