Posts Tagged ‘earthenware’

Tamales

August 5, 2018

The Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is arranged on three floors. The top floor displays contemporary work. The middle floor features artists from the past 200+ years of what is now the US. And the first floor contains Pre-Columbian and Native American art. Questions could be raised about this benignly implied chronological layout, as many of the Native American works were made well after much of the art on the floors above it.

…But the topic here is tamales. So never mind…

The first things you see upon entering the Wing’s first floor are three large Pre-Columbian ceramic jars. These imposing, highly ornate, earthenware containers are described as ossuaries or funeral urns. The honorary storage of human remains occurs throughout the history of ceramic usage and continues today in the form of urns for people’s ashes. I cannot doubt the curators’ classification of these objects.

However, several years ago I attended a talk by foodways historian Dr. Frederick Opie titled “Earthenware: A History of Table Traditions and Related Recipes.” During the presentation, Dr. Opie mentioned a feast somewhere in Pre-Columbian Central America at which the regal host gifted a very large quantity of tamales to a visiting dignitary.

The tamales had to be put in something, and ceramics were the go to containers of the day. My conception of those MFA funerary jars shifted radically when I imagined them being stuffed full not of human bones but of tasty tamales and presented, quite probably along with the chef who made the tamales and the potter who made the jars, to a visiting noble. This image catapulted the MFA jars beyond the austere, quasi-religious domain of funeral art and into the raucous realities of traditional competitive feasts.

A disclaimer here: Although I had eaten tamales before, I fell in love with them many years ago during a sojourn in Nicaragua. A bicyclist traversed the neighborhood every day hawking tamales from a basket on his handlebars. They were still hot, fresh from his mom’s kitchen just around the corner. To die for.

I am impressed by the iconic formality of the MFA containers. But we needn’t always consider ornate Pre-Columbian ceramics to be intended strictly for religious ceremonies. When I think of jars like these being crammed full of tamales and presented as gifts of high honor, I can only smile.

Readings:

Earthenware: A History of Table Traditions and Related Recipes. Dr. Frederick Douglas Opie. 2015 NCECA Conference Keynote Presentation. Providence, RI. March 25, 2015.

The History of Art, Second Edition. H.W. Janson. Prentis Hall/New York. 1977.

MFA Jars

Everybody’s Day in the Sun

September 27, 2015

Madaka ya nyamba ya zisahani
Sasa walaliye wana wa nyuni
(“Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings”)
    – a Swahili poet, 1815

Long before 15th century Europeans decided everything was theirs, an intricate trading system flourished across the Indian Ocean.  This trade culminated with seven voyages from China to Yemen and Somalia between 1405 and 1431 of a massive fleet led by Chinese Admiral Zheng He, better known as The Three Jewel Eunuch.

By “massive” I mean 62 ships, each weighing over 3,000 tons with 80,000 sq. ft. of deck space and 9 masts, along with 165 support ships of 5- 6- and 7- masts each.  The combined crews totaled over 30,000 sailors and personnel.  Vasco da Gama, in comparison, entered the Indian Ocean 60 years later with three 3-masted ships weighing about 300 tons each and about 130 sailors.  Zeng He didn’t invade or plunder a single state, though.  The Three Jewel Eunuch went forth to trade.

China had been purchasing East African ivory, iron, tea, and spices since at least 500AD.  Eventually, M’ing Emperors dictated that only Chinese products could be exchanged for foreign goods due to the trade’s depletion of China’s gold supply.  Porcelain quickly became an integral part of that policy.  How different this porcelain must have been from later export stuff, enameled right next to Canton’s docks with whatever decorative whims Europeans fancied at the moment.

What did Europe have to offer for the silks, spices, ivory, teas, and porcelain of the Indian Ocean trade?  In a word, nothing.  A bedraggled da Gama limped empty-handed into Mogadishu’s harbor shortly after China abruptly scrapped it’s ocean-going fleet. The Portuguese plundered East Africa’s exotic goods to trade for East Asia’s even more exotic goods.  Somalia and Yemen never recovered.

Europe then embarked on a centuries-long quest, filled with subterfuge, violence, and drama, for more porcelain.  Somalis and Yemenis also valued porcelain.  But throughout Yemen’s trade with China, Yemeni potters stuck to a ‘folk’ expression more common to rural earthenware across the globe.  M’ing vases might have influenced some Yemeni water jar forms, but even that connection seems tenuous.  Nobody tumbled over anyone’s toes to get more and more and more…

Why the different reactions?  Europe’s outlook was colored by a previous thousand years of vicious invasions, in-fighting, and plague.  During that same period, Somalia, Yemen and China built a network of mutually beneficial trade relations without obsessively amassing goods and ceaselessly pursuing profit.  Some might call this a fool’s paradise.  Others call it sophistication.

Readings:

The Lost Cities of Africa.  Basil Davidson.  Little Brown Book Co./New York.  1970.

Yemeni Pottery.  Sarah Posey.  British Museum Press/London.  1994.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

Viva Tonalá

September 21, 2014

Pottery history has it’s share of odd tales.  This is an odd tale. 

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain mentions a Central American “scented clay.”  Pots made from this clay were supposedly popular in 17th century Spain.  I lived a for a few years in Central America.  I regularly interacted with local potters, anthropologists, archeologists, cultural ministry personnel, and other field workers on several ceramics related projects during my time there.  None of us had ever heard of such a clay. 

But that’s not the odd part.  There really was a sort of scented clay – rather a clay that caused flavored effervescence and aroma in water kept in burnished pots made from it.  This pottery was called “Tonalá Bruñida.”  The bright red extremely low fired clay wasn’t from Central America however.  It was mined uniquely in Guadalajara, Mexico.  And  every Central American knows that Mexico is part of North America.  Water in Tonalá pots (until the mine tapped out in the 18th century) fizzed even more when stirred. 

But that’s not the odd part.  Aristocratic Spanish ladies were crazy for Tonalá water jars and mugs.  Drinking from these vessels caused a psychotropic, almost opium-like effect.  The visiting French Countess D’Aulnoy described how after drinking this water the Spanish ladies “went into a trance.  Their stomachs became distended and hard and their skin turned into a yellow color like that of a quince.” 

But that’s not the odd part.  French ladies hated Tonalá.  They thought water kept in these pots tasted like dirt.  They got no psychotropic thrill from drinking the water.  They were disgusted by the smell of it. 

That’s probably not so odd.  Anyway, the very low temperature at which Tonalá was fired made it extremely fragile.  Breakage was common.  That was a good thing, because the Spanish ladies got an extra buzz by eating the broken shards and dust.   This was positively too barbaric for the French ladies.  Even the adventurous Countess D’Aulnoy, who gave it a try, later confided “I would have preferred to eat sandstone…”

The odd part (to me anyway) is how this situation was seemingly looked upon as simply a ladies “vanitas” activity.  Bubbly, intoxicating drinks and chewy, cosmic pottery?  Where were the gentlemen?

Readings:

Cerámica y Cultura.  Gavin, Pierce and Pleguezuelo, eds.  University of New Mexico Press/Albuquerque.  2003.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.