Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jean Henri Fabre


"T RAVELLERS tell us of the strange methods adopted in preparing food by certain savage tribes among whom that precious culinary utensil, the earthen pot, is unknown. They tell us, for example, that the Eskimos of Greenland boil their meat in a little skin bag, as I have already related to you. The bag is not placed over the fire, but is filled with water and the food to be cooked, after which stones heated red-hot are dropped into it; and thus, laboriously and imperfectly, by repeated heating of the stones and dropping them into the bag, a dish of half-cooked meat mixed with ashes and soot is at last prepared.

"To such extremities we might be reduced if it were not for those little earthen pots, sold at a penny apiece, that rescue us from the dire straits familiar to the Eskimo. Let us now consider how this simple kitchen utensil is made.

"From the modest little porringer to the sumptuous porcelains adorned with rich painting, every piece of pottery is made of potters' earth, or clay, which is found almost everywhere, but by no means of uniform quality. There are yellow clays, red clays, ash-colored clays, dark clays, and perfectly white clays. These last are free from all foreign matter; the others contain divers alien substances. All are easily kneaded with water, forming a sort of unctuous dough capable of taking any prescribed form. The coarsest clays serve for making bricks, drain-pipes, flower-pots, and so on; clays that lack purity but are still of fine texture are used for common pottery; and, finally, clays of extreme purity, of snowy whiteness, furnish us porcelain. This degree of purity is very rare in clay, being found in France only in Haute-Vienne, around Limoges. Clay of inferior quality occurs in abundance in nearly all parts of the world.

"In order to give to moistened clay quickly and easily a regular form the potter makes use of the potter's wheel. As illustrated in the picture I here show you, under the potter's work-table is a horizontal wooden wheel which the operator sets in motion with his foot. The axle of this wheel carries at its upper end a small disk, in the center of which is placed the lump of clay that is to be shaped by the potter. The latter thrusts his thumb into the formless mass, which rotates with its supporting disk, and this action suffices to produce a symmetrical cavity because of the regularity of the motion imparted to the clay. As fast as the thumb enlarges the cavity the other fingers are applied to the outside to hold the mass in place, to give it the desired shape, and to preserve a uniform thickness of wall throughout. In a few moments the piece is fashioned, and we see the lump of clay hollowed out and made to stand up in the form of a bowl or jar having just the outline and thickness desired by the artisan. The application of the palm of the hand, slightly moistened, suffices to polish the surface. Finally, with tools designed for the purpose the piece is ornamented with moldings. For example, it is enough to touch the rotating object with an iron point to trace an engraved line around it.


Potter's Wheel

"When the potter's wheel has done its part the vessel, still damp, is left in the air to dry, after which it is dipped into a bath of water and fine dust of lead ore. By the action of fire this dust will presently be incorporated with the surface clay on which it rests and will become a sort of glaze or varnish, without which the vessel would be permeable by liquids and would allow its contents gradually to ooze out and escape. To complete the whole the vessel is subjected to a high temperature in an oven, where the clay bakes and becomes hard stone, while the lead dust covering it melts and combines with the substance of the clay, spreading over the surface as a brilliant varnish having the color of honey. In this wise the more ordinary pottery is made, the pottery constantly used in our kitchens and so valuable for its ability to bear heat without breaking.

"In most cases the coating of lead has nothing to be said against it, for our articles of food do not, as a rule, produce any effect upon it. Vinegar alone is of a nature to dissolve it slowly when kept long in contact with it, especially if the vessel in question has not been properly baked. Hence it would be highly imprudent to use pots or jars having this lead glaze on the inside for keeping gherkins, capers, and other pickles preserved in vinegar. This latter might in course of time dissolve the metal contained in the glaze and thus contract poisonous properties, so that in seasoning a dish with a handful of capers one might run the very serious risk of lead-poisoning. Pickles of that sort should be kept in glass jars or in common earthenware not glazed on the inside.

"Crockery is made of clay of fine quality. Its glaze, which is of a beautiful milky whiteness, is prepared from tin, a harmless metal. Thus our food, even when containing vinegar, never contracts injurious properties from contact with this glaze.

"I will say as much for the glaze of porcelain, which contains no metal in its composition, but results from the melting of the surface clay itself in the heat of the oven, the clay being of extreme purity and whiteness. Hence we here have no fear of any lead varnish, which is recognizable from its honey-yellow hue and is employed only for common pottery. But, as I said before, this latter kind of glaze is to be feared only in case of prolonged contact with vinegar."