Saturday, May 14, 2011

Clay, Wood & Stone

I grew up in a land where natural materials, such as clay and stone, were not only used in the kitchen, but were also constantly being dug up at archaeological sites. From the most ancient and primitive to the most recent of precolumbian finds, the principal artifacts found were shards of clay pots, grinding stones and obsidian knives. I remember walking through freshly plowed fields near my house and plucking bagfuls of obsidian arrowheads and spearptips, fragments of painted pottery and figurines from the furrowed earth. One day I found a spectacular pot, with only a small chip missing, elegantly decorated with glyphs--probably a ceremonial urn of some sort. I still have that pot, although the hundreds of other artifact fragments have long since slipped away.

Today, I have a particular fondness for cookware made of these natural materials, from Thai stone mortars with palmwood pestles, to Mexican and Italian clay pots, to Moroccan tagines, to French and Chinese porcelain bakeware. The reasons are varied--an affinity for ancient cultures, certainly, and an appreciation for the simple aesthetics of handmade items, as well as the sheer pleasure of using them. Also, there are the unusual results obtained from preparing food using these tools.

I feel connected to the fundamentals of cooking when, for example, I pound salt and garlic together in a stone mortar to form a paste, perhaps adding some herbs, lemongrass, or fresh chilies. Of course, I can blast these same ingredients to a pulp with a food processor in a fraction of the time, but without the same pleasure, and--here's the bottom line, for a cook--nowhere even vaguely near the same result. Whereas a machine can quickly reduce ingredients to a puree, that puree will never have the silkiness, the unique flavor and earthy texture of a hand-pounded one. In Mexico, where sauces have been mashed and ground for centuries in volcanic stone mortars called molcajetes, there is a popular notion that an important and irreplaceable ingredient is la tierrita ("the little dirt") that wears off the mortar and pestle and winds up in the food. It's flavor, culture, and what the French call terroir--the taste of place.

Beans and lentils cooked in a clay pot taste different from the exact same ingredients cooked in a metal pot. In fact, I can't think of any dish that does not benefit from being cooked in earthenware pots, whether on the stovetop or in the oven. They have a "je ne sais quoi" that makes the food somehow more tasty. Maybe it's energetic, like prana or something, or maybe it's just my imagination, but I'm not by any means the only one to notice this.

We forget all too often that we're actually alive, breathing, sustained in the moment, and for just a few years, by the power of life--a vibrant, magical phenomenon. Dazzled by the technology and conveniences that surround us, it's so easy to become separated from our roots and lose sight of the genuine miracle we're living in. There are many ways to slow down and reconnect to the moment; some people practice yoga or tai chi, or create works of art. Others take walks in nature, listen to music, or do some form of meditation.

I do as many things as I can to feel present now, and cooking is one of them. Using tools that have been with me for many years, like my clay pots, stone mortar, bamboo spoons, and even wood and metal utensils with which I have a history, I feel I'm in the company of dear old friends. Food prepared with these tools, imbued with my love and intention, surrounded by the intangible aura of everyone who cooked before me, is food that is full of life and unique in all the world. So it is with anyone who cooks, if they put their heart into it.

Here is that pot. I figure it's at least five, maybe six hundred years old.


  1. Thank you Alan, it makes me want to go and buy an earthenware pot,
    so will do so in the future.

    I appreciate the reminder of mortar and pestle for the herbs, and just want to thank you again for taking the time to inspire us.


  2. Adds a whole new dimension to preparing food and use of utensils. Once again thanks Alan for opening up new portals surrounding food. Susan Alaimo Hollywood, FL

  3. When my mother fled westward from Poland to Germany with six children at the end of the second world war, the only food- and culture-related ware she could take with her was silver cutlery, engraved with dates and names going as far back as 1670. So I have very little appreciation for the earthenware you speak of.
    Thank you for a little window into a childhood world of an earth-related richness that, because of your description, I can taste and smell. It's kind of healing, actually.

  4. Thanks for a refreshingly simple look at food preparation. I knew there was a reason I chopped that parsley last night instead of using the food processor. I love my Henkel knives and my cutting boards and use them every time I cook! Those are my favorite tools!

  5. Thanks Alan, I love to cook in clay pots... they add a kind of "rancho" taste :)

  6. Thank you, everyone, for your comments!