The Grind

Nahaul mother teaching daughter to use the metate

It may seem a stretch to go from Mesoamerican cooking techniques to Ebenezeer Scrooge and gender disparity, but bear with me. Since I am touring the west coast of Mexico, reading a book called Payback, and pondering the meaning of Christmas stories, this is top of mind. This will be a different kind of vacation post.

Hand grinder from Noguelas museum, kajmeister photo.


We were touring a museum in Nogueras, a small pueblo magico, aka a Mexican historical site, near Manzanillo. There was a thousand-year-old kitchen display showing the many types of foods prepared. Of course, many of the foods that Europe (and the North Americans) built their cuisines around originated from Mesoamerica, which you learn if you take a cooking class in Arizona or summat. Corn, squash, chiles, tomatoes, and I forget which exactly is the six but also coffee and chocolate are all native here, and not in Europe. What the Eurasians call “corn” really means a grain with a seed in it. So the Bible refers to corn, but they meant wheat or barley or farina. Corn i.e. maize (you all know that one) originated here and was exported east with the Great Extraction.

Santiago showing us the coffee “cherries” become seeds.

Many of these are foods which are extracted as seeds–think of coffee and cocoa beans. Even corn is the seed . And chiles, corn, or tomatoes are often roasted first to make them both more delicioso and more digestible. If you recall us in Hawaii at a chocolate farm a few years ago, the large pods ripen, and then there are three extraction processes before you can even roast the beans and then grind them. Coffee appears to be easier, as the ripened “cherries” are picked. Our guide, Santiago, said that women pick them because they have more delicate hands (ok… hold that thought, that I know you have…wait for it)… The red skins are rubbed off to reveal white seeds which are roasted to become coffee beans, then ground. Easy peasy.

Food preparation here seemed to permanently involve cooking and/or grinding and pounding. The women, and let’s take it for granted that it was mostly women because that’s who is pictured, would be grinding some of these foods for long periods of time on the metate, the Mexican hand grindstone. One might surmise that the family metate had the status that a knife did to the northern Europeans as a family heirloom. (The picture at the top shows a woman overseeing her daughter grinding on the metate.)

One of three plates at Don Colmans in Noguelas. Somehow KK & I managed all of it.

We had a phenomenal lunch in downtown Colima and another one in Puerto Vallarta, and naturally all the tostadas, flautas, tacos, and enchiladas were built around tortillas. So how much corn had to be dried and ground, ground, and ground to make all those tortillas?

Samson shaved head of course at the grindstone, Wikipedia

The Miller’s Tale

Where did the mills come into play? They were certainly ancient, since there are even stories from the Bible, Samson being set to the grindstone. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that grinding the whatever on a large scale — most likely the “corn” or flour-fuel from the region — could be done with human power. I haven’t researched this, mea culpa, so let’s conjecture that this was the large bureaucratic civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Ur … the days of the ziggurat and later. Autocratic, yes, but they had a lot of mouths to feed to have them building ziggurats, pyramids, and combatting all the neighbors trying to take over their ziggurats. If you wanted corn on a large scale, you couldn’t just have women hacking away at their European metates all day long. You needed Samson, mules, and hundreds at the grindstones.

Women are associated with the hand grinding. Men are associated with the grindstones, and the millstones. These were not inventions designed as labor-savings devices for women, however, can we agree on that? These were large scale factory operations mean to generate mass quantities, either to feed armies, bureaucrats, priests, or others who worked for the autocrat.

There is also that second meaning of grindstone that you find that is a variation of whetstone. That’s for grinding knives, swords, and other stabby things. That’s another type of male use for these large scale mechanized operations.

In the brilliant series of essays by Margaret Atwood, compiled in the book Payback, she talks about how millers and grinding activities from the European ages had their own set of stories and culture created around them. One part of the stories involved grinding getting out of control. If you bought a magic mill, it might start grinding but never stop, and go through your house grinding everything you own. It’s all find and good when it’s the magic lumps of gold, but not so much for your children. You all remember what the giant says at the castle above the beanstalk, right? Fee Fi Foe Fum etc etc. I’ll grind his bones to make my bread. I looked that up on the internet and it told me that when staving Parisians did that in the 18th century, they died. Perhaps the bones not having enough nutrition other than lots of calcium.

Illustration of a miller for Canterbury Tales, wikipedia

Atwood also reminds us that Chaucer had a miller among the group. The Miller’s Tale is a bawdy thing involving drink and flatulence–lots of scatalogical things in Chaucer, and if you don’t know the word, it’s the academic term for movies about bachelor parties (and bachelorette parties). It’s actually the reeve, the caretaker, who tells a tale about a cheating miller. Apparently, miller’s in the Middle Ages developed a very nefarious reputation. Because they were the ones providing a service that led to a core need for much of the population to eat, namely either grinding the grain for flour or also making bread loaves, they were putting food into mouths. They were often, then, the wealthiest people into town. Like the Jeff Bezos let’s say–holding a monopoly on what you needed to live.

The wealthy miller, and therefore the wealthy cheating miller, became a stock character. Note that this was never a female miller. That was the miller’s wife and miller’s daughter. The miller’s daughter stories were then about a girl who was either haughty and rich or the one whome townspeople would take out their anger at dad, the one who puts his thumb on the scales. In Chaucer’s tale, there’s what is known as the “bed trick,” which is a euphemism for raping the wife and the daughter by the two students who were cheated, or simply jumping in bed with them. Revenge on the father…. ?!?!?

A Grasping, Squeezing Covetous Old Grinder

It’s not a big step, as Atwood says, to go from the miller to the moneylender. As soon as the church starts to loosen the terms on lending for Christians (after borrowing from the Jews then expelling them in many cases), the rich banker replaces the miller in the stories. Suddenly, you can think about Shylock–aside from being Jewish which I grant you is it’s own thing–but he’s also a cheating wealthy men. They get revenge on him not only through a lawyer’s trick but also because his beloved daughter runs off and elopes.

Often, descriptions of these money lenders referring to them as squeezing their victims, those in need, dry as a sponge. Or “grinding them down” which is what Ebenezeer Scrooge does to those in his list. It’s the night before Christmas, and what is Bob Cratchit doing? Sending out overdue notices.

Scrooge has the change of heart and learns to open his pockets and give rather than run his victims through his variation of a grindstone. I still reflect on the fact that the character of the cheating banker, the cheating miller, the one putting your nose to the grindstone, Frodi who was grinding out soldiers–these are all male occupations. There are witches and villainnesses in stories, for sure, but they are not the ones that grind.

There is also a saying that the mills of the gods grind slow, but exceedingly small. In theory, that means that ultimately the gods get their vengeance or their due from transgressors, and that this will take a long time. It didn’t take a long time for Scrooge, and perhaps we’d be more satisfied if it did.

The more I think about it, the less I can visualize that mother with the metate turning into any kind of miller. Maybe we’d also have been better off if the women had created the large-scale milling operations. Because as far as making by hand goes, it’s still assumed that women would do the labor in many places. We had a table mate who told the story of going to her brother-in-laws house when he decided they should have potato pancakes. Somehow, I was confused that Lucy and the other sister ended up peeling, grating, and cooking 10 pounds of potatoes. And brother in law invited 6 more people. Then argued with Lucy over whether nana’s recipe called for onions or not, even though he didn’t appear to be the one doing the cooking.

But we did go to another spot in Puerto Vallarta where they gave us the ingredients, including the stone hand bowls, where you could pound and grind your own garlic, roasted tomatilloes, peppers, salt, and peppercorns for salsa. And the recipe belonged to the guide’s grandmother who always swore by grinding everything by hand.

Of course she did.

(PS typing this in a lounge chair at Mazatlan…have to go get a fruity drink now. Sorry for the choppy typos, but wordpress is not friendly to vacation internet. Hope you enjoyed!)

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