Photo credit: Katharina Moebus

Where do we go when it is time to spend a few hours and meet and make friends?

The answer proposed by most of the western society is a combination of cafés, restaurants, movie theaters and air- conditioned shopping centers. All of them spaces built around the consumption of money and operating under rules set by the owner and not the community that uses them. In today’s cities, libraries are some of the last places where you can spend time without having to open your wallet—and in libraries, you need to remain quiet.

As Bryce Johnson, pastor and one of the oven builders we will meet in this article says: “We have a lack of public spaces for people to just be together and share in fellowship.”

For a growing number of people, third places run by profit maximizing businesses are not enough. While they enjoy a good cup of coffee just as the next person, they want more options. This do-it-yourself—or better yet—do-it-together movement of loosely organized groups of people is changing our cities through initiatives such as Restaurant Day and urban farming.

In “The Bread Builders“, Daniel Wing tells about how “after the revolution most French rural ovens became public property (owned by the municipality, the commune).” These ovens were used by the villages’ families, each baking once a week or once every other week.

Wing continues: “The dough was proofed at home, then carried to the oven on a long wide board. The loaves going into the oven were slashed with distinct patterns so each family got back its own — really its own, since the grain from which it was made was grown on their farm.”

In that time, although not free to use, community ovens were some of the most important third places: places where you would meet neighbors and discuss politics.
Times changed and people lost touch with these traditions. But maybe they can change again, taking just the best elements from the past and building on them? In this article, we are about to meet three groups of people who are getting together to build ovens and bake bread or pizza—and to build a stronger community.

Helsinki, Finland

In 2010, Katharina Moebus was finishing her Master’s studies at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. As a part of her thesis work, she needed to find a place for baking bread together. She could not find one, and in a city you can’t set up fire just anywhere you like, so she started exploring the possibility of building the oven herself.

Through a friend, Moebus heard about Kalasatama Temporary, a city initiative for experimentation through urban design projects in a temporary location soon to be replaced by new city development.

Photo by Katharina Moebus
“After visiting the location, it was clear it would be perfect—being a construction site, nobody from the city would really care too much about regulations. Also, there was some nice underground cultural activities going on through the provision of empty shipping containers open to all sorts of institutions and organizations.” Moebus says.

Finding a location was just the beginning. To make the project come true, Moebus needed other people’s help. She put up a post on the web site of Public School Helsinki, an educational platform that connects people who want to teach and learn in alternative ways, and found the group of people she now refers to as “the gang.”

“Two persons from the gang — Salla and Tanja — had participated in cob oven workshops in Germany and the UK before. Their previous experience was a great encouragement to just try it out.” Moebus says.

A Google search brought the gang to Simon Brookes’s web site and to his e-book that describes the process of making a clay oven in great detail. Equipped with this information and ideas collected at a planning workshop, the gang was ready to get to work.

The oven, which they nicknamed “Archie” was built in one weekend for a price of a mere 80 Euros—thanks to clever reuse of recycled bricks, sand from construction sites and clay from the forest. The only materials that the group needed to buy as new were the food proof fire bricks from a hardware store.

“It was surprising how well it all went!” Moebus says.

Photo by Katharina Moebus

Although the oven was initially created with a specific food event in mind, the group soon decided to make it available for anyone interested in baking in it.

“We established a blog with instructions and a calendar function. People could contact us for questions and reservations through a general email address to which we all had access.” Moebus says.

“I enjoyed the playfulness and spiritedness of gatherings there, and how humble I often felt, so amazed that our clay oven could spit out such a variety of delicious food.”

There was a good amount of interest, and a lot of pizza was baked. Some bread as well, but mostly pizza.

“Pizza is such a convivial food that tastes best from an oven such as this that it was probably one of the most favored dishes baked during the oven’s life span.” Moebus explains.

Sarah Alden, another member from the gang, agrees: “I enjoyed the playfulness and spiritedness of gatherings there, and how humble I often felt, so amazed that our clay oven could ‘spit out’ such a variety of delicious food. I remember the first pizzas we made as the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.”

Archie was never meant to last for decades. The location was temporary and the goal was more in experimentation than lasting impact. But the oven was sturdy and, even in Finland’s harsh weather, lasted for two full years—longer than the team had expected—before it was destroyed beyond repair.

“We didn’t even think it would survive the first winter.” Moebus recalls.

So, when the oven broke down, the team felt it was time to move on. The place surrounding the oven had changed a lot over the two year period and new ovens had just been built at two new locations in Helsinki.

And even Archie got a good final resting place: “Archie’s remains have been turned into a grill by one of its users, so we’re happy somebody came up with a nice idea.” Moebus says.

White Bear Lake, Minnesota

To get to the next oven on our journey, we need to travel 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) west from Helsinki, all the way to White Bear Lake, Minnesota where Bryce Johnson leads White Bear Lake United Methodist Church.

Johnson is the pastor for a vibrant congregation, but having baked since college, he is also a man with a strong passion for bread. As his bio on the church’s web site explains it: “Bryce’s avocation is bread baking and brick ovens; his vocation is connecting people to Jesus, ‘the bread of life.'”

Photo by Andrew Jacot

In 2002, Johnson attended a four day oven building class taught by Alan Scott — and built an oven in his backyard. During the course, Scott spoke about community bread ovens, and a seed that would one day lead to building a beautiful oven in the church yard was planted in Johnson’s heart.

Six years later, it was time for the next step: “I applied for a Clergy Sabbatical grant through the Lilly Endowment, Inc. in 2008. Their application began with one simple question: ‘What will make your hear sing?'” Johnson says.

The answer was easy: bread-making.

Johnson proposed a three-month sabbatical focusing on Jesus’s phrase, “the bread of life,” through learning to bake artisan bread in Italy and France and visiting ancient communal ovens.

“In Europe (and throughout much of the world) communal ovens were located at the center of the village. It was a gathering place where family news was shared and politics discussed. We have a lack of public spaces for people to just be together and share in fellowship.” Johnson says.

And so, when Johnson returned home from his sabbatical, he had a plan to build a community oven for the church.

“At church, it was an easy sell. People loved the idea and we had over 40 people involved in the construction.” he recalls.

“We have developed a solid core of avid bakers who gather on bake days but have found that we need to find ways to simplify this for the less experienced.”

Today, the oven is a central part in the life of the church—known as the “bread church” in the White Bear Lake area: the oven is featured on their web site, community bake days are organized on the first Saturday of each month, the communion bread used in the church is baked in the oven, and every Sunday, the congregation shares brick oven bread to first-time visitors.

But baking bread in a community oven is not something modern city dwellers are familiar with, so the church has had to come up with new ways to help people make the most out of the oven.

“We have developed a solid core of avid bakers who gather on bake days but have found that we need to find ways to simplify this for the less experienced.” Johnson says.

To address this issue, the church has created a new activity called “Bake & Take” where dough is prepared in advance and participants get to start right from shaping the dough.

“When they arrive, we teach participants to shape the dough. While it is rising, we share the recipe and talk through the bread making process. When the dough is ready to bake, they get to put it on the peel and into the oven. When it is all done, they get to take home a loaf of brick oven bread.” Johnson explains.

A Day At The Oven

FRIDAY 5 P.M: Volunteer starts the fire.

FRIDAY 10 P.M: Volunteer returns to stoke the fire. The fire burns overnight.

SATURDAY 12 noon: Bake day leaders arrive to clean out the ash from the oven, check temperature and set up for the arrival of bakers.

BAKING SESSIONS at 2, 3, and 4 P.M.: 20 loaves are baked at each session. Participants can bring two loaves for baking. It is common for bakers to share a portion of one loaf with others and take the other loaf home for dinner.

After the final bake, participants help clean up and the oven is closed.

One of the best experiences at the oven for Johnson has been helping Catholic Charities in Minneapolis in their 10 week Culinary Skills Job Training program for the poor and unemployed.

“In the eighth week of that program, we offer a bread class at the church. I partner with a former professional baker and we teach basic bread making and then bake in the community oven. It is such a joy to work side by side with these folks. They are eager to learn. At the close of the class we break bread.” Johnson says, and adds that more than half of the participants in the program find work after the program. In the future, he hopes to continue to foster more partnerships with organizations in their community.

“Specifically, we want to bring in youth groups and adult groups to make and bake bread which will be distributed through the local food shelf and free meal programs for the hungry. The oven is also great for pizza events. We are hoping to offer regular pizza nights during the summer.”

Maintaining a community oven is a lot of work, but Johnson’s words make me believe it is well worth the effort: “Bread and wood-fired ovens connect me to the earth. It keeps me grounded in simplicity and the rhythm of life. And as a spiritual person, it reminds the sacred is most readily found in the ordinary.”

“Bread and wood- fired ovens connect me to the earth. It keeps me grounded in simplicity and the rhythm of life. And as a spiritual person, it reminds the sacred is most readily found in the ordinary.”

Dartmouth, Canada

While Archie in Helsinki is already history and the White Bear Lake oven has been in active use for a couple of years, Park Avenue Community Oven in Dartmouth, Canada is brand new. It got its first firing on September 22, 2012 and the team is just getting up to full speed.

Photo by Park Avenue Community Oven

The team’s members found each other through word of mouth and Facebook, and inspired by ovens in parks around Canada — such as Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto, they decided to build an oven in their home town. The oven became a part of Dartmouth Commons, an area of approximately 300 acres of land dedicated for common use and strictly regulated since late 18th century.

“We felt that a community oven would complement and extend the activities around the garden. Growing food as a group and then baking together.” says Lorrie Rand, one of the organizers of the Park Avenue Community Oven project.

“We want to get people out of their houses and into the parks. Lots of children use the parks, we want to give everyone a reason to come out.”

Building the oven in Dartmouth Commons meant that the team needed to involve city officials from the beginning. The municipal councillor and the Superintendent of Parks supported the project, which proved valuable when some neighbors, unaware of what was being built, opposed the project.

“Building on the Commons is contentious as the Common is intended as a protected green space but in the past the space has been encroached upon by buildings. Most of these people are happy with the oven now.” Rand says.

“We did a lot of talking about how the oven would work, how people would get access, what kinds of activities we’d do. But we didn’t really have all of this resolved before it was built, partly because nobody in the group had ever actually used a cob oven.”

At first, the team considered building the oven themselves, but it soon became clear that the oven required a shelter to protect it from vandalism and the cold and snowy winters of Nova Scotia, something they didn’t have enough expertise to build themselves.

They chose a skilled builder, Gena Arthur, who has experience from building over 30 cob ovens and asked her to build the oven and a shelter for it.

“Since we wanted this to stay here for a long time, we wanted it done right.” Rand says.

While the oven was being built, the team discussed the details of using the oven.

“We did a lot of talking about how the oven would work, how people would get access, what kinds of activities we’d do. But we didn’t really have all of this resolved before it was built, partly because nobody in the group had ever actually used a cob oven.” Rand says.

The plan was to have the oven finished and ready for use during summer. This didn’t happen. Building the oven took a little longer, but Rand is not sorry about the delay: “It turned out to be for the best as we were able to take the fall slowly to figure out what works for us. Fall is very beautiful here and we were lucky.”

And this first fall sure has been an active time around the oven: “Our plan was to use each weekend to train people who will be able to staff the oven in the future and have open times for people to come and try baking. Between September and this week [mid November] we only had one Saturday cancelled due to rain. Participation grew each week until it peaked on November 10. The next week was small, but quite a cold day. A community has definitely started to grow around the oven with a number of families attending regularly.”

Now, in December, the oven more or less closes for winter. The temperatures fall below zero degrees Celsius at night, meaning that it will take many hours to heat up the oven, so instead of trying to bake regularly, the team is planning to host a few events — “Perhaps a Solstice party,” Rand suggests — and otherwise focus on planning for next spring’s events.

Photo by Park Avenue Community Oven

“We will have a kick off party in the spring when we think it’s nice enough out. Our spring can be very rainy and the area around the oven will need to be reasonably dry so that people can walk there.” Rand says, and continues to tell that they already have a lot of ideas for activities to do next season.

“We will continue to have weekly training sessions and open oven times. We also have some groups who may use the oven for therapy programs, children’s events. We will likely have a regular bread baking day. We also want to do a series of special events—possibly family dinners or movie screenings. We have an idea about partnering with local restaurants and having chefs come bake in the park.” Rand lists the many ideas they have for next year.

Winter is the time for decisions and formalizing the roles and responsibilities within the team, and I can’t help but think that the future for Park Avenue Community Oven is looking bright—as long as the team can keep up this level of excitement.

Is your home town next?

As these examples show, building an oven for your community is possible, even if getting started with one feels overwhelming.

If you are excited about the idea, the first thing — as with any big project — is to just get started. There is no right time, and if you keep waiting for one, the idea will never turn into reality. But getting started isn’t all there is to it, so I asked the people behind these three oven projects to share some tips on where to start with building a community oven.

Katharina Moebus, who together with her gang built Archie, the temporary cob oven in the middle of Helsinki, has collected six steps that will help you make your oven building project come true:

  1. Say out loud what you dream of.
  2. It’s worth sticking to crazy ideas.
  3. Collect the makers and start doing. Materials are almost free.
  4. Just google.
  5. Combine your knowledge for a collective intelligence.
  6. Enjoy the process.
“Most importantly though, a successful community oven project is about people: the right team and the right connections.”

Most importantly though, a successful community oven project is about people: the right team and the right connections.

First, you need to collect a group of people interested in building and using the oven, whether it is through Twitter, Facebook or an organization you are a member of. It is important that the team shares a common understanding of what they are trying to achieve and is dedicated to putting in the necessary effort.
Lorrie Rand says: “A lot of people have different visions for what the project would accomplish and how we’d use the oven. I’d suggest that everyone be very clear about communicating their ideas and getting to some common ground.”

In addition to building the right team, you need to get in touch with local officials.

“It is important to consult your local municipality, insurer and health department before proceeding. You don’t want to invest the time and money to find out later there are significant restrictions.” Bryce Johnson says, and continues: “Alan Scott, who was the pioneer of brick oven construction in this country noted that concerns over litigation have kept people and communities in the U.S. from building ovens. In our experience we found the local government, health department and insurer very helpful. They had some restrictions and requirements we had to meet, but all along they were supportive of our effort.”

Moebus has had similar experiences: “We actually had a permission to build Archie, from the city and the fire department. We even had to sign a contract to take over all responsibility. It was a bit of a struggle, but we appreciate the city’s openness towards this project— they could have said no, after all! So it surely is sometimes worth collaborating with city officials and getting necessary permissions to prevent such a project from being removed after a short time.”

When you have the right people and connections in place, the rest becomes rather straightforward—even though it still is a lot of work. Decide on the type of oven you are going to build, then look for instructions or connect with someone who knows how to build one, and get to work.

“Start slow, we have a small group doing a lot of work and burning out is a real risk. We will be spreading the work around more next season. Do lots of research beforehand.” Rand adds.

And who knows, maybe it is you who will organize the next community oven project!

Photo by Park Avenue Community Oven

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