The Old Ways

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors.
The words that have been used to describe my soul include “kind,” “warm,” “simple,”… and “old as f***.”

“Fluffy” as well, but this blog is about why old things are really cool.

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Kind, Warm, Simple, Fluffy, and Old. I want some honey now.

Earlier in the week, my boss brought in a mortar and pestle made of smooth green granite. We grind all of our spices as needed at the cafe , and nutmeg tends to be problem. Our usual procedure for it is as follows-

1. Wrap whole nutmeg in a side towel.
2. Lay towel on one of the wooden tables.
3. Grab a rolling pin, and smash the nutmeg like the fist of an angry god.
4. Once all sizeable chunks are pulverized, methodically grind the remains in an electric spice grinder and sift.

As splendid a method as this is for relieving stress and anger, the fact that the smashy bit sounds a lot like gunshots and makes conversation in the cafe difficult is something of a problem. If the chunks are not properly pounded, however, the grinder can’t handle the pieces and could break. I recommended the use of a mortar and pestle- a little slower to be sure, but quieter and less likely to have to be replaced if some one didn’t smash properly.

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The other day, I was using it to grind some ginger for cookies, and I noticed our prep guy Javier watching me with rapt attention and a huge smile. Javier is from the Yucatán, and his mother is full-blooded Mayan. He once told me that, despite being born Mexican, Spanish was his mother’s second language- her first was Mayan.

“Whatcha need, Jav?” I asked, grinding the ginger finer and finer, trying to ignore the dust that was burning up my nostrils.

“Mateo, when did we get that?!” He asked. “I saw it on the shelf, and got so excited!”

“Excited? Why?”


PicturePhoto from mexicolore.co.uk

Javier then explained that when he was little, his mother had a big grinder in their kitchen with a huge rolling pestle she used to grind masa for tortillas, as well as dried peppers and tomatoes for sauces and moles. She would use it every day, the way her people had for thousands of years. Seeing me use one like it made him smile, and a little homesick.

For me, the mortar and pestle had a somewhat less direct  personal connection. I have often said that baking was alchemy, and somehow it feels inspiring to prep the spices like an old apothecary grinding medicines. The weight of the cool granite pestle, the sympathetic sound of stone on stone, and direct control of the process makes me feel closer to the work somehow. It forces me to be attentive and contemplative of what would normally be a bothersome and mundane task.


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I love using old things. I prefer rolling out pie crusts by hand than rolling them in a sheeter, and kneading doughs with a handheld pastry blender than using a mixer. The number and variety of wooden spoons I keep in my kitchen is almost oppressive, and I still prefer using wooden utensils at work over the weird sharp edges of stainless steel. I’m not stupid enough to eschew all modern creations. If reading Consider The Fork taught me one thing, it’s that the old ways were certainly not always the best ways.
All the same, these things somehow feel warmer and more intimate. They offer me deeper understanding of why I do what I do, and what part of me goes into my creations.​

When my grandmother passed away and her estate was still being dealt with, my father asked me if I wanted anything in particular from her house. Bubba had asked me similar questions repeatedly before she died. I didn’t really want property, or money, or tchotchkes. Over and over, I said “I will take what you leave me, but I don’t want anything.”
I didn’t want anything- especially not to admit that she would die. That day, for my father, I finally changed my answer.
Of everything my Bubba had, and had offered, I just wanted one thing- the kitchen witch that stood by her stove and acted as a spoon holder.

     Let’s be real- the thing is ugly. One of her pockets is broken, the other is cracked and repaired. Anyone who didn’t know what she was would call her tacky as sin, and ask where my meatloaf and pearls were. 
   In older European traditions, a kitchen witch was a doll or decoration that would inspire success in cooking, and ward off ill will or bad spirits. Bubba said that they would help a cook to put magic in their food. All I wanted was a connection to my Bubba, and my happiest memories with her- in her kitchen, and around her dining room table.
My dad went and got it- with the bonus of one of her cookbooks, and boxes of her recipes.

Bubba’s witch stands by my stove to this day, and still sees use. I insist on ONLY wooden spoons and utensils ever being put in her pockets- a witch needs a wand, right?

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The Witch…

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… and the spellbook.

I love using old tools and reading old books. They remind me of where I came from. They remind me of the traditions and techniques that I get to carry forward, and the people that love and inspire me. New toys may sometimes outdo old tools- but they can never outshine them. 

Certainly not that green granite mortar and pestle that took Javier home to his mom- and definitely not the tacky old kitchen witch that reminds me of my Bubba’s love.

What about you all? Any of you have/use outdated tools that you just can’t give up?

Stay Classy,