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Border Pottery - Function and Beauty
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Cynthia Barfitt
Freezer to microwave, oven to freezer, a more efficient way to cook, serve and store food arises from an age-old art.
Our forbearers began with simple, soft clay pots to gather their food. These original pots were merely clay-lined baskets. Experts believe that one of these baskets was accidentally burned, creating a harder, more durable vessel. The principles learned in this "accident" are used today to produce beautiful, long lasting, containers.
In pre-Spanish Mexico, the women were usually the potters of the home, creating vessels to aid them in their daily lives. These Indian women passed their art of handmade pots to their daughters, perpetuating the style. Pottery made in this traditional style can still be found in Juárez.
Simple functional pots developed the table with them. Pots which once had round bottoms to be held in the hand or set on the ground, now had flat bottoms to be placed on the table.
Indian pottery in the Southwest likewise changed when the railroad moved west in the 1800s, and potters began to purchase the Indian pottery for display, changing the function of the pottery from practical to purely artistic. Pottery was now a commodity.
The simple unglazed pots of the Southwest are still in use. The most common pots are called ollas (oh-yas), clay cooking pots. Some Mexican people still use ollas now, as they did in the past, to prepare most of their food. These pots, such as the cazuela (stewpot), cazo (smaller version of the cazuela), pichancha (colander) or tinaja (water jug) can be purchased by tourists but are mainly used to hold plants. The cazuela and cazo (broad funnel-shaped pots), which were once used to cook stews or sweet dishes, are now used as salad bowls on the El Paso side of the border.
Today the creating and firing (baking) of pottery is no more complicated then it was in the past. However, the types of glazes (glass coatings) have evolved to provide a beautiful, water resistant and more evenly heatable piece of pottery. Because pottery and the glazes are hardened in high temperatures ranging from 2100 to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, the vessel is ideally suited to withstand the relatively lower temperatures of the conventional oven, the microwave and the dishwasher.
Pottery is no longer just a container for food; it can also depict the food of our culture in its design and ornamentation. The Southwest is famous for contemporary pottery. Red chile is found in the decoration of platters, plates, canisters and many other pieces. Salsa bowls and chip-and-dip platters were created to hold the popular foods made of chile they are named for. Corn images are also popular today, appearing on beans pots, bowls and pitchers, depicting the influence of corn in our past and present. These designs are uniquely Southwestern.
Certain recipes also dictate types of pottery shapes, such as stoneware trays for enchiladas or casseroles. Michael Obranovich, a potter from Dallas, has designed and produced a stoneware tray to accommodate his need for more efficient container for enchiladas. Instead of using a metal pan, which is limited to a conventional oven, he created a stoneware tray in which he prepares the enchiladas. He can freeze the enchiladas, tray and all, for later.
The enchiladas may be taken from the freezer and placed in the oven for baking or in the microwave for fast heating and served -- all in the same pottery container.
Handmade pottery can be found in various specialty shops in El Paso, at craft fairs, food festivals and from the potters themselves. The resurgence of handcrafted pottery cannot be attributed to the beauty of the pottery alone, but also lends itself to self-expression, both of the potter and the user of the piece.
El Paso, which is heavily flavored by the Mexican and Indian cultures, also strongly influenced by the rest of the world. A variety of styles of pottery can be found here, including European style bowls and pots. Our borderland accepts and welcomes the world, and in doing so, it reflects in our culture a beautiful blend of color, people and customs.