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Food + Cooking

The Magic of Mica

When is an ingredient not an ingredient? When it’s a micaceous clay pot—a traditional Southwestern cooking vessel that improves the character of any food.
micaceous clay pots

Just as chiles might be regarded as the iconic food of New Mexico, micaceous pots are the region’s iconic cookware. These utilitarian vessels have been made and used by Taos, Picuiris, Nambe, Tesuque, Jemez Jicarilla Apache, and other native peoples since well before these groups first had contact with the Spanish in the 1500s. And though cooking vessels aren’t usually thought of in this way, micaceous cookware is also, in some respects, an ingredient, for many people say that these pots impart a special flavor to foods cooked in them—and even improve the taste of water that has been stored within their sparkling walls.

Micaceous clay is a naturally occurring blend of mica and red clay, found in pockets in the mountainous areas that rise above New Mexico’s Rio Grande valley floor. I first encountered micaceous clay when I met Felipe Ortega, a Jicarilla Apache and medicine man who lives in La Madera. Ortega teaches pottery in Mexico, Santa Fe, and Switzerland, and I first made his acquaintance when he stepped away from a class to sign an enormous pot that he had made for my friend Hugh Fitzsimmons, who raises bison in South Texas. Suddenly Ortega turned to me and asked me how to spell my name. I knew that the pot was intended for Hugh’s wife, not for me, but for a greedy split second I hoped that this magnificent work—with its soft form and subtle shine—would be mine. I was smitten.

But it was another 15 years before I had a micaceous pot of my own. Now I can’t imagine cooking in anything else. I love the look and feel of the clay, softer than metal and lighter than cast iron. My micaceous pot gives off the scent of minerals and earth when heated, and it cooks foods evenly and beautifully. Many people swear that beans are tastier when cooked in micaceous clay, and Ortega suggests that it’s the combination of the acidic mica with the more alkaline clay that makes food taste so much better. “Sweet” is the word he uses. Not sweet as in sugary, but sweet as in balanced, as opposed to harsh or bitter.

Beans are the most common things to find simmering within the walls of micaceous pots, but you can cook pretty much anything in this clay. I have roasted Navajo-Churro lamb and made chicken fricassees, vegetable soups, beets, potatoes, braises, and any number of other dishes in my micaceous pots. I can’t really say with any kind of proof why these foods seem to taste better than if they were cooked in more conventional pots, but I know that I enjoy the process more—the light feel of the clay and the soft sounds utensils make when they come in contact with the rim of a pot. I also just like to have the pots out where I can see them, because their shapes and colors are so enjoyable to look at. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to buy micaceous pots at Santa Fe’s Indian Market, then put them on display and never use them at all.

But despite their delicate look, micaceous cooking pots are incredibly sturdy and utilitarian. My neighbor, Elisabeth Foote, has been studying with Ortega, and it is largely her pots that I use. When I hesitated to use my first pot, thinking it too fragile, she reassured me that it was plenty strong. “Do you know how hard it is to break up a pot that didn’t work out?” she asked. Pretty tough, apparently! Indeed, my pots take almost a daily turn on the stove and in the sink with no chips, cracks, or other ill effects.

Micaceous pots are shaped by hand through the coil method. Once the clay has dried, it is rubbed with a piece of sandstone to lighten the overall weight and even out any heavy spots. Following that, a slip that has more mica in it than the body is poured over the pot; then the whole thing is polished with a stone to bring out the mica’s sparkle. Next the pot is buffed with a cloth. I know from watching Elisabeth work that it takes a lot of patient hours to get to the point when the pot is finally ready to be fired (either in a wood fire built on the ground or in a shallow pit). Where there is contact between the pot and the burning wood, soft plumes of gray and black, called fire clouds, appear and mark the vessel. When the air supply to the fire is reduced, the pot emerges black. Elisabeth prefers to make her pots black because she feels it reveals their shape more readily.

Many pots look as perfectly symmetrical as if they had been thrown on a wheel, but often there are areas of gentle swelling, dips, and other irregularities that suggest the presence of the hands on the clay. One of my pots, made by New Mexico artist Priscilla Hoback, is marked with a hair from one of her horses, a delicate black line on the clay that feels somehow like a signature. (Sometimes this mark is made with human hair.) Occasionally a pot will have a designed etched on it, or a design formed by a ribbon of clay, but many functional micaceous pots aren’t adorned except with the golden flecks of mica and the fire blooms. They may have lids, or not. They might curve softly at the rim, like the exaggerated folds of a fluted piecrust, or the top may flare simply and elegantly outwards. The only colors present are the colors of earth and fire. Glazes aren’t used traditionally.

As with all good things made by hand, micaceous pots are expensive—upwards of $100 a quart. But to cook in a micaceous pot is to participate in the ancient yet still living culture of the Southwest. These pots are works of art—the kind of art that you can handle, smell, cook in, wash, and use every day. And micaceous cooking pots repay you with a subtle ingredient: the sweetness of this clay, and all that it imparts to the foods you cook.

For more on micaceous cookware and where to buy it, visit www.priscillahoback.com, www.elizabethrivesfoote.com, and www.felipeortega.com.