Iván Gallegos, a blacksmith with whom I worked many years ago in Cuenca, Ecuador once told me that when tools are worn out, one must cut off the damaged part of the edge in order to give it a new finish using emery. If the residues are made red-hot then cooled down in a glass of water, Iván explained, one can drink the history and strength of the tool, and utilize it as a remedy against any ill.
Although I’ve never met other blacksmiths outside of Ecuador who share this belief, I did learn that this practice had been widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries, mainly in Spain. At the time, this was generically called ‘tomar el acero’ [drinking the steel], whether or not steel was the actual metal involved. Ingesting this remedy, or going directly to the countryside to drink from a natural spring of ferrous water, was recommended to counter the harmful effects of another peculiar practice: that of nibbling on búcaros. Búcaros were small clay pots which usually came from Badajoz and Cáceres in Spain and Estremoz in Portugal. The most prized, however, were those that hailed from the province of Santiago de Tonalá in New Spain, located in today’s state of Jalisco in Mexico.
Initially reserved for wealthy women, this activity grew in popularity over time. It was believed that ingesting these clay pots had beautifying effects such as weight loss and skin brightening—at the time, this was a signifier of class by distinguishing from people who worked under the sun, or who possessed non-European features. It was also believed that búcaros had contraceptive properties, while some even speculated that it was hallucinogenic, and strongly addictive.
Some versions of the story maintain that the supposedly beautifying properties of the búcaros came from the red engobe that covered the clay. In a way, one could say that this standard of beauty was literally obtained by eating the decorated surface of functional objects produced on colonized land, and strength extracted from the energy consumed in the blacksmiths’ workshops. The truth is that society from the period was quick to eroticize both practices, assigning double meaning to ‘tomar y pasear el acero’ [drinking and strolling the steel], insinuating that these walks in the woods to look for a spring were also an opportunity to engage in brief sexual encounters. These customs are often cited within Golden Age literature: Lope de Vega’s comedy El acero de Madrid (The Steel of Madrid, 1608), a love affair featuring clay-eating and ferrous water as its setting, is a prime of example of this.