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Seasoning tagines & the memory of ceramics

Ceramics as a material with a memory

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2019. I've moved to a new publishing platform so I'm bringing it over here to have things in one place.

I had drinks with some new friends last night. They were art (BFA) students from Alfred University, which, as you may know if you took a ceramics class as an art major in college (as I did), has one of the best ceramics programs in the country. Today, two of them work in a ceramics studio in northwestern Connecticut.

When we first met and they mentioned Alfred, the name sounded familiar but I couldn’t immediately remember why. Then I remembered: my ceramics professor from Connecticut College had actually gone through the same program decades ago.

Her ceramics class was one of my favorite parts of my college experience. I was so surprised in that class at how many of the glazes we had available to us were secret, homemade recipes passed down from her professors when she was in that very school. I had imagined, I suppose, that these glazes would be commercially made, like paint.

Ceramics—as a discipline, community, and medium—is kind of weird like that, even within the art world. It’s so much about personal connection:

As I talked with my new friends, one said something that my professor had said years ago when I was in her class. She talked about how “clay is like a 3D journal. It has memory—if you push it with your thumb, it leaves a mark that persists.” While you could say that about a lot of mediums, there is certainly something about clay that makes that particularly true.

Today, I seasoned my family’s tagines that we had gotten as part of the cooking class we took a couple weeks ago in Marrakesh, and I thought a lot about this idea of material memory.

First, some background: seasoning is a process whereby you condition the tagines by soaking them in water for a couple hours, then rub them with olive oil and put them in an oven for a couple more hours. The process prevents (or more accurately, reduces the likelihood) that the tagines will crack under sudden heat change in using them for cooking. As an aside, another key to preventing this is to always use a heat diffuser if you use tagines directly on open flame. As you soak them, tiny air bubbles escape with an faintly audible whine as water soaks into the porous biskware and displaces the air.

As you learn when you learn to scuba dive, perhaps counterintuitively, water and air behave differently when it comes to things like heat and pressure. Air expands and contracts, whereas water does not. You also learn this in ceramics class, often the hard way, when a piece you worked so hard on explodes in the kiln because you left an air bubble inside. This also happens if the piece is too thick/too solid, again because the air bubbles deep within the clay do not have sufficient access to an escape route. For this reason, building thick items can be more of a game of faith than you’d like.

Tagines like these, used more for cooking than display, are relatively thick, sturdy, solid pieces of terra cotta with no decoration and minimal clear glazing. Not so thick that they’d explode in a kiln obviously, but also they’re far from delicate porcelain. Seasoning strengthens them so you can cook with more confidence.

This is another way ceramics are weird. Perhaps more than any other material, they straddle being both very fragile and incredibly strong. They’re fragile in that they can explode and crack with heat (even here, this is ironic given that that’s the environment in which pliable clay is made hard), they smash into tiny bits if you drop them, they can chip, etc. Most people would think of ceramic items, like dinner plates, in this light. But ceramic is also incredibly strong. It’s used for the brakes in cars, as the bulletproof plate inserts in military body armor (ceramic is one of the best materials at stopping bullets), as a material for stronger knife and saw blades, for ball bearings, ovens, and of course, huge buildings (in the form of bricks).

As I soaked the tagines, I watched these tiny air bubbles escape. This was Moroccan air. Perhaps from the souk where they had been sold, but more likely the room in which they’d been sculpted. Here again, clay has memory. You could notice a distinct smell coming from the water’s surface, a combination of clay and something unidentifiable but certainly different from the kitchen air.

I initially thought, “why wouldn’t the manufacturer pre-season the tagine for you?” I’m still not sure, but I’m now happy they didn’t. The oven became a sort of kiln, and making the tagine became a shared activity, all the way from Morocco to the United States.

As you rub the tagines with olive oil, your fingers brush the surface as the original artisan’s fingers did, perhaps only several weeks ago. You feel tiny imperfections—raised grooves in the surface where two fingers don’t meet perfectly, and indents where someone picked the piece up before it was fired, possibly when placing it into the kiln. This is a shared memory, a sort of lost-and-found journal of physical interaction.

It’s also something that, as a designer, you realize is so missing from today’s machined products. And even more absent still is the practice of finishing the piece—a sort of second or third kiln firing but in a home kitchen oven—that clay objects like these inspire.

Field Notes

Seasoning tagines & the memory of ceramics

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2019. I've moved to a new publishing platform so I'm bringing it over here to have things in one place.

I had drinks with some new friends last night. They were art (BFA) students from Alfred University, which, as you may know if you took a ceramics class as an art major in college (as I did), has one of the best ceramics programs in the country. Today, two of them work in a ceramics studio in northwestern Connecticut.

When we first met and they mentioned Alfred, the name sounded familiar but I couldn’t immediately remember why. Then I remembered: my ceramics professor from Connecticut College had actually gone through the same program decades ago.

Her ceramics class was one of my favorite parts of my college experience. I was so surprised in that class at how many of the glazes we had available to us were secret, homemade recipes passed down from her professors when she was in that very school. I had imagined, I suppose, that these glazes would be commercially made, like paint.

Ceramics—as a discipline, community, and medium—is kind of weird like that, even within the art world. It’s so much about personal connection:

As I talked with my new friends, one said something that my professor had said years ago when I was in her class. She talked about how “clay is like a 3D journal. It has memory—if you push it with your thumb, it leaves a mark that persists.” While you could say that about a lot of mediums, there is certainly something about clay that makes that particularly true.

Today, I seasoned my family’s tagines that we had gotten as part of the cooking class we took a couple weeks ago in Marrakesh, and I thought a lot about this idea of material memory.

First, some background: seasoning is a process whereby you condition the tagines by soaking them in water for a couple hours, then rub them with olive oil and put them in an oven for a couple more hours. The process prevents (or more accurately, reduces the likelihood) that the tagines will crack under sudden heat change in using them for cooking. As an aside, another key to preventing this is to always use a heat diffuser if you use tagines directly on open flame. As you soak them, tiny air bubbles escape with an faintly audible whine as water soaks into the porous biskware and displaces the air.

As you learn when you learn to scuba dive, perhaps counterintuitively, water and air behave differently when it comes to things like heat and pressure. Air expands and contracts, whereas water does not. You also learn this in ceramics class, often the hard way, when a piece you worked so hard on explodes in the kiln because you left an air bubble inside. This also happens if the piece is too thick/too solid, again because the air bubbles deep within the clay do not have sufficient access to an escape route. For this reason, building thick items can be more of a game of faith than you’d like.

Tagines like these, used more for cooking than display, are relatively thick, sturdy, solid pieces of terra cotta with no decoration and minimal clear glazing. Not so thick that they’d explode in a kiln obviously, but also they’re far from delicate porcelain. Seasoning strengthens them so you can cook with more confidence.

This is another way ceramics are weird. Perhaps more than any other material, they straddle being both very fragile and incredibly strong. They’re fragile in that they can explode and crack with heat (even here, this is ironic given that that’s the environment in which pliable clay is made hard), they smash into tiny bits if you drop them, they can chip, etc. Most people would think of ceramic items, like dinner plates, in this light. But ceramic is also incredibly strong. It’s used for the brakes in cars, as the bulletproof plate inserts in military body armor (ceramic is one of the best materials at stopping bullets), as a material for stronger knife and saw blades, for ball bearings, ovens, and of course, huge buildings (in the form of bricks).

As I soaked the tagines, I watched these tiny air bubbles escape. This was Moroccan air. Perhaps from the souk where they had been sold, but more likely the room in which they’d been sculpted. Here again, clay has memory. You could notice a distinct smell coming from the water’s surface, a combination of clay and something unidentifiable but certainly different from the kitchen air.

I initially thought, “why wouldn’t the manufacturer pre-season the tagine for you?” I’m still not sure, but I’m now happy they didn’t. The oven became a sort of kiln, and making the tagine became a shared activity, all the way from Morocco to the United States.

As you rub the tagines with olive oil, your fingers brush the surface as the original artisan’s fingers did, perhaps only several weeks ago. You feel tiny imperfections—raised grooves in the surface where two fingers don’t meet perfectly, and indents where someone picked the piece up before it was fired, possibly when placing it into the kiln. This is a shared memory, a sort of lost-and-found journal of physical interaction.

It’s also something that, as a designer, you realize is so missing from today’s machined products. And even more absent still is the practice of finishing the piece—a sort of second or third kiln firing but in a home kitchen oven—that clay objects like these inspire.

Updated continuously • Last edited on
11.16.23
Field Notes

Seasoning tagines & the memory of ceramics

Updated continuously •
Last edited on
11.16.23

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2019. I've moved to a new publishing platform so I'm bringing it over here to have things in one place.

I had drinks with some new friends last night. They were art (BFA) students from Alfred University, which, as you may know if you took a ceramics class as an art major in college (as I did), has one of the best ceramics programs in the country. Today, two of them work in a ceramics studio in northwestern Connecticut.

When we first met and they mentioned Alfred, the name sounded familiar but I couldn’t immediately remember why. Then I remembered: my ceramics professor from Connecticut College had actually gone through the same program decades ago.

Her ceramics class was one of my favorite parts of my college experience. I was so surprised in that class at how many of the glazes we had available to us were secret, homemade recipes passed down from her professors when she was in that very school. I had imagined, I suppose, that these glazes would be commercially made, like paint.

Ceramics—as a discipline, community, and medium—is kind of weird like that, even within the art world. It’s so much about personal connection:

As I talked with my new friends, one said something that my professor had said years ago when I was in her class. She talked about how “clay is like a 3D journal. It has memory—if you push it with your thumb, it leaves a mark that persists.” While you could say that about a lot of mediums, there is certainly something about clay that makes that particularly true.

Today, I seasoned my family’s tagines that we had gotten as part of the cooking class we took a couple weeks ago in Marrakesh, and I thought a lot about this idea of material memory.

First, some background: seasoning is a process whereby you condition the tagines by soaking them in water for a couple hours, then rub them with olive oil and put them in an oven for a couple more hours. The process prevents (or more accurately, reduces the likelihood) that the tagines will crack under sudden heat change in using them for cooking. As an aside, another key to preventing this is to always use a heat diffuser if you use tagines directly on open flame. As you soak them, tiny air bubbles escape with an faintly audible whine as water soaks into the porous biskware and displaces the air.

As you learn when you learn to scuba dive, perhaps counterintuitively, water and air behave differently when it comes to things like heat and pressure. Air expands and contracts, whereas water does not. You also learn this in ceramics class, often the hard way, when a piece you worked so hard on explodes in the kiln because you left an air bubble inside. This also happens if the piece is too thick/too solid, again because the air bubbles deep within the clay do not have sufficient access to an escape route. For this reason, building thick items can be more of a game of faith than you’d like.

Tagines like these, used more for cooking than display, are relatively thick, sturdy, solid pieces of terra cotta with no decoration and minimal clear glazing. Not so thick that they’d explode in a kiln obviously, but also they’re far from delicate porcelain. Seasoning strengthens them so you can cook with more confidence.

This is another way ceramics are weird. Perhaps more than any other material, they straddle being both very fragile and incredibly strong. They’re fragile in that they can explode and crack with heat (even here, this is ironic given that that’s the environment in which pliable clay is made hard), they smash into tiny bits if you drop them, they can chip, etc. Most people would think of ceramic items, like dinner plates, in this light. But ceramic is also incredibly strong. It’s used for the brakes in cars, as the bulletproof plate inserts in military body armor (ceramic is one of the best materials at stopping bullets), as a material for stronger knife and saw blades, for ball bearings, ovens, and of course, huge buildings (in the form of bricks).

As I soaked the tagines, I watched these tiny air bubbles escape. This was Moroccan air. Perhaps from the souk where they had been sold, but more likely the room in which they’d been sculpted. Here again, clay has memory. You could notice a distinct smell coming from the water’s surface, a combination of clay and something unidentifiable but certainly different from the kitchen air.

I initially thought, “why wouldn’t the manufacturer pre-season the tagine for you?” I’m still not sure, but I’m now happy they didn’t. The oven became a sort of kiln, and making the tagine became a shared activity, all the way from Morocco to the United States.

As you rub the tagines with olive oil, your fingers brush the surface as the original artisan’s fingers did, perhaps only several weeks ago. You feel tiny imperfections—raised grooves in the surface where two fingers don’t meet perfectly, and indents where someone picked the piece up before it was fired, possibly when placing it into the kiln. This is a shared memory, a sort of lost-and-found journal of physical interaction.

It’s also something that, as a designer, you realize is so missing from today’s machined products. And even more absent still is the practice of finishing the piece—a sort of second or third kiln firing but in a home kitchen oven—that clay objects like these inspire.

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