by Jutta Mason

An excerpt from Mason’s Cooking With Fire in Public Space, which details Mason’s experience with organizing, building and managing campfires and a community brick oven in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park.

The sight of a crumbling village oven, in a documentary film about Portugal, started our bread oven idea here at Dufferin Grove Park. The film showed the village priest encouraging the people to repair their old communal oven, and then there was a short clip of some village women baking at the rebuilt oven, their faces lit up by the fire. When I described this movie scene to people at the park, their faces lit up too. Over the following weeks I was astonished at the strength of people’s reaction to the oven story, as I was asked to tell it again and again. Of all the ideas ever proposed for the park, this one has a uniformly enthusiastic response. There must be an old memory (of bread baked on the hearth with fire) that people don’t seem to have let go of, even after half a century or more of sliced bread in plastic bags.

“An oven is a story magnet. People rarely pass by the park oven when something is baking without stopping to talk.”

Many older people still remember outdoor brick ovens from the countries they came from, Portugal or Trinidad or Italy or Guyana or France or almost anywhere. In Quebec there is a small outdoor-oven revival because it’s one way to keep traditional Quebec cooking alive. But in most parts of the world, the old communal bread ovens are falling into disrepair or are already gone. At the same time, restaurants all over North America have begun to offer pizza and many other dishes cooked on the hearth of a brick oven right in the restaurant. People like it, but often times this food is expensive, because it’s slow food, not fast food, prepared by the hands of cooks rather than by fabulous machines that can turn out a thousand assembly-line “food products” in under an hour.

In Italy there is a “slow food movement” with over 150,000 members. Its goal is to steer another course, an alternative course to the fabulous machines, by backing the small producer, the human-scale farmer, the small local markets, the one-of-a-kind cheese maker and so on. In a sense it’s a movement to return slow food to neighbourhoods as well as to restaurants.

Wood-fired bread ovens built for communal use are certainly one way to bring slow, excellent bread back. But we didn’t know anything about this movement in 1995, when we resolved to build an oven. We didn’t even exactly “resolve” — it would be more accurate to say we put out feelers to see if anything would stop an oven, and nothing did. The building inspectors said the oven was too small to come under their inspection. The park supervisor said he didn’t see anything wrong with our oven plans, and then he went away on holidays. The funding people who had given us a “child nutrition grant,” meant to open up new healthy food possibilities in our neighbourhood, said that fresh bread from an oven sounded nutritious to them. So we were allowed to use some of the grant to pay for the oven. A friendly and capable contractor in the neighbourhood looked at our plans and said, sure, he was busy in the week but he could get the oven built in a couple of weekends.

So with nothing to stop the oven, we went ahead and built it. Now, if you want to build an oven in your park, and want to explain to the people in charge why it’s a good idea, here’s what you could tell them.

Why should park staff encourage the building of an outdoor community oven?

An oven is a story magnet. People rarely pass by the park oven when something is baking without stopping to talk. Ovens like ours were used in Portugal, Italy, Poland, Trinidad, Germany, Greece, Spain, Guyana, rural Canada. Different kinds of ovens, also involving wood fire, were used almost everywhere else. Because ovens were so common and so much a centre of communal activity, many people have been told family stories about what was cooked in them, and they recognize the oven as something familiar.

At the same time, because communal ovens later became scarce, almost lost, seeing such an oven is always a shock for people. This means that the natural inhibitions of strangers about speaking to one another are overcome by the natural desire to tell what one knows about this surprising object. Such stories have to do with recollections of smell and taste and physical movement, and tend to be accompanied by large, lively gestures. This attracts other people walking by. There is a lot of enthusiastic interruption, as people pile on layer after layer of description:

“This is how my grandmother tested for temperature…”
“This is how my mother marked her loaves so she could tell them apart from her neighbours’ loaves after they were finished baking…..”
“This is how the plum cakes smelled when they were carried home through the streets after baking….”
“This is how we opened the oven to get out the stew at the end of the Sabbath….”
“When we were children we had to gather kindling from this certain wood…”

A public oven that gives such a strong push for strangers to share overlapping stories is a very good thing, in a city where so many people know so little about one another’s stories, past or present. An oven attracts festivals and community events. This only makes sense. People want to share food on special occasions. If we had built substantial stone barbecues instead of an oven, the festivals would still have come. But an oven is more sheltered from the elements, and in winter we can bake bread and make pizza even when it snows.

“An oven attracts festivals and community events. This only makes sense. People want to share food on special occasions… A nursery school wants to do its annual fundraiser… a street festival will culminate in a pizza-potluck, a city parks tour wants to have lunch at the oven.”

We don’t have to put on the festivals ourselves. People call up and say:

…six folk-dancing groups get together once a year and there are too many people for a small hall — could they come and dance outdoors and bring a potluck to augment our bread and pizza?
….A theater company has devised an open-air park performance about the mythology surrounding baking in ancient times, could they get us to bake some bread for opening night?
…..A community Hallowe’en parade needs a destination for the parade to end at — could they end at the park around a giant bonfire, with fresh bread for the participants?
…..The local city councillor’s office wants to host an all-neighbourhood lawn sale, could they put it near the oven and have some pizza available?

The smaller events come even more easily. A nursery school wants to do its annual fundraiser, a daycare wants a picnic of all the parents and kids, a street festival will culminate in a pizza-potluck at the park, a group of friends wants to bake unleavened bread before passover, a city parks tour wants to stop and have lunch at the oven. Even birthday parties, if screened, are a kind of community get-together, with familiar faces as friends from school and, often, their parents, gather around the pizza-making table.

And that’s not even counting the school classes which want to make pizza at the park, as part of their play day, or part of a lesson on wheat. There are weeks in the spring when there are school outings to the Dufferin Park oven twice a day every weekday. Some of the children tell us they’ve never been to the park before, even if they live three blocks away. So the oven brings them into the park. They often say they’ll come back with their parents, and sometimes they do.

The programs we do offer ourselves around the oven are also proof of the strong desire people have to eat together. Once or twice a week it’s an open oven, when anyone can come and buy a lump of dough and some tomato sauce and cheese, bring their own toppings and make lunch. Often there are seventy or eighty parents and young children coming to make their lunch. Getting your lunch like this takes much longer than ordering a slice from the pizza place up the street. But people tell us speed is not the point. Perhaps they’ve come to meet their former prenatal class here, all of them now with six-month-old babies, and they’re all spread out on three big blankets. Or they’ve just arranged to meet one friend and spend an afternoon off work in the sunshine, talking and watching the children run around the park. Or they’ve come on their own, new in the neighbourhood, hoping to meet some of their neighbours.

Any way you look at it, an oven brings people into a park. Build it and they will come.