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Artist's Notebook

Chocolate and the Art of Tiernan Alexander

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“Chocolate Pot” ceramic, copyright 2008 Tiernan Alexander.
Photo credit: Tiernan Alexander.

Brrr, it’s definitely hot chocolate time in the east. Here is a beautiful contemporary interpretation of a traditional Mayan chocolate pot, the kind once used to serve hot chocolate, by my friend the ceramic artist Tiernan Alexander. I love the way Tiernan has referenced the aged surface and gourd-shaped bodies of ancient chocolate pots without copying them. The deliberate imperfections in her vessel are almost painterly and eloquently evoke a sense of history and the passage of time. I caught up with Tiernan recently for an interview and asked her about why she made the pot and her interest in ancient hot chocolate vessels. And got her favorite old recipe for hot chocolate.
Jellypress: Tiernan, what made you want to reinterpret an ancient chocolate pot?
TA: Chocolate had an incredible history in Central and South America. There are ritual and traditional pots made from ceramics, coconut shells, wood, and gourds. These days you see the gourd shaped pots used mostly with South American Yerba Mate tea, but I have also seen the little gourd pots and dippers used at chocolate and atole stands in the streets. (Atole is a cornflour based drink that is often combined with chocolate into a thick hot drink called Champurrada.)
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Jellypress: You told us that you took the above photo at a spring festival where they were serving a fruit drink, but that in winter, hot chocolate is served in a similar way. Tell us more about your experience buying hot chocolate and how they serve it.

TA: In winter there are a number of street vendors selling chocolate and atole both at regular markets and at festivals. Huge open tubs of fragrant liquid are whipped into a rich lather using a wooden whisk that looks more like a spinning spindle than what we think of as a whisk. The women running the stands will often dip it out using either painted coconut bowls, carved wooden ladles or hardened gourd-ladles. Often if you are going to drink your chocolate there at the stand you can have your drink in a shallow painted bowl rather than a styrofoam cup. The bowl is then rinsed and put back into service for the next customer.
Jellypress: What touched you as an artist about this ritual and its presence at the markets?
TA:The atmosphere that surrounds the stands with their vats of creamy comfort, the grandmothers in their beautiful aprons spinning their hands together around the spindle whisk, their encouraging demeanor seems less that of a business and more of a personal relationship.
Jellypress: Do you have a great old recipe to share with us?
TA: Yes. It’s for Champurrada or Chocolate Atole.
1/2 cup masa harina
3 cups water
3 cups milk
1 cup brown sugar (piloncillo)
3 oz unsweetened chocolate
Heat the water to boiling and then add the masa. Lower the heat and stir
constantly until the masa and water thicken together. Add the brown sugar
(or piloncillo if you can get it). After the sugar is incorporated add the
milk and continue heating without boiling while adding the chocolate (it is
easiest to add it if you break it up or grate the chocolate. Whisk it up
until there is a thick foam on top.

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Jellypress: What a great picture of you! Thanks Tiernan. All this talk of hot chocolate is making us crave one. We gotta get over to the Hot Chocolate Festival at City Bakery in NYC that they’re raving about on Paris Breakfasts blog. In the meantime, where can we see more of your art and learn more about you, Tiernan?
TA: Thank you, Jellypress! Come visit me at my website http://www.ekrg.com/tiernan/







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