Tag Archives: Grinding

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.

Who ground the chocolate? Not a trivial question

Of all the difficult things to turn into food (and most plants and animals are difficult to turn into food), cacao beans and their processing rank way up there.

Let’s leave to one side the fermenting and cleaning and just think about the grinding of cacao. Because of the oil content, grinding cacao beans is a whole lot harder than grinding grains. In Mesoamerica the grinding of cacao was done by sheer brute force on a simple grindstone.

Yet in the sixteenth century, chocolate as a drink spread quite widely from Mesoamerica to Spain and other parts of Europe on the Atlantic side and to the Philippines on the Pacific side.

(The rest of Asia never accepted chocolate, largely still doesn’t), an interesting question in itself).

Neither the Europeans nor the Filipinos  were still using a simple grindstone.  They’d given it up hundreds of years earlier for the more efficient (if less flexible)  rotary grindstone. Hopeless for cacao because they gum up.

So where did the simple grindstones (metates) and the grinders come from?  A non-trivial question because this is one of the few culinary technologies that go from the New World to the Old World.

First, I assume the grindstones/metates went from New Spain to the Old World by ship.  Making the kind of metate that is good for grinding chocolate (and shown in pictures) is a skilled job.  It’s not something that any old stone mason can just knock out.  And it needs a knowledge of which rock formations are good and these are not necessarily or even normally the same as those for rotary grindstones.

Second, the grinders.  These poor folk had not only to do the work of grinding but hump the 30-50 lb grindstone around with them.  When I bought my chocolate grindstone (a specific size and shape), the metatero and his son, neither of them weaklings, used a wheelbarrow to move it.

In Spain and southern France, according to Marcy Norton, it was usually Separdic Jews who did this, though painting also show “Moors.”

And Beatrice Misa sent me this about the Philippines.

I was talking to a friend who is also doing work with cacao and apparently, before the stone grinders were used here (the ones you turn around, for grinding rice and corn), there were metates (at least he described them to look exactly like that, but no local name was given). It was a surprise to me, because I have never seen pictures or read accounts.

There were Chinese who would walk around and provide the service to families who wanted their cacao ground. Obviously the metate was more portable. It was said that the Chinese (who were abundant in the Philippines at the time, working as cooks or street vendors, also marginalized considerably) were the best cacao grinders, and would get them very fine despite the manual nature of their work. Every family would have their own beans “timpla” or mixed the way they wanted, and then the individual tableas would be stamped with their family seal.

Both the Sephardic Jews and the Chinese must have learned how to do it from migrants from New Spain, if what normally holds in technology transfer also applies here.  It almost always happens when there is someone to show you.

I wonder if we will ever find manuscripts that shed light on who taught Sephardic Jews and the Chinese in the Philippines to grind?  And where they got their beans?  And how all this functioned as a business?  And why and how it kept going until it was mechanized two hundred and fifty years later?

Not easy, technology transfer.  And meantime, I would like chocolate stamped with my personal seal.

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