In the sixteenth century, potters emigrated from Talavera de la Reina in Spain to the new colonial settlement of Puebla in Mexico and began crafting their majolica- inspired earthenware, known as Talavera. Although some factories in Puebla still produce high-quality pottery in the old style, most of the vibrantly decorated ceramics sold along the border come from potteries in the city of Dolores Hidalgo.
The popularity of this centuries-old craft took a hit in the seventies during what some ceramists refer to as “the lead scare,” when the world learned about the health hazards associated with lead and that minute amounts of the heavy metal can be leached out of the glaze of even the most carefully made ceramics. The bad news is that lead poisoning is cumulative, so even the smallest amount of daily consumption is dangerous. The good news is that some Talavera is now certified lead-free (check the bottom of the piece). And Marcia Lucas, the owner of Austin’s El Interior shop since 1979, says that the few pieces of Mexican glazed pottery she has had analyzed in labs have met FDA standards. If a piece isn’t certified, must it live its life as a wall hanging or a pencil holder? Not necessarily. Sensible caution seems to be the consensus. “I feel the safest thing to do is to certainly not store any acidic food like tomatoes, vinegar, and citrus juice in Talavera,” says Lucinda Hutson, the author of ¡Tequila! Cooking With the Spirit of Mexico and a collector of Mexican folk art and ceramics. “I’d even be careful of serving real acidic foods in glazed pottery.”
The FDA concurs, extending its definition of acidic foods to include tea and coffee; about 80 percent of adult exposure to lead from food that has been in contact with glazed ceramics comes from frequent use of mugs for hot beverages. The FDA advises consumers to limit the use of antique or collectible ceramics for food or drinks to special occasions and stop using items that show a dusty or chalky gray residue on the glaze after they’re washed. (Inexpensive lead-testing kits are available at most hardware stores; although not always sensitive enough to detect small amounts of lead, they are useful for exposing major heavy-metal culprits.)
Eliseo Navarrette Chimal, who owns Nuevo Laredo’s Curiosidades Nelly, has his own perspective on the problem. “Of course,” he said with a shrug, “they’ve been eating off these plates in Mexico for three hundred years.”