Traditional Home
& Work Items

Large gourds for holding water
Large gourds for holding water. Image by Ruth McMurtry in Mérida, Yúcatan

To help you get a handle on some of the "exotic" items you might see in a mercado's "home and work" area, here are some Mexican-Spanish words you should know:

metate with mano

Molcajete (the bowl) and tejalote (the thing in the hand)In any mercado or mercado-area hardware store in isolated areas, especially where indigenous populations are dominant, it's fascinating to see what the locals are buying for their own domestic use.

I once stayed several months with a Nahuatl speaking family in the foothills of eastern San Luis Potosí State. The typical kitchen in that area centered around a spacious fireplace mounted on sections of tree trunks. In other words, it was like an outdoor campfire built in a sandbox, with the sandbox elevated to waist level on four upright logs.

On this stand, around the almost perpetual fire (usually embers, not flaming) were stored clay pots and pans, trays, and other utensils. Wooden spoons were used; men had carved these spoons from wood harvested during the new moon, for wood cut at any other time would surely split apart. Nearly always a pot of beans or coffee simmered a couple of inches above the fire's embers.

Before meals, in preparation for baking tortillas, the señora would position her comal atop three stones. Mounted at the edge of the elevated fireplace was a hand-cranked grinder used to grind softened corn kernels, or nixtamal, into moist corn paste, or masa. When operations were running smoothly, a boy would stand turning the grinder's handle, producing masa at the very rate the señora needed it, as she continually formed the masa into tortillas, baked them, and conveyed her piping-hot creations onto the dishes of her guests. There is no gourmet item more perfect than a hot tortilla that was nothing but soft corn kernels in a bucket not five minutes earlier.