The daily grind

Before millstones were invented, the preparation of flour for food was an arduous task largely carried out by women for hours every day. How did it affect their lives and why does it remain a tradition in some places even today?

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Words by Rachel Laudan
19th October 2020
Issue 2

Before millstones were invented, the preparation of flour for food was an arduous task largely carried out by women for hours every day. How did it affect their lives and why does it remain a tradition in some places even today?


In March and April 2020, flour vanished from supermarket shelves as locked-down families sought the reassurance of kneading dough, sniffing the aroma of loaves baking in the oven, and relishing the texture and flavor of homemade bread. Photographs of free form loaves flooded social media. A sourdough starter in the refrigerator became the new black. It was as if the pandemic had re-awakened awareness that bread, and more generally cereal grains, have been the staff of life for most of humanity for the past ten thousand years and more.

Yet for all those heart-warming aromas, the baking was scarcely from-scratch. By starting with flour, pandemic cooks dodged all the preliminary stages of turning grains into flour. Even the few hardy souls equipped with metal hand grinders or tabletop electric mills started with cleaned, threshed, and winnowed grain. Forgotten were the thousands of years when grain was laboriously pounded and ground into something edible, usually by women. Although in most societies those labor costs have been effectively eliminated by successive spurts of technological innovation, in far too many others women are still condemned to the daily grind.

The story of human dependence on these intractable foodstuffs begins over nineteen thousand years ago as the Ice Ages drew to a close. The inhabitants of a small village near Lake Kinneret, better known to many as the Sea of Galilee, in what is now Israel, collected thousands upon thousands of grass seeds including grains of wild barley and wheat. Most of them, as yet unaltered by human breeding, were just a millimeter or so in length, no bigger than mustard seeds. After millennia of inventorying the world’s resources, humans were turning to one of the last vegetable products to enter their repertoire: the seeds of annual grasses.

Who knows if humans recognized that, given they were the food for new plants, these seeds might also be good food for humans? Whatever the reason for embarking on preparing grass seeds as food, once the endeavor was underway it became evident that nothing rivalled these cereal grains as food. Unlike the many plants that protected themselves from predators by producing toxins, cereal grains were not poisonous (though even they might be contaminated by dangerous seeds or molds). Unlike moist roots, tender greens, or meat and fish, cereal grains were dry and encased in hard little packages that could survive several years (though even grains suffered losses to rodents, insects and molds). With their high nutrient to weight ratio, grains were better suited to being transported long distances than other plant-based foodstuffs.

Best of all, cereal grains could be transformed into many kinds of appealing foods: steamed grains; noodles; gruels and porridges; toasted grains for instant foods to eat when travelling; heady alcoholic brews; and in the case of the harder grains like wheat and corn, delicious flat breads and raised breads. By the time that humans began the long transition to farming, cereal grains were on their way to supplying 70% or more of the calories for much of humanity. For the next ten thousand years, a good rule of thumb is that such societies had to ensure about 2 lbs. of grain a day for working adults. Although the quantity has dropped in the richer parts of the world grains, particularly wheat, rice and corn (upcycled into meat) remain key to survival. Even now, wheat remains one of the most traded global commodities.

The many virtues of the grains came with the accompanying costs of processing. That processing food post-harvest or slaughter was laborious was nothing new: the hunter gatherer way of life had never been one of leisure. What was new was the kind of cost of removing the layers of scratchy husks and tough hulls that make grains impossible to chew and to digest. This requires one, or more often a series of different kinds of violent mechanical processing depending on the particular features of each grain variety: repeated threshing with a heavy object to get rid of the outer layers; pounding by standing to lift a long pestle above the head and allowing it to fall into a mortar; and or kneeling to grind dry or wet on a stone. For hard grains such as wheat and barley, grindstones were essential. The people of Lake Kinneret placed their seeds on a flat stone, then thrust a second stone across them to reduce them to flour.

While this lateral grindstone (or saddle quern or metate) has been abandoned in Europe and the Middle East, variants of it are still used elsewhere particularly where grains are soaked or boiled before grinding. Mexico is one of those places, and in the years that I lived there between 1995 and 2012 I was lucky enough to be taught to grind by a series of young women. The first was Margarita Muñoz Ramírez. Like generations of girls growing up in rural areas, at the age of twelve, she had begun grinding for the family of five. When the men in the family left to work in the United States, she and her mother moved to the nearby small town and I employed her to help in the house. Although astonished that anyone would want to try grinding, as well as more than a little embarrassed to resume, even briefly, heavy toil that she was glad to have left behind, she agreed to show me how to go about it.

Margarita used a grindstone that was vastly improved over those used at Lake Kinneret. Upper and lower stones were shaped from solid pieces of volcanic rock with sharp-edged pores that tore up the maize. The saddle-shaped lower stone, the metate, was supported on two short legs at the front and a longer one at the back, making it simultaneously steady on rough ground and angled at the right pitch for efficient grinding. The upper stone, the mano, was shaped like a squared-off rolling pin.

She knelt behind the high end of the metate, scooped a double handful of maize cooked in an alkaline solution from a bucket by her side, and placed it an inch or two at the top of the rock. She took the mano in both hands, holding it near the ends, thumbs pointing back toward her, and placed it over the maize. Using her full upper body weight, her head down and butt up, she sheared the grain by pushing rapidly forward a couple of inches, then moving the mano back to push again, giving the mano a little twist upward at the end of the stroke. No rolling.

Her body weight and forward thrust did the work. By the time she had forced the pile to the bottom of the metate, the grains had been reduced to a rough mass, streaks of white flour showing in the yellowish matrix. With the tips of the right hand fingers, she pulled the mass together and moved it back to the upper end of the metate. End of pass one, which is the most difficult because the grains tend to slide about. A short breather. She repeated the pass down the metate four more times, with a few seconds’ rest leaning back on her heels between each repetition, to make a paste (masa) fine enough for the flatbreads called tortillas.

My first reaction when I tried imitating Margarita was this is easy. While my movements were nothing like as practiced the stones worked efficiently and soon I accumulated a tiny heap of wet paste. Quickly, however, I began to feel queasy and light headed. Five minutes left me exhausted and breathless. Margarita allowed herself a little smirk when she saw that I could not possibly produce the 1 to 2 lbs an hour that she could turn out.

Quite how long it takes a woman to grind for a family, apart from the time husking and shucking the maize, collecting the cooking water, and shaping and cooking the tortillas, depends on her skill and strength, the age and number of family members, the type of masa, and the quality of the metate. My estimate is that it takes about five hours a day to make enough masa for a family of five. This may seem incredible but it is in line with other estimates for contemporary Mexico and Guatemala collected by Michael Searcy, with Arnold Bauer’s estimate for Mexico, and experimental estimates for Europe collected in David Peacock’s in The Stone of Life (2013), 127. Since five hours is about as much as anyone can grind, the labor of one in five adults has to be devoted to making the staple bread.

Besides being laborious, grinding was demeaning and frequently hard on children. Models, paintings and drawings from around the world show women half naked in an effort to stay cool with their breasts swinging back and forth. The caption of a modern Mexican cartoon showing two young men ogling a young woman grinding is a common saying: “Bueno para el petate pero mala para el metate” or “good for the mat but bad at the grindstone”. A Mexican acquaintance who worked for DIF, the agency for women and children’s welfare, told me that the fastest way to reduce child abuse in remote villages was to install an electric mill so that mothers did not have to choose between caring for their children and preparing food for their children.

Thus throughout history and around the globe, reducing grains to flour or masa by hand was relegated to the powerless, sometimes male slaves, but overwhelmingly women. Grinder and stone together made a machine powered by the grinder’s movements. Bodies showed the mark: broad muscular shoulders, modified bone structure. Studies of women’s skeletons from central Europe 7,000 years ago when barley and wheat entered the diet show extensive ‘humeral rigidity’ – stiffness of bones built up only by repeated and sustained impacts higher than modern women and men, including male football (soccer) players. The only comparable modern group in this measure of strength were competitive rowers – who also trained 5 hours per day.

In the ancient world, lines of slave women ground in designated rooms to provide bread for aristocratic feasts. One of the twelve women slaves worn out from grinding for a royal feast in Homer’s Odyssey appeals to the God, Zeus: “My knees are sore from this exhausting work of grinding for them. I pray this is their final meal.” She echoes the wish of another woman slave about two thousand years earlier in Mesopotamia: “if the millstone disappears, I will not be upset.”

The lateral millstone did gradually disappear. In western Eurasia, human-powered rotary grindstones came into use around two thousand years ago. The grinder turned an upper stone, feeding grain in through its central hole. The flour eased out through grooves cut in the fixed lower stone at the rate of 8 to 10 lbs an hour, an output at least four times higher and maybe as much as ten times higher than that of a lateral grindstone. Where human-powered rotary grindstones were used, the number of adults required to grind fell from about 1 in 5 to 1 in 20 or less.

Then animals, water, or wind replaced the miller as the power source. Donkeys or horses turned rotary grindstones, though these were cumbersome to operate and the output did not improve much. Water power, introduced In the Ancient World, and widespread in the Middle Ages in Europe and parts of the Middle East and China was more successful. Horizontal flanged wheels (tub or Norse wheels) turned by a river current and connected directly via a pole through the lower millstone to turn the upper were relatively simple and inexpensive to make and operate and remained in use into the twentieth century in the Appalachians for example. Vertical water wheels (overshot and undershot wheels) geared to turn the millstone were more efficient, though they required more capital and technical skill in hydraulic engineering and machine making. Windmills were an alternative where there was a steady wind, as in the Low Countries. 6000 water mills, most of them for grinding grain were recorded in the eleventh century survey of England known as the Domesday Book. 23,000 water mills ground grain in the United States by 1840, according to Louis Hunter. The number of adults required to grind fell once more to something between 1 in a 100 and 1 in a 1000.

The very efficient industrial systems in use today began appearing in the late nineteenth century. Roller mills driven by steam or electricity utilizing alternating crushing between steel rollers and sieving for dry grinding wheat, barley and maize spread worldwide in a matter of a generation. Where they were established, the proportion of the population employed in grinding was too small to figure in employment statistics. Soon after, industrial rice mills eliminated hand pounding rice in many regions. From the 1920s, electric mills that ground wet maize into masa became available in Mexico; from the 1960s, huge mills that turned out dehydrated masa (masa harina, masa flour) were in operation. It seemed as if the struggle against the millstone had finally been won.

Why then were young women like Margarita still grinding at the end of the twentieth century? Why are women in India still grinding flour and women in Africa still pounding maize? Why did what seems like a clear case of technological progress, of dramatic improvement in labor productivity fail to take hold? Culture is often invoked. Grinding and pounding was women’s work. In Mexico, husbands grumbled that tortillas made with mill-ground masa, let alone masa harina, did not taste as good. They did not want their wives gossiping at the mill, nor paying the miller’s fees. The very identity of women, many insisted, lay in their provision of the family tortillas.

Whether women were really wedded to their identities as grinders is open to question. Although on both sides of the border there is now nostalgia for the superior taste and perhaps imagined superior nutrition of the homemade tortilla, Margarita and the other women I talked to happily traded the taste of homemade tortillas and their identities as grinders for the chance to earn enough money in craft, domestic, office or factory work so that they could keep their children in school past the age of eleven, buy a cell phone that shattered the isolation of a remote village, and pay for lights in the house. I suspect the same would be true elsewhere.

Environmental, technical and economic causes had more to do with the persistence of hand grinding and pounding, I suggest. Arid lands, such as the densely populated part of Mexico and Central Asia though the Middle East, North Africa have few rivers that run year round, limiting the use of water power. Maize, when cooked in in an alkaline solution (by nixtamalizing) as in Mexico, before grinding, has superior culinary properties to dry ground maize, since it can be formed into fragrant flexible flatbreads, and coincidentally superior nutritional value, although this could not have been known to those who invented the technique perhaps a couple of thousand years ago. This has saved Mexicans from the deficiency disease pellagra. These are good reasons for continuing to grind wet which for centuries precluded rotary grindstones since wet dough was not extruded through the stones. The downside is that the dough from grinding wet does not keep and so grinding cannot easily be centralized but must be done locally and daily. Other parts of the world, such as southern India, for their own reasons grind wet. And machines capable of grinding many grains used in the global South such as fonio are only now entering the market.

Moreover, gasoline and diesel engines and electric power are either expensive or spottily provided in many parts of the world. Not until the early twenty-first century did Mexico reach over 95% coverage. That sounds good until you realize that 3.5 million people remained without it, which works out to 700,000 women grinding by hand. 3 billion people still live in places where per capita electricity consumption is less than that used by a single American refrigerator. How many women in these places are still grinding and pounding?

In short, from the villagers of Lake Kinneret to many still today in rural areas, wherever hard grains such as wheat, barley or maize were or are ground on the lateral grindstone, one adult in each family has had to spend five hours on her knees at the grindstone daily. Pounding softer grains such as rice, millet or sorghum takes its toll too. Compared to the relentless daily labor of processing the harvest into food, the episodic labor of farming pales in comparison. Until affordable and locally-appropriate improvements in grinding technology were introduced, women had no option but unchosen, mind-numbing, physically exhausting labor. And the locking up of so much of the talent and energy of these women in pounding and grinding grains surely impeded the betterment of society as a whole.