This is a mortar and pestle. Most people, when they come to my house and see it sitting on my counter, have no idea what it is. I don’t have many kitchen tools I repeatedly use: cast iron pans, a couple Le Creusets, a spatula or two. I have others I seldom use: a sausage grinder, a tagine, a mixer. I use my mortar and pestle for each meal I make. During a recent visit, my sister asked for some crushed black pepper. When I showed her the mortar and pestle and small jar of peppercorns, she looked at me as if I had handed her a towel and a roll of toilet paper. She had no idea what I was offering or what it had to do with her request for pepper. Sometimes friends or guests crowd around the mortar and pestle and marvel over it as if it is magical or from another planet. “What is it?” “What does it do?” “Fanceeeee.” I bought this mortar and pestle sometime after 2002 in a Detroit shop that sold Asian and Indian food. I cannot remember the store’s name or where it was. Although I had never owned a mortar and pestle, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it, I bought it. Since I bought this mortar and pestle, I have used it daily when I cook. We used to have two mortar and pestles in our house, but my wife gave the other one away to a friend.
For centuries, humans have crushed food in this device: spices, garlic, beans, humous, salsa. The mortar and pestle allows one to crush what was once solid. It is a violent device. It changes a food item from one thing to another. It makes solids liquids. It releases aroma from herbs. It is transformative in ways most of us could never be. A mortar and pestle does not encourage change; it creates it.
A mortar and pestle is the type of kitchen tool Anthony Bourdain would admire as “original” and evidence of a time “when people crafted food.” Bourdain admired all things “authentic”: cooking on open fires, eating all the parts of an animal, using a mortar and pestle. If there exists an “authentic” kitchen tool, one would think it is the mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle, for the food obsessed, is a relic of the Stone Age, the tool of an imagined “primitive,” or the device embraced by the native cook unblemished by modernity and convenience. In one No Reservations episode, Bourdain admires a woman in Provence, France making aioli in a mortar and pestle. Bourdain refused to call the aioli mayonnaise. Aioli, like a mortar and pestle, is authentic. Mayonnaise, sold in jars in every grocery store across the planet and confused with Miracle Whip at times, is not. In his Les Halles Cookbook, Bourdain wrote
“You can make aioli the old-school way by using a mortar and pestle and a lot of patience, like my Tante Jeanne. She didn’t have a Cuisinart … but then she didn’t have an indoor toilet either. I suggest you use your food processor.”
Bourdain romanticized food and place. Tante Jeanne understood food; you, the reader, don’t. Use a food processor. It’s easier. “The real thing. The way people agree it should be made” is a Bourdain styled proclamation regarding authenticity he may have never said verbatim, but which I imagine him saying in every episode of the various shows he made about food around the world. What is more authentic than a granite or stone bowl you pulverize food in, like a caveman or someone who does not have electricity?
In upscale stores or stores pretending to be upscale like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn, you can usually find the dainty, tiny porcelain mortar and pestles that look as if they would crack upon their first usage. I pound in my mortar. I smash black peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin, and anything else I may cook with. “Why don’t you just buy a pepper mill?” my sister asked during her visit. Because I have a mortar and pestle. Pharmacists use mortar and pestles to crush drugs, or so they claim they do. Most drugs, one would think, arrive at a pharmacy already in pill form. The mortar and pestle serves as an imaginary signifier of old timey pharmacies where you could get medicine and an ice cream float at the same time from the same person. A mortar pestle serves the imagination. It’s as if food can be. . . made. Most food arrives in homes already prepared. Most spices in pantries across the country are already ground. A mortar and pestle, thus, feels mythological in a kitchen of packaged and prepared goods supported by the industrial age but also by an average consumer who just wants to eat something and quickly. One myth tells the story of the Baba Yaga witch who rides around in a mortar and pestle. Celtic mythology endorsed it for turning dragon’s blood into powder. One native American myth tells the story of a woman pounding corn in her wooden mortar and pestle, but the corn disappears before she can collect it. Coyote, it turns out, was hiding within, eating the corn.
Andy Ricker, who founded the famous Pok Pok restaurant, claims that the name for his restaurant came during a trip to Isaan, Thailand. Traveling with two local Thai he met on the train, Ricker asked them if they knew how to cook.
One guy piped up. “Yes, he said.” Pok pok pok” — the Thai onomatopoeia for the sound a pestle makes as it strikes the mortar.
Names are mythological. A tool which can cure via crushed medicine or crushed spices should be mythological as well. The mortar and pestle connects food to medicine. Food cures. Food comforts. Food is a type of medicine. Food is my type of medicine. I don’t want to take medications if I’m sick. A doctor asked me to inject B12 once a month to compensate for my total lack of B12, and I didn’t want to. I don’t even like to take Tylenol. But I like to eat. When I travel, all I want to do is eat. Travel can comfort but it can also elevate anxiety: do I have enough money, how do I get to my hotel, how the hell do you say “bathroom” in this language I don’t speak, why is the bus driver yelling at me? Food, on the other hand, comforts: falafel, tacos, local spreads, preparations I’ve never seen before, salted fish, breads. Food that is new to me comforts. It transforms me from one state (anxious tourist/traveler) to another (satisfied).
Is my mortar and pestle really authentic? Or am I merely following the difficult over the easy path? People sometimes think I am stubborn, difficult, not comforting. Even though I am not handy and can’t build anything out of wood, my kids compare me to Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson because he, too, is difficult. “I prefer to pound peppercorns rather than buy them pre-pounded.” This sounds like a kitchen declaration of the hard-headed. This sounds like what someone who can make pizza at home but who can’t fix the broken sink might say in order to appear to be authentic. This sounds like a pseudo-claim of toughness. “Daddy’s tough,” my son likes to say. “He was in the army.” But maybe my toughness is only in my ability to transform peppercorns or to smash garlic sprinkled with salt. People who see my mortar and pestle on the kitchen counter often doubt that I use it. “It’s for show,” I’ve heard them say. This, if true, would be the ultimate pseudo-claim of toughness and of authenticity, like people who align their bookshelves with the literary canon or academics who try and use the word “neoliberalism” in conversation. Then again, what isn’t for show, even if it is actively used? A word. A name. A belief. A dish. A granite bowl.
Craft drives a great deal of contemporary food culture by mixing the utilitarian with show. At its most basic level, craft is spread by shows: Food Network, Vice, cooking competitions, Good Morning America hosts giggling over some beer that wasn’t made by InBev. Bourdain symbolized this gesture with his travels to places most of us will never visit. He showed us food; he showed us the authentic or what we believe is authentic. He was a show. Craft, as television show, is a pseudo-claim to authenticity, a McLuhanist encouraged involvement where we fill in the details of the host’s experience with our own: I am there, too. I am eating food cooked on open fires and the way people originally ate. I am saying aioli instead of mayonnaise. I am the one pounding peppercorns in some device I will likely never buy but marvel over when I see it on a friend’s kitchen counter.
Am I generating a craft consciousness in my kitchen where my son only eats hot dogs and pasta and my daughter is a vegetarian unless there is lox or sushi? How can smashing food into bits and pieces be called craft? Craft suggests forming, creating, generating, fashioning. Craft was initially a response to the perceived negativity of industrial culture which had destroyed the handmade and artisanal via cheap, reproduced, factory goods. A mortar and pestle, symbol of craft and food, destroys. Craft, too, destroys as it can never be as authentic as it claims to be. To be “authentic” something must, as well, be imaginary, like a rejection of so-called food appropriation or claims or food origin. The imaginary destroys history or context. The imaginary destroys consumer preference. The imaginary pretends to be special when it is usually just for show. The imaginary builds a show for us to watch. Craft is always imaginary. I take pictures of the food I eat when I travel because I am trying to capture the imaginary: “I ate this. It was special. It tasted amazing. It is not available where you live.” The imaginary destroys referentiality.
My moment of craft is my moment of destruction. With craft, I can “destroy” the imagined evil of fast food, processed food, candy, industrialization, reproduction, or any other item aligned with a force that craft promises to overcome and vanquish. Craft, as beer tells us, can be the revolution that destroys the domination of fizzy, yellow lagers. Craft returns us to the origin moment. How things used to be. How they should be. Craft destroys all of our consumption illusions, and with my mortar and pestle, I can join that conversation. Or, as craft also performs, I can put on a show. Or, as is typically the case, I can smash some peppercorns for a dish I am making.