The Cannibal hot tub

August 1997

On getting clean and well done...

In Oaxaca, Mexico the biggest pots come from the potters who work in Ixtaltepec down in the hot, windy, flat lands of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where all the palm trees lean to the east. These pots are used as water cisterns, for fermenting huge batches of plums and mangos and for making ox stew during weddings and Day of the Dead. They stand three and a half feet tall and are two feet wide at the mouth. The surface is like sand paper and the walls are an inch thick. I also noted, the first time I saw these enormous cisterns, that a man might fit nicely in one of them too.

Unlike every other village in southern Mexico, the potters here are all men. They are big men with bulging round and solid bellies earned through heavy taco eating and, perhaps, a bit of beer. Their backs and arms are rippled with sharp muscles. The clay is dug from the mines in clods that are spread in the sun to dry until they are hard as rock. Then the potters pound it all into powder with large wooden caveman clubs. They wedge it on the ground in 50 pound lumps kneeing and using their forearms to kneed it and the full weight of their bodies, bellies being a key element, to work the clay back and forth.

The pots are formed on rough hewn, tall, wooden wheels. The potters work standing up and, with the exception of the small pots for the pinata maker which are thrown of a lump, all the pots are coil built. The wheel is slowly turned while fat coil after fat coil is added. When the mass is too much for the wet clay the support, the pot is set aside to harden for awhile.

The pots are fired in enormous, top loaded, woodfired sunken kilns. The top is at ground level and is loaded until the pots are flush with the rim. Then the opening is covered with large shards. The fire box is accessed through a short passageway down a few earthen steps. Firing is usually started around dawn and will continue for 12 to15 hours. At its peak, thick tree trunks are heaved into the furnace. This is unbelievably hot work. I tend to sweat profusely in this heavy climate with just the exertion of standing under a shade tree and drinking coco water. How these men stand this heat is unfathomable to me. How these men do many things is unfathomable to me.

Not too long ago I brought one of these huge pots home. Here in Oaxaca where there are no rivers that one would wisely bathe in, no lakes at all, the ocean six hard driving hours away and with our shower tired and slow we thought a bath would be nice. This evening I dug a little hole in the ground, made short base stands with some old bricks and, with some help, set the pot on the bricks, centered over the hole. Then I filled it with water, gathered a pile of wood and made a fire underneath. Old Mario came wandering by on the road and asked what I was up to. I told him I was going to cook my wife.

Three hours later the water was deemed hot enough, the night dark enough, the air cool enough. My wife climbed in to cook. It was two hot and a bucket of hot water was traded out for a bucket of cold. Then it was just right. When she was well done I climbed in.

The pot is deep and narrow. To cook but not burn one must avoid the bottom where the flames superheat the pot. I achieved this by sitting in a deep squat, neck deep in the stew, with my feet towards the front and my back nestled against the curve of the pot. Wedged just so, with the water supporting my weight I found it quite comfortable. I only had to be careful no to let the bottom most part of me sag too low that it touch the scorching base. And as I sat there thus suspended, with just my head showing, soaking up the mellowing heat under a starry sky, flames licking up the side of my clay tub and feeling the heat welling up from very near below, I empathized with those fabled, ill fortuned, old time explorers who found themselves in a similar situation, but who had no intention of bathing.

Perhaps just a tad more salt...



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