We want to say thank you to our outgoing Guest Curator, Emma Lang! If you missed a chance to see her fantastic artifacts, please stop by the Guest Curator Archive Page. You can also examine all of our past Guest Curator’s as well.
Welcome to our Guest Curator, Sharon Hudgins!
Sharon Hudgins is an award-winning author, a former university professor, and a journalist with more than 900 articles published worldwide. She has been a lecturer on several educational tours to Mongolia, sponsored by National Geographic Expeditions and Smithsonian Journeys. Her latest book is T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks: Cooking with Two Texans in Siberia and the Russian Far East (University of North Texas Press, 2018), the first cookbook in America about the foods of the Asian side of Russia.
COLLECTION: Hand-Carved Mongolian Ceremonial Milk Spoons (Tsatsal)
On my first trip to Mongolia in 2006, I saw some hand-carved wooden items that looked somewhat like a spoon, but had handles decorated with unusual designs, including animals. The “bowls” of the spoons were flat, not concave, with nine square indentations carved into them. The person who sold them to me said they were “milk spoons.” Since I’m interested in both folk art and wooden kitchen utensils from all over the world, I bought three of those strange-looking “spoons” in hope of finding out more about them and how they were used.
On that trip and several subsequent journeys to Mongolia, I learned that milk and meat are the mainstays of Mongolian cuisine. Milk also has a special symbolism as a “white food,” representing light (as opposed to darkness), innocence, purity, nobility, kindness, honesty, happiness, prosperity, and respect. Milk is used in several Mongolian rituals, including the ritual of tossing milk into the air or sprinkling it onto a person, an animal, or an object, as an offering to the spirits, a supplication, a blessing, or a protection.
Often the device used for this ritual is a ceremonial milk spoon (tsatsal), usually made of wood, although a few are made from soapstone, brass, or even reindeer antlers. These spoons are decorated with a variety of carved symbols: mythical, animistic, Tibetan Buddhist, zodiacal, nationalistic, naturalistic, realistic, geometric, floral, faunal. The nine indentations in the spoon’s “bowl” are also symbolic, since nine is a sacred number to many Mongolians. They believe that milk tossed from the indentations in these spoons is transformed from a common material substance into a spiritual substance that transcends the boundaries of matter and attains a significance of its own.
Traditionally a milk spoon was one of a Mongolian nomadic family’s few possessions that had a purely spiritual (as opposed to practical) function. It is the only spoon that is not used for cooking, serving, or eating, but is still intimately connected with food. And since these spoons are made by individuals, not mass produced, they are an interesting example of Mongolian folk art.
My own collection of 20 milk spoons includes 18 carved from wood, with a natural finish; only 2 are painted in addition to being carved. My interest in these spoons led me to examine more than 60 of them in Mongolia and in museums elsewhere in the world. In 2013, I presented a paper about them at the Oxford Symposium on Food. In 2014, my more detailed research paper, “Tsatsal: The Symbolism and Significance of Mongolian Ceremonial Milk Spoons,” was published in Mongolian Studies: Journal of the Mongolia Society, Volume XXXVI, pages 41-77, in the United States.
If you are a folklorist or a collector of folklore/popular culture artifacts, please consider becoming a Guest Curator. Your objects will be highlighted here on a rotating basis.
All we ask is that the objects be yours, you have a photograph of the objects, and all or most of the information about the object (see the guidelines below, for more details).
Guest Curator Guidelines:
1. Artifacts must fall within the subject of our website (folklore, folk art, popular culture, etc).
2. Artifacts must be a part of your own personal collection.
3. Submissions must be limited to no more than five artifacts.
4. Submissions must contain a photograph of the artifact, as well as the title, purpose, country of origin, culture , materials, and dimensions of the artifact.
5. We also would like your photograph and a brief biography to accompany the collection.
Please contact, email@example.com and write Guest Curator in the subject line for further information or with any questions. We cannot wait to highlight your collection!