Bringing Back the Stone Age: A Brief History of the Metate and the Effects on Contemporary Artisanal Food Culture

 

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Metate: This image illustrates the complexity of metate carvings.

Indigenous Mesoamericans kneel down holding a long stone with a slight curve formed to conform to the large stone slab set beneath them, grinding what looks like dark brown mud into an ever more viscous puree (Presilla 26). The above illustration elicits a picturesque, idealized metate-ground production of chocolate liquor in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In the relatively brief period in which Europeans had managed to wrest control of Theobroma cacao and similar species from the indigenous Mesoamericans, the use and production of metates spread across the globe for the purpose of chocolate liquor production (Presilla, Coe & Coe). The manufacturing of chocolate from pod to drink or food has seen three separate ideological, social, and economical revolutions (Presilla, Coe & Coe). These revolutions have directly related to a particular processing point of the cacao bean: the grinding of the shelled cacao beans in to a viscous paste on a metate (Presilla 26). The metate stone-grinding process has come full circle from the ancient processing method to the now passé idealized food production and processing movement, symbolizing personal and environmental wellbeing (Ray 190-191, Chin et al).

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metate is being used here to illustrate the rough and gritty beginnings of chocolate liquor.

The metate, a heated stone slab on which roasted, crushed cacao beans were ground into the basic form of chocolate liquor is the foundation upon which most Mesoamerican foodstuffs were processed (Presilla 26). Grinding slabs (metates) and pestles (manos) have a complex history throughout the world in nearly every culture as the basic implements for food processing (Ray 190-191). The preliminary diacritical marker of most modern Mexican metates over that of ‘generic’ grinding slabs is that of its aesthetic composition: “three legs, two in front and one behind” (Aschmann 683). Not only are metates created for utility but also can be decorated; with the advent of modern oil based paints, the metate maker can decorate easily, otherwise he/she would be confronted with the arduous task of chiseling (Cook 1499). This represents a division of appeal in which undecorated metates have wider appeal amongst rural households and/or low income, often gender stratified, households in which the homestead grinding of foodstuffs is seen as more productive than working in a capitalist economy (Cook, “Price and Output”); (Cook, “Stone Tools” 1499). Those metates which are painted or elaborately decorated would be for higher income households/individuals who have income and time available for the artisanal and ritual production of traditional indigenous foods (Preston-Werner).

This latter group of individuals who attempt to embody the traditional indigenous production of food have done so in response to the capitalist industrial mass market economy focused on inexpensive production and uniformity of poor quality foodstuffs particularly those involving cacao (Coe & Coe 233). In “Comparison of antioxidant activity and flavanol content of cacao beans processed by modern and traditional Mesoamerican methods,” an article by Elizabeth Chin…et al, they discovered that the cacao beans of original origin and production in Mesoamerica, particularly washed (lavado) unfermented beans have near double the antioxidants of the Ivory Coast fermented cacao beans, which are popularly used by Hershey (5-6). Ancient Mesoamerican people would have imbibed these higher antioxidant rich cacao products because of local environmental factors which increased the appeal of washed and relatively unfermented cacao beans (Chin et al 6). For further illustration see graph.

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Metate carvers are polishing the edges.

“The craftsman, however, would not consider leaving the shady date groves of Comondú for an ugly, hot, dusty mining camp merely to double his income. Likewise there is no attempt to sell at the highest price the traffic will bear. The poor ranchero who comes to town on a burro to buy a metate once in 15 years will get it at the same price as the jobber who guarantees to take entire unsold surplus. The former even receives favored treatment, and will get the first metate made, even though the jobber is ready to haul it to Santa Rosalia that very day. The craftsman gets a satisfaction from putting his product directly in the hands of the consumer.” (686)

 

 

The metate signifies how ancient Mesoamerican tools of food processing continue to shape modern socio-economic and cultural perceptions of artisanal chocolate confectioners.

taza-85-super-dark-mexican-style-stone-ground-chocolate-organic-77g-disk-dated-27-06-15-34760-p
This chocolate claims on its packaging to be stone-ground indicating a niche market in which artisanal chocolatiers utilizing metates are able to capitalize.

Bibliography

Artisan Crafted Metate Sculpture of Pre-Hispanic Blue Iguana, ‘Turquoise Iguana’ 2016. Novica. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Aschmann, Homer. “A Metate Maker of Baja, California.” American Anthropologist 51.4 (1949): 682-86. Anthrosource. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Ceronne. 2010. Flickr. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Chin, Elizabeth, Kenneth B. Miller, Mark J. Payne, W. Jeffery Hurst, and David A. Stuart. “Comparison of Antioxidant Activity and Flavanol Content of Cacao Beans Processed by Modern and Traditional Mesoamerican Methods.” Heritage Science 1.1 (2013): 1-7. SpringerOpen. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Cook, Scott. “Price and Output Variability in a Peasant-Artisan Stoneworking Industry in Oaxaca, Mexico: An Analytical Essay in Economic Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 72.4 (1970): 776-801. AnthroSource. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Cook, Scott. “Stone Tools for Steel-Age Mexicans? Aspects of Production in a Zapotec Stoneworking Industry.” American Anthropologist 75.5 (1973): 1485-503. AnthroSource. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Flying Panel Metate. 1986. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Revised ed. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

Preston-Werner, Theresa. “4 Breaking Down Binaries: Gender, Art, and Tools in Ancient Costa Rica.” Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 18.1 (2008): 49-59. AnthroSource. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Ray, Cyrus N. “Was the American Mano and Metate an Invention Made during Pleistocene Time?” Science 91.2356 (1940): 190-91. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Taza 85% Super Dark Mexican Style Stone Ground Chocolate Organic – 77g Disk Dated 22/12/15. 2015. The Stateside Candy Co. Americansweets.co.uk. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Terrio, Susan J. “Bibliography Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate.” Food and Foodways 10.1-2 (2002): 79-95. RoutledgeTaylor&FrancisOnline. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

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