Preserved Lemons

The first time I dropped a mug and broke it, I was shocked by the lack of drama. Thick, factory made ceramic breaks nothing like dropping a glass, which screams relentlessly when it shatters and doesn’t quiet down for days, salt-grain sized echoes lodging in your foot as salty reminders. A mug instead is a dull thud and though a broken handle reveals an interior lunar surface and leaves a navel-like stump, it’s nothing you’d spend any time staring at, through a telescope or not.

When my Mom would take our ancestral Nice China out for the Jewish holidays, I eventually learned that there is a half way point between glass and ceramic, called porcelain, which was always removed from soft cases, used gently, washed by hand, and returned, I was told, because “it breaks just like glass.” The closest I came to seeing one break was when my cousin chipped the a soup bowl while overzealously dousing his low-sodium-for-the-alte-kakers matzoh ball soup with enough salt to make it palatable — the metal tip of the shaker hit the rim and a small chunk fell off onto the table.

Clay didn’t mean much more to me than any other substance you can dig from the earth and make invincible with fire until I started to realize it’s place adjacent to food: going to restaurants, whether they were ’nice’ or not, I noticed that the good ones, the ones that I loved, had put a lot of thought not only into the food itself, but to how it was served, the vessel it was presented in. I realized that my own family did this too, and I started to understand and appreciate ceramics more, noticed them in places I previously didn’t, picked them up and felt them when I could. I was strolling down that familiar road called obsession.

Next I started to collect some pieces, including three small sculptures from a friend that she called "Living Stone" -- a group of bumpy, irregular, deeply glazed pieces that looked like a misfit family when you put them all together. The work fascinated me in a way I couldn’t describe. Upon reflection I saw that knowing someone who connected their art to this medium which I had only considered in a functional context made me think deeply and in an unexpected way about something that was invisible to me before.

When we left Brooklyn after two kids and almost twenty years it felt like we left our whole world behind. For my first birthday in Maryland my wife got me four fancy bowls made by the stoneware producer for our favorite NY restaurant, and knowing me, she also signed me up for pottery classes. She could see it coming. She knew I’d meet some people, and more importantly, she could sense that I was searching for something and feeling lost, and that to love ceramics and maybe find myself, I’d have to learn how. All of it.

Ceramic vessels become one with your body. This is the first good thing I learned in the class, which is how to think about how important the mundane seeming things we were working on — mugs, bowls, plates, etc. actually are. We were told to think about a cup. Think about a cup. How it forms a sacred connection to your lip and forms a conduit, becomes part of you. I thought back to how I started to notice ceramics in the first place — beyond the functional, into the spiritual, through the formal, and back to the functional again: the medium confounds. What are you making? If it’s something to be used, it must be obsessively produced to be used well. Decorate it, but don’t overdo it. Don’t sacrifice function. Don’t ignore form.

Much of the functionality of ceramics comes from the kiln firing, which transforms fragile clay into something akin to a permanent stone, a process known as vitrification. Clay is fired at hotter and hotter temperatures and then cooled, forming a dense material that is measured by how porous it is, it’s porosity. A beautiful medium with lots of beautiful associated words. It felt designed to ruin me.

Modern glazes are applied by very quickly dipping bisqued pieces into buckets of weirdly muted colored alien glop that needs to be stirred fanatically before use, the whole thing forming an intensely physical ritual that is paradoxically only successful if you have applied the smallest amount of glaze possible. These glazes are made according to folkloric recipes that combine various harmful substances in divine proportions that produce a type of mixture that is known as eutectic, another beautiful word meaning a combination of substances that melts at a lower temperature than any of its individual parts. When the firing is done and the glaze is melted, it forms an impermeable layer enveloping the pot, eliminating any possible entry points for moisture and weakness, and the transformation from glop to glorious color, finish, shade, and texture is complete.

The specific chemicals that produce the colors in finished pots were once ancient and parochial secrets held close in various places all over the world that were known for the specific colors their pottery exhibited. Combining clay from the earth with the smoke from burning trees in nearby forests produced shocking reds, oceanic blues, and chlorophyllic greens that have captivated for thousands of years. By understanding how these ancient pots were made, it was eventually determined how to isolate specific colors so that now any local pottery anywhere can make glaze in any colors, which leaves most of us with a mountain of pots in ugly colors that no one would ever want to use until we learn to control ourselves and learn a handful of glazes deeply.

Along with chemically formulated glazes, we mostly use predictable modern kilns that are powered by electric elements and flames powered by natural gas, but there are many other ways of vitrifying clay, from the violent and fast raku to the heartbreakingly difficult pit firing, including my personal favorite, the wood fired kiln. These kilns require building a giant and insatiable fire for several hours in order to produce enough heat to vitrify a very large mass of pottery which is precariously stacked just on the other side of a wall from the heat source. This heat reaches most of the pieces through convection: a chimney draws hot air and smoke out, creating a violent draft that whips ashes and debris all over the pots, producing amazing and unpredictable effects.

Firing a wood kiln is an all night ritual that feels like a prolonged, intense, interminable series of ritual sacrifices. If you’re a newcomer your job will normally be to feed a roaring fire with more and more and more and more logs until the night is finally over, the wine is gone, the food is gone, the weed is dwindling, and the sun’s light is coming back. The first time I participated in a wood firing, we ate and drank well and ate and drank well and ate and drank well and at a certain point there was a big hustle as the leader of the firing gestured wildly and then threw a bunch of salt into the kiln. This technique produces wild and beautiful results, and historically it is the result of an accident itself: kilns packed with barrel wood to hold ceramics that previously were used for preserving food caused salt to evaporate and produce a beautiful orange color, the source of which was eventually tracked down to salt in the barrel wood.

When I learned this I thought about more about salt, what it does to food, how it draws out moisture. I thought about the nature of preservation. Soon enough, I craved bacon and anchovies. I saw vitrification. I was too impatient to make my own so soon after I purchased a ceramic crock and preserved some lemons when I found a particularly sweet and thin-skinned batch. The instructions for preserving the lemons read, “All you need is salt and time.”

That salt, the acid, and the deceptive sweetness of a preserved lemon makes a mixture that is the opposite of eutectic, somehow more than the sum of its parts, an immortal flavor, astonishing. I wonder how, and why, and then I realize — burying anything in salt long enough will change it forever.

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