Tag Archives: Grinding

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.




More on nixtamalization

A very nice post by David Arnold of the French Culinary Institute on nixtamalization.

I think he is not right about the kind of metates and molcajetes needed.  Pores are good. And he understandably does not know how to grind.  Doing it the right way you never get a wet masa dotted all over the grinding surface.  For pores and grinding, see here.  Or click on grinding in the cloud on the right for lots more.

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