If a pot can tell a story of the time, place and culture that created it then Nathalie Herling’s kitchen speaks many volumes in many languages.
Herling collects clay pots from around the world: pointy-capped Moroccan tagines; wide Mexican cooking pots called “cazuelas”; prettily painted Asian rice pots; colorful Spanish bakers in blue and yellow; unglazed, rustic red Dutch ovens; pots burnished in blacks and browns from Chile and Colombia; pots from China, Japan, Russia, Mexico, France, Bulgaria, Tunisia, America and Austria.
Though they look like they belong in a museum, these pots aren’t so much for show as they are for cooking. “Every culture cooks in clay,” explains Herling, a raven-haired, voluptuous 49-year-old who used to run a folklore-centric gallery in her native
Texas. “I don’t like art out of context,” she says of her pots, which currently stand uncounted. “If you want to know the rest of the picture, you have to cook with them.”
That she does, and often. Dressed in bangley, spangley jewelry, a long black skirt sparkling with gold and silver threads, and a red and pink apron tightly wrapped around her waist, she recently made chicken paprikash in a hand-painted Bulgarian pot, sending the scent of chicken stock, sweet peppers and garlic down the stairwell of her apartment building off Bedford Avenue. (You could think of it as her latest art gallery, but one in aromatic form.)
That was just one course of a complete clay-made meal: Mussels steamed with caramelized shallots and white wine in a fish-shaped pot. A thick, chocolatey, nutty, chile-spiked Mexican mole warming in a wide Colombian Dutch oven—started, of course, with chiles toasted in clay till they puff and blacken. (Herling grinds them into a paste similar to the one that starts her chili: “I’ve participated in a lot of chili cook-offs,” she says matter-of-factly, “and I’ve placed every time.”)
On the table—next to fruit, squash, flowers, bags of dried chiles and piles of pots —is a clay plate holding fresh Mexican cheese, a pig-shaped clay bowl filled with salsa, and a covered clay baking dish full of tortillas fresh, soft and warm from the oven.
Like the table—and Herling herself, for that matter—this kitchen is a mix of Latin color and symbolism, Southern kitsch and international trinkets: sunshiney yellow walls, vintage cowboy lunchboxes, handmade bottle-cap art and a line of curvy Mexican pop bottles in shades of pink, blue, purple, orange, green and red. And everywhere in this large and happily cluttered space—triple stacked, hidden in pantries, perched on windowsills, hanging from walls—are more pots.
In many ways, the obsession was a birthright: She’s the daughter of a Frenchwoman with Moroccan roots who ran a fine art gallery with Herling’s father in Dallas. “I started out with a piece of pre-Columbian before I had a Barbie doll,” laughs Herling, recalling a family game where she and her siblings would have to guess which part of a piece wasn’t original. “It was my first introduction to clay,” she says, “and I fell so in love with it.”
If her parents were into the higher arts, she says, “I liked the people’s art, that was my passion.” But only in recent years did the passion enter Herling’s kitchen. It all began with a pot from La Chomba, the village in Colombia known for its dark, smooth, black cookware, burnished by hand to a shiny, silky finish. Herling had answered an ad on craigslist.com to work a booth at a Manhattan gift trade show for a woman who imported the pots, but became the ultimate customer. “This,” she says running her hands around that piece’s ultra-smooth rim, “is what really turned me on to cooking in clay.”
Ever since, she’s cultivated a collection of French glazed cookware, Spanish plates and tiny Mexican pots hung on the wall above her copious spice racks. But “never where it took over everything I cook in,” she says.
Now, in addition to working for a company that arranges meetings between high-level executives and other business leaders, Herling collects pots from thrift stores, eBay and antique sales. She also befriends—and cooks with—everyone from aging Italian- American neighborhood numbers runners to 20-something food hipsters. She runs two meetup.com groups dedicated to food (tamales and tequila; spicy food), and hopes to help the Latin American countries where her favorite pots are made make money from their art. Or maybe, perhaps, she’ll open an international art gallery/education center/performance space like the gallery called Eclectic she ran in Texas.
(Like many collectors, Herling has lived in many places and had many careers. After a divorce, she and her three children moved from Texas to an apartment near Union Square. Six years ago she transplanted herself to Williamsburg.)
And, yes, she has plans for a cookbook. “The nice thing about cooking in clay,” says Herling, who recently ran a clay pot cooking demonstration at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, “is it’s hard to burn things.” Clay builds the heat slowly, retains moisture and maintains an even temperature, she explains. “It gives food a chance.” (It also “cleans beautifully,” she raves, sounding almost like a salesclerk, adding that it’s refined enough to go straight from stove to table.)
But any book by Herling would go beyond recipes and pretty pictures to include anthropology and history and traditions— topics she posts about on her blog, creativeclaycooking.com. “I don’t consider myself a chef,” she says, moments after stabbing a hunk of butter with the point of a chef ’s knife and plunking it into her paprikash. Instead, she’s a comfortable, culturally curious cook, capable of and open to exploration both in technique and in ethnic origin. She makes red sauces and baked pastas for the aging Northern Italian men in the neighborhood, say, or couscous or mussels in honor of her French-Moroccan mother. In fact, she soaks up cultures and folklore and foodways the way she collects pots.
“I look at it as my research collection,” Herling says of her earthen batterie de cuisine. “It kind of measures cultures and time. I think it has a wonderful life that way.”
Rachel Wharton is a Prospect Heights–based food writer whose proudest achievement to date is eating in all five boroughs—and Long Island—in one weekend.