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.
Margie invited the West End public health inspector for lunch. He and I had had some testy discussions when I first wanted to get food into the park. One day he told me to relax, that he didn’t care about the red tape, he cared about food safety, and that he was willing to give us advice without throwing the book at us. So that made Margie invite him. And in fact he came with a very friendly manner. We asked him, how will we keep the baking legal? He said, don’t worry about it much. There’s a loophole in the Health Act. It started out with church suppers. Sometime fifteen years ago some health department tried to shut down the church suppers at a county fair, and their member of parliament just about lost his seat over it.
Politicians know that community suppers are practically untouchable. You’re a community group. You don’t come under the restaurant rules. So don’t worry too much about our red tape. Concentrate on keeping your food clean and not poisoning your neighbours. Handwashing, handwashing! Get all your community people washing their hands when they cut up food. Try to wash the dishes hot. Forget about adding a lot of chlorine disinfectant. Some people think too much chlorine can make food workers sick. Just have lots of clean hot water, and clean hands, and only very fresh food. Don’t let things spoil. What a gift this sensible man gave us.
Lisa, the artist who painted our wildflower signs, lit the first fire. Dave Miller, who had been such a good amateur helper to our oven contractor, assisted by giving her a bundle of twigs and she stuck them in the oven on top of some newspapers, struck a match and then — by glory! The oven was lit. The flames flared up and started spreading back. The Italian men were walking round and round the oven, exclaiming and muttering. All of us looked at each other and laughed, and slapped each other on the shoulders, and laughed, and scratched our heads. It didn’t really make sense, but here it was. A real bread oven, far from Calabria. Real smoke coming out of the chimney. There it was.
We decided to have an opening ceremony, and Mayor Hall let it be known that she would be the right person to “open” the oven. It’s scheduled for October 7th. Because we wanted to serve some wine with the bread, we had to fence off the area around there. The Parks crew brought the fencing and pounded in the steel stakes. I could see the basketball guys watching. All summer long they watched the oven being built, but kept their own counsel.
Thirty-nine years ago today my mother, my little brother, and I got off the boat in Montreal and embraced my embarrassed, emotional father, who had come to Canada from Germany a whole year before us. On that day 39 years ago I thought that I would just stay in Canada until I could decently leave home (I was nine) and then sail the high seas for the rest of my days. Who would ever want to live anywhere other than on an ocean liner? But then I got stuck on solid ground, and now I seem to live much of the time in a park. I stay in one place and other people sail by.
I was watching at the oven while Nigel attached the oven door, and three different people came by to tell us something about the ovens of their youth. There was a woman from the Ukraine, a man from Trinidad, and another man, very old, from Poland. He spoke about his mother, who baked once a week and always tested the oven heat by throwing in a handful of flour and watching how quickly it turned brown. You never taste bread like she baked, nowadays, he said.
I told him I will never bake bread like his old mother baked, but I hope I’ll learn, in ten or twenty years, how to bake something very good. Unless, of course, I’ve left on an ocean-going ship before then.
There was a phone message when I got home. A Parks staff person had phoned from another community centre, saying there was a very rude man who wanted to get hold of me, something about firewood, and here was his number. I called the man and he said, “I’m sorry. I was very rude to the employee because she behaved so stupidly. I asked her about the bread oven and she said she knew nothing about it. But she is supposed to know if she answers the telephone!”
It turned out he had read the Sun article about the oven and he wanted to offer us an unlimited supply of perfect firewood. “I’m from Guyana,” he said, “and in Guyana people believe in helping each other out. You could even say that’s their main hobby. I have a small factory here in Toronto, in which I employ 12 of my countrymen to take apart big hardwood skids which are cracked. Then we rebuild them into smaller, sound skids, which leaves a lot of hardwood scraps that are waste.
“So that was the point of the oven-opening festival. There was the cold and the rain, the empty park and the green twigs… but then the reporter came and wrote his article and this man from Guyana read it and wants to bring us perfect wood, forever.”
But I, Hussain Ali, do not wish to take this wood to the garbage dump when I could be giving it to the park for the bake oven. I have twenty barrels of it right now, and I’m willing to deliver it to you myself, if you will just give me the directions. Then you can show me the oven and I can see for myself whether it’s the same kind of oven my family used to bake in, in Guyana. It sounds to me like you are doing the perfect thing, and you should be supported. I want nothing for this, only the satisfaction of doing something helpful. Thanks to Allah I have the means of doing so.”
So I gave him the directions. After I hung up, I thought, so that was the point of the oven-opening festival. There was the cold and the rain, the empty park and the green twigs, the wretched bunting blowing off in the wind, but then the reporter came and he wrote his article and this man from Guyana read it and wants to bring us perfect wood, forever.
St. Nicholas’ Day. I decided to bake some bread, so I came down early and put a fire in the oven. Hussain’s wood was just as he said, dry and hard and perfect for heating a bake oven. In the afternoon I mixed bread at a table set up in the rink house. I wanted to do the mixing right in front of the kids who were skating, so I had all my ingredients set up on the table and I went back and forth between stirring and kneading, three times for three different kinds of bread.
“At first the kids ignored me but after a while some of them came over. One of the girls helped me mix herbs into the dough, and said, “if my mother saw me making bread, she wouldn’t believe her eyes.”
At first the kids ignored me but after a while some of them came over. One of the girls helped me mix herbs into the final dough, and told me her mother makes corn bread at home. She said, “if my mother saw me making bread, she wouldn’t believe her eyes.” Some boys she knew went by and jeered at her, in a friendly way, and she turned red and cursed them, in a friendly way (I think). And then she kept kneading, with great concentration, until the dough was ready to put in the pans.
It was Jacqueline’s last pizza Sunday before Christmas. How she accomplishes these days is almost unfathomable. But each Sunday there have been more families than the previous week. I guess people like the exotic combination of skating and wood-oven pizza, even just the smell of the smoke that drifts over the ice from the oven. Maybe some people come just to see how Jacqueline manages to juggle it all — surely a piece of performance art.
She arrives first thing when the rink opens at 10, as often as not with all three sons. The little one is only five but already a fine skater, as are the older two. As soon as they get here they all four go out to the garage and fill the wheelbarrow with wood and newspaper to start the fire in the oven. This is not so easy. Vigilance is required, in case a piece of skid wood has paint spots or some other suspect substance on it, that might not be destroyed by burning at 800 degrees. To keep the food pure, four pairs of eyes are needed to scan every board that’s put in the wheel barrow.
“Each Sunday there have been more families than the previous week. I guess people like the exotic combination of skating and wood-oven pizza, even just the smell of the smoke that drifts over the ice from the oven.”
Once all the wood has been put in the oven, the newspaper crumpled up, and the match struck, they go into the rink house and the boys get their skates on. Jacqueline tightens their laces and adjusts helmets and sorts gloves until they all leave for outside. Then she hides their bags under the counter in the kitchen and gets her dough started. This is easier now that we’ve got the loan of an old Hobart mixer. Jacqueline puts water in the mixer bowl, and yeast, then flour and oil and salt and pepper (her secret ingredient from the restaurant recipe) and turns the mixer on.
She stays right beside it because the mixer came with a warning: if anyone tries to reach in when the dough hook is going around — it goes so smoothly and slowly — they will probably die. The dough hook will catch the person’s arm and tear it off and they will bleed to death. Even though only one arm is caught and pulled out of its socket, it’s not possible to reach around with the other arm, to turn off the switch, because the pain is too horrible for movement.
I was telling this to one of the kids who was watching us use the mixer, and he nodded. Yes, that’s how his uncle died. He was a baker in Portugal and when the household got up one morning they found him on the floor beside his mixer, in a pool of blood, dead.
We’ve told the story to everyone who comes near the mixer. Some of the kids wouldn’t even come in the room after that. Who needs a horror movie if you can stand at the rink kitchen door and just shudder at the mixer going around? And yet, the sound of it is wonderful to us. Jacqueline can stand right beside it and let it work the dough while she cuts up peppers and sausage and onions and mushrooms, gets out the pizza sauce and puts corn meal on the wooden peels.
Once the dough is mixed she puts it in a huge bowl and covers it with a damp cloth. She attends to the boys, runs out and checks the fire, runs back in and punches the dough down, rolls it out, puts it on the wooden peels, and attends to the boys again. Meantime people come by the kitchen/office and ask her, what are you doing there? When she has time, she answers.
But already people are asking, is it almost time for the pizza to be done? So Jacqueline spreads the tomato sauce, and sprinkles the cheese, and puts on the toppings, and drizzles the olive oil, and out she goes to put the first few pizzas in. Once they’re in she runs back inside and grabs oven mitts and platters and the hoe that we use to move the pizzas around. Then she’s back out, a quick check on the boys – “I love you too but I can’t talk right now,” – and then back to get the first pizzas out and put some more in.
She runs inside with the done pizzas and shoves them on the tables in the kitchen/office, cuts them up, runs off again calling out the price over her shoulder, to the rink guard who has a line of hungry people at his counter – back in again with the next pizzas, — oh no, the first ones are gone already — and into the other kitchen to get some more dough. She told me once she feels like Charlie Chaplin in his assembly line movie, and it’s easy to see why.
Meantime people skate around with traces of tomato sauce on their faces. Then they go home and tell their cousins, or they invite their friends to come for the day from Mississauga, and next Sunday even more people come to the rink. Now that the holidays have started it will surely get worse. It’s wonderful that so many people are rediscovering the rink, but sometimes I worry — how many more can fit?
The kick-off concert for the Dufferin Mall Summer Concert series was today, but it was rained out. The performers — a Portuguese cultural group and a Georgian choir called Darbazi (singing music from the former Soviet Republic, not the state in the U.S.) and a salsa group – came to the park anyway because for a while in late morning it looked as though it might clear up. But then the sky looked dark again and the rain fell steadily.
We had the pizza oven fired up already so we thought we might as well make the performers some lunch while we waited out the rain. Half of my “youth crew” came by and we got them to help put the pizzas in the oven. As soon as they brought back the first pizzas the sky really opened, so everyone jammed into the rink house and pizzas were passed from hand to hand because no one could get near the pizza table.
The Darbazi choir formed a little circle and began singing, with a background of the drumming of the rain on the pavement outside the open doors. Two of our youth crew put on Parks Department yellow raincoats and ran outside and cooked another round of pizzas. Then the Portuguese group decided to dance, and somehow they managed to find enough room in the rink house. They had an old man who plays a squeezebox and an even older woman who sang in a strange, exotic keening voice, and all the others in the group, some of them teenagers and young children, lined up across from one another and danced, and sang at the same time. They have bright red scarves and sashes that flash when they twirl.
“The Darbazi choir began singing, with a background of the drumming of the rain outside the open doors. Our youth crew put on Parks Department yellow raincoats and ran out and cooked another round of pizzas. Then the Portuguese group decided to dance…”
A few people from the neighbourhood had come over despite the rain. They lined up outside the windows, under their umbrellas, looking into the room, because that was the best way you could see the dancers. There was no room inside but it didn’t matter — the dancers were dancing and singing for each other.
When they finished a piece, the Darbazi singers would start up again, and so on back and forth. The sound bounced back off the walls and was somehow further amplified by the torrents of rain. It was so extraordinary and so beautiful I thought I could die right then.
The wheat and oats and rye and buckwheat that we planted this year in the gardens beside the oven got wrecked today. A flock of sparrows flew down and ate up all the grain in one five-minute raid, leaving only bent stalks, like a bunch of feathered vandals. I don’t want to grow grain again like that. It was a bit of whimsy – let’s plant some samples of grain, in honour of the bake-oven. But the grains grew very tall and took over the whole garden, and the wind would blow through them in waves. People used to lean on the fence and stare. I had the impression they were thinking heavy thoughts. More than once I saw someone weeping, and the tears looked bitter and painful.
“I don’t want to grow grain again like that… We didn’t know how people would take it to heart – people for whom grain once did grow right near their oven, and who for various reasons went away, or were driven away, from all that forever.”
So I don’t want to do that again. There’s no reason why memories should be happy, especially when there’s homesickness, and not all stories are nice. But we don’t have to play with that, to test how evocative we can make the oven. It was a mistake. We didn’t know how much people would take it to heart – people for whom grain once did grow right near their oven, and who for various reasons went away, or were driven away, from all that forever.