A True Champion of Clay Cookery Pots

“Most food,” bestselling cookbook author Paula Wolfert writes in the introduction to her newest book Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking “— and Mediterranean food in particular —tastes better cooked in clay.” Wolfert is fanatical in her devotion to using clay pots for cooking, and has spent years traveling the globe passionately collecting pots and meeting with potters. She uses clay cookware for baking, frying, stewing, roasting, steaming, and boiling.  Indeed she calls herself a “clay pot ‘junkie.’”

Of course, cooks have been using clay pots to prepare meals for thousands of years, and in many areas of the world, they are still the prevalent vessel, particularly earthenware. Wolfert uses traditional earthenware, plus stoneware and flameware in various shapes, “tall pots for cooking beans, soups, and stews; round earthenware vessels for cooking rice and sauces; deep-flaring-terra-cotta and glazed casseroles for dishes such as cassoulets and tians; shallow, round dishes for baking pies and gratins; stovetop skillets made of ceramic for cooking eggs and sautéing vegetables; shallow glazed rounds for oven baking custards and flans; and clay forms for baking bread.” I’d love to get a glimpse of her kitchen and her collection. There are photos of the pots throughout the book, though it is published by Wiley, known for its professional level cookbooks rather than for lavish design, so there aren’t nearly enough of them. You can see more photos on her Facebook page dedicated to cooking in clay pots.

Wolfert gives practical information on caring for clay pots (they are sturdy) and using them, with a good overview at the beginning of the book, followed by specifics with each recipe. Oh yes, the recipes — this is a cookbook after all.  Well, I am a vegetarian and there is a lot of meat in this book, so I gravitated to the section on vegetables and beans. Cassolo of Spinach and Artichokes. Yum.  Green Beans with Tomatoes and Garlic. Yum. And lots of potato recipes. The most interesting is Baby Creamer Potatoes Cooked in the Devil’s Pot or diable, “a potbellied unglazed earthenware pot traditionally used to cook potatoes or chestnuts.” The potatoes are cooked dry with sea salt. You shake the pot periodically but are forbidden to open the lid, or all is lost! I can’t wait to try this.

If you are a functional potter, Paula Wolfert is your best friend and advocate in the culinary arena. If you just like to cook and enjoy handmade pots, Wolfert will introduce you to possibilities beyond (and years older than) the stoneware casserole.

Happy Eating!

An Unusual Potter

Toward the end of her years, the reclusive artist Mary Nohl was plagued with vandals, intruders, children who thought she was a witch and other indignities. Strangers came by boat, by car and on foot to her lakefront home outside Milwaukee, hoping to catch a glimpse of the large cement sculptures that she placed around her house. Those who made it onto her property often damaged her works or took away pieces.

But Nohl also had many her admirers who appreciated her great talent. Today her work is on display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.  In Mary Nohl: Inside Outside, Barbara Manger and Janine Smith give us a rich portrait of this unusual woman.

Nohl was born to wealthy but frugal parents in 1914.  Though they were stingy with the food they put on the table, the Nohl’s spent money on travel and encouraged their daughter’s artistic bent. In college, she drew and painted and discovered ceramics. After deciding that she disliked teaching, Nohl persuaded her father to help her finance a pottery studio. He purchased a building, kiln, and all the necessary supplies and equipment that Nohl would need and she happily set about designing bowls, lamps, tiles, figurines and vases.  She made molds for her work and began production. The work is interesting, often graced with almost primitive suggestions of humans. But Nohl was neither a businesswoman nor a marketer, and the pottery was not a financial success. She eventually closed it.

Once her parents died, she became sole owner of the Lake Michigan cottage that was her family’s second home, and, no longer needing to be concerned about an income, she gradually made the little estate into her work of art. She filled and surrounded the house with her sculptures, mobiles, ceramics, paintings, painted fabrics, jewelry and other creations. She worked on her art everyday, driven by a strong creative force deep within. Nohl occasionally exhibited her work, and she had a circle of friends who saw her for the artist she was, but she made art primarily for herself.

This is not a typical pottery book, but if you are a bit of an artistic voyeur like me, and like a peek into the working lives of other artists, you will probably enjoy this book as much as I did. The “package” as they say, is beautiful, with heavy stock and French flaps, and lots of photos, a package I suspect Mary Nohl herself would love. But it also a book to think about: why is it that late in the 20th century, an older woman who was different could still be taunted by her neighbors and called a witch by the children? And what is it that makes some artists turn their entire surroundings into their art while most focus on individual works?

Studio Pieter Stockmans

Crisp lines. Frosty blues and whites. Nesting, stacking, and parading multiples. Highly intellectualized design. These are the characteristics of the porcelain tableware that comes out of the Pieter Stockmans Studio in Belgium. Stockmans has been wowing the art and high-end restaurant and design world almost since the day he opened shop.

And though not the sort of ceramics I love most, I did find the book Studio Pieter Stockmans worth adding to my library. Many of the pots are shown with food, such as two square white plates with blue rims, stacked crisscrossed, with a string-tied bundle of chives set diagonally on the top plate, and a close up of his champagne “glasses,” slim, translucent cylinders, blue rimmed, with a stream of champagne flowing into one of the glasses. There are also photos of table settings, indoors and out, and restaurant interiors. I very much liked seeing the pots in use.

Stockmans also does architectural and furniture collaborations. I particularly liked the porcelain “papers” that he has “tacked” to the exterior of the De Rip Town Hall, and stacked on s corner of the roof, referencing the work of the bureaucracy that takes place within. Very humorous.

Light on text, the book contains bilingual essays by his daughter Widukind, who, with her husband, works with Pieter, and Jo Rombouts the Director of Porcelain. They give us the briefest glimpse of what the working processes are like (oh so different from those of us working at our wheels in one-woman studios). He is hands-on, but not in the sense that he makes each and every piece, start to finish all by himself. This is an atelier with a team of workers. He is the designer-artist and the leader.

Note: It became customary to show solitary pots on neutral backgrounds decades ago when jurors began looking at slides for shows. This was also at a time when many ceramicists were downplaying the functional aspects of their pots and trying to focus on the art  (the never ending art versus craft argument). But reading this book, it seems to me that now and then, when photographing work, we need to rethink our old habits and show them in situ and in use.

Manifesto for Hand Made Garden Pots

“In the matter of the pots themselves, we are very particular. They must be of clay, as was most anciently the case, and good clay if we can afford it,” Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd write in “Our Life in Gardens.” Yes, it a gardening book, not a book about ceramics, but the chapter titled simply “Pots” is so adamantly in favor of real flowerpots made of clay that this potter’s heart thumped while reading it. These guys love clay pots, collect them insatiably, plant them up and place them in their Vermont garden, and lug some of the heavy ones inside for the winter and back out for the summer. For years, they were content with plain, well, garden-variety terra cotta flowerpots from the hardware store, and an occasional splurge on an antique, but then they met potter Guy Wolff and their “whole pot habit altered.” Now they eagerly await Wolff’s firings and say that they will never “have enough” of his pots.

The rest of the book is fun too. It’s their garden’s biography and a bit of their autobiographies with lots of opinions and humor. But the best chapter of all is the chapter on pots. Really, it is a manifesto for the work of potters. Between reading this, and the weather warming, I’m thinking of unearthing those old bags of black clay in my studio, and throwing some new flowerpots myself for spring,

Slave Pots and Japanese Pots

At last, an in depth study of Dave, the legendary and mysterious slave potter whose robustly thrown pots can stir even the most modernist soul. In addition to his large, heart stopping crocks and jugs and jars, what sets him apart from other slave potters is that he, remarkably, sometimes inscribed his pots with poems and sayings and, unheard of for a slave, signed them. Leonard Todd, not a potter himself, or even a historian, discovered that he was descended from Dave’s master and, intrigued, headed down to South Carolina to learn all he could. He has meticulously pieced together Dave’s life, located his known pots, and gathered together his inscriptions. His book, Carolina Clay: the Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave is the nice result of this labor. Isn’t it time again for a touring exhibition of Dave’s pots?

I am a bit of a voyeur and love looking at other potter’s kilns and studios almost as much as looking at their pots. In Ken Matsuzaki: Burning Tradition from the Pucker Gallery in Boston, we get both pleasures. There are black and white photos of Matsuzaki at his wheel, in his studio, and firing his kiln, plus shots of the open air kiln shed, the grounds, and pots freshly unloaded. These are followed by pages of full color photos of the wood fired pots themselves: shino bottles that you want to pick up, natural ash glazed-jars, and slab built vases that inspire contemplation. The biographical essay by Andrew Maske describes Matsuzaki’s artistic journey. Reading it, I imagined myself walking around Matsuzaki’s compound, watching him work: things not likely to happen outside the armchair and the pages of Burning Tradition.