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The Puerto Rican Pilón
by: Ivonne Figueroa

When I think about our pilón sweet memories of Mami’s and abuela’s kitchen came to my mind. First of all I remember the delicious mofongo Mami makes, even today, using her trusted pilón. I remember abuela machacando el ajo in her pilón until it was completely mashed into tiny little pieces. I can close my eyes and STILL smell the aroma the ajo produced in Mami’s pilón. Mami also used the pilón to smash soda crackers to make empanadas - (that’s breaded steak - for those young Boricuas who never saw cracker crumbs made the old fashioned way.) Of course, she also used it to moler especies for delicious meals.

Soon I realized that I didn’t know anything about the background of our illustrious kitchen tool. I searched my extensive Puerto Rican books library, and searched the internet but found nothing about our beloved pilón. I knew that a kitchen is not a true Puerto Rican kitchen without a pilón and was sure that sooner or later I would find something. Finally el Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in El Viejo San Juan faxed me some interesting information.

It turns out that the pilón was first used by the Taíno Indians. Conquistador historians like Fray Iñigo Abbad, and Fernández de Oviedo mention having seen the Indians use giant size vases to mash different things. The ancient pilones were much like the pilones of today. Same shaped but quite rustic. Taínos would step one foot on the base to prevent it from tipping over when hit with the giant macetas. Taínos used large hollowed out tree trunks to form waist high pilones. The hole was approximately 25 inches in diameter - of course they often varied in size. Some were small hand-held pilones but still larger than the ones we use today. Since Taínos used them - pilones were found in all the Caribbean Islands. The hole for the pilón was burned out and carved using simple rustic tools. Giant macetas were carved out of trees also. The final product depended on the talents of the carver. Some were very rustic, most were just plain practical. Some were well finished smooth and shinny on the outside. Some were pieces of art with elaborate carvings but I’ve never seen any of those myself. Pilones found in Haiti tend to be more elaborately decorated, even today. Taínos used the pilón and maceta to mash corn, spices, medicinal herbs and other things. Ingredients to make body paint were also processed in a pilón. With the introduction of the coffee bean into our culture, the pilón took an even more prominent place in our history.

Not long ago pilones were common in coffee plantations where the giant pilones were used in the processing of the aromatic beans. Our abuelos also used these giant pilones to process
coffee. The processing of the coffee bean in the pilón was a multi step method. Mami remembers her family processing the coffee just picked from the back yard trees. First the red coffee beans were picked from the tree, then the beans were put into a burlap sack and hit against a hard surface, maybe large rocks, to loosen the red shell. The red shell was removed. Next the beans were sundried. Then into the pilón they went to pilarlas until the second shell, a cream colored cáscara, cracked. Next the coffee was, what they used to call VENTIAO, in a dita, by tossing it into the air and soplarlo until all the remaining cream colored shells were blowned away. Then the coffee beans were roasted in a big caldero. Again the beans went back into the pilón for the final step to turn it into flour. By this time the house and even the entire neighborhood smelled like coffee. Everyone who could smell the sweet aroma followed the scent and invited themselves in for a cup of coffee. Can’t you just smell the coffee right now?

Not long ago it was said that there was nothing tastier than coffee that had been hand ground in a pilón. Abuela says ‘‘Un buchecito de café negro sabe mejor si ha sido colado usando harina molida en un pilón’’ It results in a more authentic criollo flavor. Today many of the remaining ancient pilones are part of museum collections. They are displayed in Taíno exhibits as well as in coffee plantation exhibits Some people use the ancient pilones as macetas and plant flowers in them. I still use my own pilón, although rarely. Now a days everything comes ready to use. My own pilón and maceta sit quietly, rarely used in the kitchen cupboard. I will always keep my pilón as a reminder of my boricua roots.

Uses of a pilón . . .

You can't make authentic mofongo without a pilón.
Mash your garlic and other spices in the pilón.
Make cracker crumbs using the pilón.

Many Puertorriqueños ausentes collect pilones as a hobby.

Grinding (Pilando) Coffee, 1916 - Two workers in the process of grinding the coffee grains. Seedtime and the culture of this grain have been carried out in our Island since 1736, becoming the export product of major economic importance at the end of the XIX century. The coffee produced in Puerto Rico was shipped to the island of Cuba and different European countries such as Spain, Italy, France and Germany. As a result of the Hispano-American War of 1898, the exporting of Puerto Rican coffee ceased.

"El Buen Borincano" midi courtesy of Rene Ramos