Mortars & pestles, thunder & lightening

Here we have three mortars (and 2 pestles) from Queen B sales. If you didn’t already know, the mortar is the bowl, the pestle is the rod. And for any readers with a military background who might be wondering, the explosive-launching device was named after the culinary tool, not the other way around. Mortars and pestles predate man-made explosives by many millennia. 

The first mortars and pestles were developed in Paleolithic times (the stone age) when early hominids used divots naturally occurring in flat slabs of rock. Some of the oldest were found at Madjedbebe Rock Shelter in Australia, and may date back 60,000 years. By filling the rock depression with seeds and pounding with a handheld rock, early people were able to make a challenging food source digestible. The ability to crush or grind hard, non-spoiling foods into an edible form was crucial to the spread of humans across the globe. Mortars and pestles were in use by most ancient civilizations very early on, so it is likely that, like knives, spoons and bowls, the mortar and pestle was independently invented multiple times.

The first mortar we have here is double-handled and heavy-duty, weighing in at a hefty 3 lbs. for stability. It is sand-cast brass and its original, matching brass pestle has been replaced with a wooden one. Sadly, because the two pieces are not connected in any manner, it is common for them to get separated. This ‘eared’ style of mortar and pestle was widely used by druggists and apothecaries throughout North America and Europe for the last several hundred years, so there are thousands still around, in many different sizes. At 4+” tall, this brass mortar is middling. 

This cobalt blue glass set has a capacity of around 2 cups. In the 1950s dark blue glass was mainly used the same as dark brown glass, to make chemically inert storage containers that protected delicate ingredients from the deteriorating effects of sunlight. But the blue color was more expensive to produce, so blue jars usually held more expensive products. Then the 1990s kicked off an intense fad for all things cobalt blue in both kitchen and bathroom accessories, resulting in this mass-produced but elegant mortar and pestle that was sold in upscale stores.

Last is this small yet sturdy high-end Italian version with hand-painted recipe for pesto alla genovese: basil, olive oil, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, salt and garlic. The similarity between the words pesto and pestle is not coincidental, in Italian cuisine ‘pesto’ refers to mixtures prepared by crushing ingredients together in a mortar, with a pestle. So this particular mortar is quite self-referential although sadly, the pestle itself has gone missing.

Mortars and pestles were historically used for many other applications, too – painters crushed minerals to create pigments, scientists crushed chemicals for experiments, witches and apothecaries mixed herbs to compound potions and medications. Although mortars and pestles are less common in these fields today, you can still buy plain white ceramic versions from art, scientific and medical equipment suppliers. The common Rx symbol for ‘Pharmacy’ often incorporates a mortar and pestle and chances are, the pharmacy where you fill your prescriptions keeps a working mortar and pestle in the back. Lastly, we would be remiss not to mention the mortar and pestle’s strangest claim to fame as favored conveyance of terrifying Slavic cannibal witch Baba Yaga, who travels stormy night skies in a mortar and pestle. Thunder is the sound of her pounding and lightening is sparks flying off her striking pestle! Yikes!