Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Small Cast Iron Dutch Ovens as used in Mexican Jacales….

Dutch Ovens from Mexico nearly always have handles and that’s because they are often used in fireplaces built into mud and stick dwellings called jacales.  That’s pronounced ha-kahl-es; the singular is jacal (ha-kahl).  You need the handle in order to reach into the fireplace and extract the Dutch oven.  As a kid I’d spend summers and Christmas vacations at a remote ranch along the southern edge of the Brushlands that range from South Texas into the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas.  In those days I slept in both cabins and jacales and dwelled amongst indigenous people who knew a thing or two about living off the land.

Lately, I’ve read articles on various “bushcraft” sites relating to long-term wilderness survival.  This is nothing new as I’ve been reading this sort of stuff for decades.  Back in the 1960s you had the commune movement where disenchanted youths (mainly from the cities) took to the wilds to live off the land.  Naïve, delusional, toked up…who knows but invariably they drifted back into the cities and rejoined society (whatever that means) and became active consumers like most everybody else.  In the 1970s came the “Survival Movement” with doomsday gurus like Mel Tappan and Ragnar Benson and a host of others who claimed the world was going to fall apart; and they offered methods to subsist in dire situations ranging from buying tons of guns to buying tons of supplies.  It reminds me of the saying from an old Robin Williams movie, “But there will always be mail order!”  After a while it became something tantamount to a circus.

Nearly 40 years later you’ve got a raft of TV shows with various actors, charlatans and sundry “personalities” and likewise a young crowd of what I assume is another round of frustrated city dwellers.  So the blogs and forums discuss amongst themselves the latest TV survival episodes and speak of heading into the wilds and living off the land.  And so it all just goes round and round…and round.  Remember that doomsday talk goes back even before the time of Jesus.  Eschatological narratives abounded and people were preparing for the “end times” and associated calamities over two-thousand years ago.  This is not to say that one cannot live in the woods.  Heck, I live in the woods.  But it's important to calculate realistically the number of sacrifices you need to make and understand that one must accept certain limitations. 

But in the remote areas of Mexico and other places where people don’t have electrical switches to turn on and off and H2O taps to open and toilets to flush and cars to cruise in or nearby supermarkets or even paved roads they have learned to indeed live off the land.  Lest some of you think this is an idyllic life or believe that you would be happier in this situation then rest assured the vast majority (let’s say 99.999%) would not be very content.  You see, the Survival Movement is perhaps more a metaphor for societal frustration and angst than it is for anything else even remotely coherent.  People indulge in the fantasy of getting away from it all and living secluded from the maddening crowd and the bureaucracy and from political disarray and the frenzied rush of city life.  Their musings are seldom analytical in that they do not calculate the logistics involved primarily in evaluating population dynamics, habitat scarcity and overall costs.  But what the heck: Most humans are propelled more by emotion than logic or reason.

Anyway, these people who inhabit jacales are able to live comfortably (and some would say that on a certain level they are living much better than the average hyper-consuming American) because they grew into it.  That is to say they learned the life of the woodcrafter from infancy.  I don’t care how much of an expert some people think of themselves because compared to these people who live in remote areas our so-called “experts” are nothing but trainees.

Experts at native plants, trapping, hunting, trailing and herbal medicine these remote region dwellers spend most of their time working the land around them.  They are not farmers in the sense that they have large crops.  But they do have gardens and small plots of maize and perhaps beans.  Without TV or even radio (they have no electricity) they heat their fireplaces with wood and they retreat to an outhouse when nature calls.  They live among wild creatures and sometimes catastrophes occur.  Someone might get bitten by a poisonous spider or maybe a venomous snake and no medical help is at hand.  Some might injure themselves.  When these things happen it often takes many hours to reach medical attention.  I recall a jungle campsite that took us two days to reach.  If anything happened to any of us we were toast.  That awareness makes one extra cautious.  I also remember a man who had diabetes and lived in an isolated jacal.  He was in his mid-30s and very ill; and on one of my trips to the area I learned he had died.

Beans are cooked in clay pots and tortillas are heated on cast-iron griddles like the one pictured above.  But just about everything else gets cooked or baked in a small Dutch oven.  We used to be able to cross into any Mexican border town and buy a Dutch oven or whatever else we might need but nowadays the violence in Mexico forbids any sort of casual jaunt over that way.

Mexican Dutch ovens have three pies or feet like most other Dutch ovens.  The two pictured above are a Number 10 and Number 12 measuring about 20.96 cm and 25.4 cm respectively.


  1. I remember that when I was going to the University in Fairbanks, Alaska two couples decided they were going to move into the wilderness and live off the land. As I remember they were only a few months (four or maybe five months) when they had to be rescued due to not being able to last as Nature has a way of making one face the reality of wilderness and wilderness living. I agree that it is a far distance from wanting to live in a wilderness setting and the cold hard facts of actually living and surviving in the wilderness. Many people have dreams that in the reality that we live in are not possible for them to achieve.

    1. Thanks, Leroy. Very well said. I know you've lived in many places and have a lot of experience as both a woodsman and biologist. There is much to contemplate in what you wrote.

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