Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The art and history of the gourd

When I leave my house, the last thing I tuck into my backpack is my water bottle. It is blue and shiny and accompanies me everywhere. Mine is double-walled and keeps cold beverages cold and hot drinks hot for hours on end. I think it is a marvel. But really it is just the latest in a long line of portable drinking vessels that stretch back to the humble gourd.

We take containers for granted. The plastic throwaway water bottles that you see everywhere are proof. But without a way to carry water, we’d be tied to our water source and unable to move around freely.

Humanity’s earliest containers were not man-made. They were provided by nature. They grew on trees as gourds or on vines as bottle-gourds. The bottle-gourd as a container became an essential piece of “luggage” on early migrations. With them hunters and gatherers could extend how far they traveled in search of food.

Jared Diamond, in the epic Guns, Germs and Steel, tells us bottle-gourds were one of the “earliest cultivated plants and grown primarily for their value as containers.”  Their hour-glass shape makes it easy to tie a strap around them and a small aperture at the top can be sealed with a corn cob or cork, providing for hands-free carrying.  Not only is a gourd reusable but it keeps water fresh and cool far better than a plastic bottle.

Hollow gourds that grow on vines are native to Asia and Africa and have been used on five of the continents as water bottles for millennia.  Only aboriginal Australians didn’t have gourds.

The oldest carbon-dated water bottle was found in Peru and is over 13,000 years old. Scientists and anthropologists have long debated how gourds found their way to this hemisphere.  Since gourds float and seeds sealed inside can survive for 200 days, it was long suspected that they floated across oceans. After years of science and DNA testing we now know that the first gourds of the Americas were carried here from Asia by the first undocumented immigrants.

Genetic research on archeological samples, published in 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences, suggests the bottle gourd may have been domesticated earlier than food crops and livestock and, like dogs, brought into the Americas at the end of the ice age.

As hunter-gatherers evolved into farmers, gourd containers were used for storage of grains and gathered food, as well as dishes. They were even used as pots and pans. 

And they make great art. Go to a folk art museum and you’ll see that some of Mexico’s most beautiful artisan work is created on gourds.

I watch for an unusual looking tree, the Crescentia Alata, on my drives to Taxco, Guerrero. It’s known in Mexico as a “jicaro” tree and in English as the gourd tree. It’s easy to spot the jicaro tree because it has disproportionately tiny leaves growing directly along the entire length of its many branches. Only the female trees bear fruit and without a nearby male tree they cannot produce.
Though the cannonball-shaped fruit is too bitter for human consumption, its outer shell makes an excellent container.  When cut in half the jicaro fruit becomes two bowls.

So how do you cook in a thin gourd without catching it on fire?  Recently I ate at an elegant Mexico City restaurant where we were served pre-Hispanic dishes.  My curiosity piqued, I ordered “stone soup.”  A gourd bowl filled with a number of raw ingredients was placed before me, broth was added and then two fire-hot smooth river-stones were added to the mix.  Within seconds the soup was boiling and remained boiling for minutes.  When the boiling stopped the stones were removed and I was treated to a unique, delicious, and memorable dish.

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