The Original Chile Grinder

October 18, 2011

Ceramic molcajete made by Metepec potters.  

Muriel Kirkpatrick, director of the anthropology laboratory and museum at Temple University, sent this picture of a classic molcajete – a chile grinder – that was collected by anthropologist David Strug in the late 60s.

Most molcajetes, including the pestle, known as a tejolote, are made of volcanic stone such as basalt, but in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, molcajetes were usually ceramic, like this one made by the famous potters of Metepec, Mexico. Metepec is located somewhat west of Mexico City.

The interior of the ceramic bowl is scored to enhance the mashing and mixing of the peppers, spices and other foods, like avocados or tomatoes. Restaurants often prepare and serve fresh guacamole or salsa in molcajetes. Some molcajetes can be used in cooking, and because they stay hot for a long time, they can be used also as serving dishes.

Chile peppers were domesticated in Mesoamerica as early as 7000 B.C., a couple thousand years before corn! Other domesticated plants from that era include avocados and a squash known as Cucurbita mixta, a variety of pumpkin. A number of wild plants was also consumed including uncultivated cactuses, grass seeds, mesquite beans, and amaranth. For a more fuller understanding of the history of Mesoamerica, Professor Richard Adams’ scholarly reference can be read on-line.

Temple’s anthropology laboratory and museum is located at Gladfelter Hall in the Department of Anthropology, at 1115 W. Berks Street in North Philly. Visitors to the center can view its exhibits located in the lobby or schedule an appointment for a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum and laboratory.

Photo courtesy of Muriel Kirkpatrick, Temple University

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project


2 Responses to “The Original Chile Grinder”

  1. demit Says:

    Nice! But if you could include pronunciations of exotic or unfamiliar words like molcajete next time, that would be really helpful. It sounds like it would be fun to say. Plus I could go into a restaurant and sniff, “I hope this salsa was made in a MOLCAJETE.”

    • These days, the easiest way to learn how to pronounce words is to access
      Google’s language tools, which is what I did to find out how to pronounce
      molcajete. My phonetic translation sounds like this: mole-ka-yet-tee.
      By the way, the Google language features comes in handy too if you need a
      quick, albeit rough, translation of a foreign phrase, no matter what the language.

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