Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Pots and Pans Historian

Time was, around a century ago, when historians who studied objects rather than documents were derided as "pots and pans historians" (Material Culture in America, eds. Helen Sheumaker and Shirley Teresa Wajda, p. 419).  Fashions change.

The backdrop to this week's post on historical context, the article, "Object Biographies" by Karin Dannehl, takes pots and pans as the homely subject of an object lesson in methods of material culture. Dannehl's piece pairs biography (story) with life cycle (production, use and disposal) to illuminate the nature of the thing.

Biography is unique, life cycle is common, each matters. The artifact and its paper trail exist in a mutual dance.

Back to Catalina's pan. Absent the chance to see it, I guessed it might be a tortilla griddle, one type of cookware basic to the Hispanic kitchen. Wrong.

Turns out Cat's pan is a cardero, used to make sancocho, a savory stew of multiple meats and root vegetables sometimes considered the national dish of the Dominican Republic. Variations of sancocho are eaten elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Latin America.

I've not yet been able to get a hands-on interview with the pan. It's sad to not have a visceral, elemental feel for the physical object before attempting to relate its context, though this vivid video on making sancocho does something to remedy the lack.

The cardero pictures I've seen online suggest a largish metal basin with handles, the color of stainless steel or aluminum, rather than the black of cast iron. Catalina describes hers as "a heavy aluminum pan that's round and not very deep, with handles on four sides."

As for the cardero's historic context, not a lot to be found there, either, at least from academic sources.  It occurs to me that "cardero" may be the Dominican name for the Dutch oven-type cooking vessel known as a "caldero" in parts of Latin America.  And that it may--or may not--be a descendant of the pottery fashioned by the Taino Indians who once occupied the island nation.

So, for the life cycle of the cardero, I'll borrow from Dannehl's account of 18th-century metal holloware cookpots in England, and simply observe that the cardero has, to this point, been produced from raw materials of indeterminate nature, distributed to a user, and not yet consumed, that is, scrapped or recycled.

The biography of the pan, its singularity, comes from Catalina's backstory, "My Family Cardero."  It originally belonged to her grandmother, who prepared sancocho in it, and was passed down to her at an unspecified date by her mother, after she had asked for it. Her efforts to keep the pan shiny became a running joke in her family.

The history of sancocho is somewhat more accessible. This account of the origins of the dish comes from "Feasting on Sancocho Before Night Falls," by the Dominican-born, Brooklyn-raised writer, Nelly Furtado: 
Culinary author Emma Duprey de Sterling points to the ancestral custom of always keeping a pot of soup, as gift and welcome to any visitor, and as a way of recycling table scraps to have at one's disposal when hunger strikes. A bleaker, commonly held belief about sancocho's origins points to the days of slavery, during which there was surely little difference between the table scraps thrown to the troughs and what was tossed aside to the slave quarters.
Maybe the museum exhibit should be recast as Catalina's Sancocho.

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