Posts Tagged ‘funeral urns’

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