Cooking with Clay Beads

Clay “cooking balls” of the kind used in the Poverty Point culture in what in now Louisiana

Original title: “Cooking with Balls.” I didn’t have the … you know, courage … to go through with that one. But it’s not my fault! “Cooking Balls” is, I promise you, what they are called in the source material.

Although we know little about the Poverty Point people and their extraordinary center on Bayou Macon, we do know a great deal about their cooking habits. The most typical of all the artifacts is — surprisingly enough — a small baked clay ball, only one to two inches in diameter and two to three ounces in weight. The odd-looking balls, most often molded in melon, oblong, cylindrical, spiral, and biconical shapes, were used in cooking. Thousands of them have been unearthed so far. Indeed, so ubiquitous are these tiny finds that they are simply called Poverty Point objects.

The Poverty Point people used them not only more intensively than others [who cooked with heated stones], but also more innovatively, for a new style of cooking: pit-oven baking.

Mysteries of the Ancients Americas, The Reader’s Digest Asscn, Inc., pp. 113 – 114

The Poverty Point people, reconstructers think, would wrap fish, meat, or potatoes in wet leaves, place them on a bed of hot coals, and then cover them with a layer of hot clay balls. You know, they basically made what at camp we used to call a “hobo dinner.” Except we were always eating our hobo dinners half-raw, because we were not as patient as the people at Poverty Point.

In the Out of Babel blog tradition of writing about some ancient practice and then pretending that we are still doing it, I would like to show you my own cooking beads.

“Cooking balls” of the kind used by the modern mom

Not the greatest lighting on this photograph, but here they are, sitting in a nest of aluminum foil, on my ultramodern, convenient electric stove. The only modern use of clay cooking balls that I am aware of, is to make baked pie crust shells. If you bake the pie crust with nothing in it, it bubbles up, warps, and then it can’t hold the instant pudding later. You have to weight it down with something. You can use just two layers of aluminum foil, but heavier is better. For a while I was using uncooked lentils (per Martha Stewart). They worked OK, but they had a certain legume-y smell when baking and besides, clay cooking balls are so much cooler. I suppose that in a pinch, I could use them for pit cooking. Let’s hope it never comes to that.

According to archaeologists, the Poverty Point cooking balls “could be used about 10 times before they cracked apart.” And yet, they put so much effort into them, making pretty designs and everything! I can imagine that making these little items was a creative outlet as well as a chore. Whereas, my cooking beads are completely plain (and still look like they were a hassle to make in such quantity), and I expect them to last for years. Of course, I don’t use them daily, and certainly not for the two hours it apparently takes to pit-cook food.

5 thoughts on “Cooking with Clay Beads

  1. Beth Carpenter

    Neat! My garlic roaster and tortilla warmer are unglazed on the inside so that I can soak the clay lids and they release steam during cooking. I wonder if these balls were soaked in water before heating to help keep the food moist. Clever people, those Poverty Pointers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You would just have to get into the habit of putting the food on as soon as you got up, basically, right? And eating leftovers for breakfast.

      Weirdly, the article says the sites have all these clay balls but absolutely no clay pots! I wasn’t sure what to do with that one so I didn’t include it in the post.

      Liked by 2 people

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