Metal water kettles are going the way of water buffalo here in Northern Thailand. A case in point is what my ancestors called a “tea kettle” although only the water for tea was ever heated in it, and so was our bath water. Here they are called กา (pronounced gah as in gosh). They have stood the test of time, bridging periods from wood fires to gas. They are now aluminum, although in upscale stores in the city you can find copper kettles or stainless steel ones. A long time ago they were cast iron.
This represents improvement (whereas the evolution from cast iron to aluminum skillets might not – just an opinion). For heating water, lighter weight is easier to handle and more energy efficient.
Nowadays it is neither the source of energy nor price that is the driving factor in how we heat water, and why. For most of us, the only water we want heated at home is for coffee and for baths. There are separate ways of doing that. In Thailand, a thoroughly urban household may not have a kitchen. Most apartments and condos have minimal food preparation facilities, heavy on utilities that plug in. Coffee is made, naturally enough, in a coffee maker. Expensive varieties make your coffee while you are still asleep so it is ready when you get up. I remember being struck the first time I heard a farmer back in Illinois say he thought his computerized coffee maker was a necessity, much like his John Deere tractor. Now coffee makers are available right here in Lotus and Big-C, unless you prefer to have your cappuccino or latte from a kiosk on your way into your day. Modern young adults want their coffee with a cute diagram in the cream foam on top, or in a container to go.
Here in our village if you want coffee, you make it yourself. Although coffee out here is a modern beverage, even newer than Ovaltine and Milo, tea is ancient. There was a time in living memory when the drink you were provided in a food shop was always tea.
What was used to heat water before metal kettles of any kind were found around here?
The answer arrived at my front gate a few weeks ago. A truck driver was hawking clay pots of all kinds. Before there was money to buy metal kettles there were clay ones. Indeed, there still are. They are used in our village, if at all, mostly as decorations to harken back to the old days. The hawker had to hunt among his wares to find the example I wanted for the picture at the top of this essay. Flower pots were his main product. But clay pots without spouts are still used to make soup and curry. They are part of the secret behind the great taste of certain recipes.
So, there are three eras of กา in Thailand, the era in the past when they were made of clay, the passing era of metal kettles, and the dawning present when water heating is specialized.
What do the clay, metal, and electrified water pots tell us about village culture?
Clay pots were village made. Artisans specialized in those things and certainly not every household had a kiln; but terracotta utensils were local products. The clay around here is abundant and good quality. At a market on a fixed day those with extra items could find customers to trade what they had for what they wanted. Clay cooking ware was a necessity. Village culture in the past sustained the skills and production capacity for necessities.
The second observation is that some villages rose above the level of simple adequacy in certain trades. It often had to do with the availability of raw materials, or access to supply lines for components. Not many villages here in Chiang Mai have salt, for example. There are large salt sources in Nan Province, not too far away. Not every village needed to manufacture umbrellas, but they all needed a meat processing capability. So some necessary things were made and some for obtained by trading.
If an item was absolutely necessary for subsistence living it was produced locally. If it was optional it was traded for other optional items. That was the marketing principle of the past.
Only after commerce developed, where money became the medium of exchange and transportation was feasible did the production of necessities leave the village. Clay pots were then made by those who could do it in some way better. Those craftsmen could afford to divert their attention to full-time pottery making from other labor intensive endeavors such as hunting for game and cloth weaving.
Now at the mid-twenty-fifth century (by Thai reckoning) we are entering the post-village era.
Necessities in one era are different in another era. In post-village culture a home is a residence. It is no longer a place to manufacture food to eat. The amount of time a person spends on food production may be reduced almost to zero. Conversely, people in post-village cultures spend considerably more time and concern than previous generations did on what clothing to wear, and an even higher percentage of their attention on diversions of all kinds. Any successful housing development markets its sports and recreation facilities as well as its accessibility to places of entertainment (shopping malls being probably the most important of these). Diversions fill in where community events used to take place.
In post-village culture hot water needs to be there when it is wanted or within seconds at most.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.