Micaceous Pots

(Previously published on Gourmet.com)

Just as chiles might be regarded as the iconic food of New Mexico, micaceous pots are the region’s iconic cookware. These utilitarian vessels have been made and used by Taos, Picuiris, Nambe, Tesuque, Jemez Jicarilla Apache, and other native peoples since well before these groups first had contact with the Spanish in the 1500s. Micaceous cookware is also, in some respects, an ingredient, for these pots impart a special flavor to foods cooked in them—and is thought to improve the taste of water that has been stored within their sparkling walls.

A naturally occurring blend of mica and red clay, micaceous clay is found in pockets in the mountainous areas that rise above New Mexico’s Rio Grande valley floor. I was fan of those pots made by master Felipe Oretega for a long time, but it’s only in the past few years I’ve had my own pot. Now I can’t imagine cooking in anything else. I love the look and feel of the clay, which is softer than metal and lighter than cast Ray Ban outlet iron, and the subtle scent of minerals and earth that floats off it in the heat.  Foods cook evenly and beautifully in clay, and many people swear that beans are tastier than when cooked in metal. Felipe Ortega suggests that it’s the combination of the acidic mica with the more alkaline clay that makes food taste so much better. “Sweet” is the word he uses. Not sweet as in sugary, but sweet as in balanced, as opposed to harsh or bitter.

Beans are the most common food to find simmering within the walls of micaceous pots, but you can cook pretty much anything in them. I have roasted Navajo-Churro lamb and made chicken fricassees, vegetable soups and ragouts, beets, potatoes, braises, and any number of other dishes in my micaceous pots. I can’t really say with any kind of proof why these foods seem to taste better than if they were cooked in more conventional pots, but I know that I enjoy the process more – the light feel of the clay and the soft sounds utensils make when they come in contact with the rim of a pot. I also just like to have the pots out where I can see them, because their shapes and colors are so beautiful. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to buy micaceous pots as works of art at Santa Fe’s Indian Market. They put them on display and never use them at all.

Micaceous pots are shaped by hand through the coil method. Once the clay has dried, it’s rubbed with a piece of sandstone to lighten the overall weight and even out any heavy spots. Following that, a slip that has more mica in it than the body is poured over the pot; then the whole thing is polished with a stone to bring out the mica’s sparkle. Next the pot is buffed with a cloth. All in all it takes many hours to get to the http://www.raybanoutletes.com/ point when the pot is finally ready to be fired in a wood fire built on the ground or in a shallow pit. Where there is contact between the pot and the burning wood, soft plumes of gray and black, called fire clouds, appear and mark the vessel. When the air supply to the fire is reduced, the pot emerges black.

 Many pots look as symmetrical as if they had been thrown on a wheel, but often there are areas of gentle swelling, dips, and other irregularities that reveal the presence of the hands on the clay. One of my pots, made by New Mexico artist Priscilla Hoback, is marked with a hair from one of her horses, a delicate black line on the clay that feels somehow like a signature. (Sometimes this mark is made with human hair.) Occasionally a pot will have a designed etched on it, or a design formed by a ribbon of clay, but many functional micaceous pots aren’t adorned except with the golden flecks of mica and the fire blooms. They may have lids, or not. They might curve softly at the rim, like the exaggerated folds of a fluted piecrust, or the top may flare simply and Ray Ban outlet elegantly outwards. The only colors present are the colors of earth and fire. Glazes aren’t used traditionally.

As with all good things made by hand, micaceous pots are expensive – upwards of $100 a quart. But to cook in a micaceous pot is to participate in the ancient yet still living culture of the Southwest. These pots are works of art—the kind of art that you can handle, smell, cook in, wash, and use every day. And micaceous cooking pots repay you with a subtle ingredient: the sweetness of this clay, and all that it imparts to the foods you cook.

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