Long Reads

The Centuries-Old Form of Public Cooking That's Making a Comeback

August  4, 2016

There’s something that’s always been both humbling and awe-inspiring for me about cooking outdoors, from the childhood lure of smushed up s’mores over a campfire, to the massive, in-ground, hog-roasting pits that dot the Southern United States. A cross-pollination of danger (live fire!) and nourishment, eating around an open flame is one of the fastest ways we are able to drop pretense and connect with others.

Photo by True Brick Ovens

Recently, I stumbled upon what is, perhaps, my newfound favorite method of public cooking: the community oven. After researching the Shaker tradition of “beehive” ovens, I was bowled over to learn that the use of public ovens as a shared resource is not only one of the most cross-cultural phenomena in the world, but one of the oldest. The Shakers might not have fared too well as a religious sect (they didn’t believe in reproduction, after all), but the baking traditions they embraced are timeless.

Public ovens have been a well-recorded, vastly important part of (largely rural) group life since at least the 12th century. Since houses rarely—if ever—had ovens of their own, the community oven was the place for all things baking, as well as where stories were swapped and practical information gathered, much like taverns in the old West. Households would prepare their breads at home, score the dough with a specific “brand” or family marking, and trek down to the oven to bake.

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As focal points of town life, the ovens soon began to take on much deeper meanings: Public oven as moth-to-the-flame meeting place. Public oven as sustenance. Public oven as the core of what it means to be a town and, more or less, a human.

In medieval France, feudal lords owned and charged a nominal fee for the use of town ovens, with “baking days” held once a week. (Loaves of bread at this time were quite large, and likely quite stale.) By the 15th century, a specially-designated “oven master” was appointed to oversee these communal structures, and strict guidelines governed their use and cleanliness. Only certain kinds of fruits could be dried, for instance, and even the crumbs around the oven were sold for chicken feed. After the French Revolution, ovens became free and the property of the village itself: a practice already underway in countries like Wales.

Each oven is one-of-a-kind and singularly built—the tangible, historic heartbeat of a community.

Jewish congregations during the Middle Ages typically used their ovens weekly as well, but also in a yearly ceremonial practice for making Passover cakes. At the same time, an entire trail of public ovens began to pop up across Italy and the Mediterranean coast, where—along with bread—plenty of rudimentary pizzas were eventually baked. The community oven became practically ubiquitous, with each country or region adding a highly-specific spin.

If your community had a public oven, would you use it? Photo by Creative Commons

And the ovens are all practically works of art. Handcrafted from any number of materials—from brick to stone to sunbaked earth—each is one-of-a-kind and singularly built, the tangible, historic heartbeat of a community. It’s difficult to imagine just how many hands, loaves, and lives passed through their flames.

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Top Comment:
“There are dozens, maybe hundreds of small, community wood-burning ovens throughout the U.S. and at least 2 web-based lists that support their construction and use. In our small community in the Catskill region of New York, we have a very rustic "cob" oven that we use for ad hoc pizza parties and bakes for about 5 or 6 months out of the year. We usually have around 60 people in attendance. All of the food is paid for by contributions and all of the work is done by a core group of about 6 people. There is nothing like food and fire to bring people out of the woodwork.”
— C. J.

After World War II, the fire for community ovens began to die out, save a few traditional holdouts in places like Morocco and Monserrat. People turned their attention toward efficiency over process, as gas stoves became kitchen status symbols of speediness and modernity. Families scattered more and more into their own incubated worlds, holed up with shelves upon shelves of proprietary cooking gadgets. No one needed to share, it seemed, and no one really wanted to, anyway.

As cities and suburbs have mushroomed, we’ve somehow fallen even deeper into “crowded isolation” complacency, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the checkout line, but never uttering a peep to one another. Which is why—despite their ancient origins and global ties—the recent small-but-steady comeback of community ovens has baffled many. Why would you take food somewhere else to cook when you could do it at home? Shouldn’t convenience be king?

Others, though, see the larger purposes at work.

Public ovens might just the place where we can truly begin to fill stomachs and build relationships at the same time.

The most robust organization currently reinvigorating the art of the community oven is Lovens, whose mission statement proclaims, “[community] bakeries and wood-fired ovens are the quintessential hubs of humanity, globally present and culturally diverse yet universally unifying.”

Lovens—which says it promotes “ovens without borders”—has not only sought to teach about the scholarly qualities of community ovens, but the charitable reach of the practice. They’ve built metal, wheeled ovens to serve the homeless in Brighton Beach, and launched the Ovens for Peace program, which repurposes discarded Bulgarian military ovens into mobile wood-fire units for use at refugee camps and orphanages.

Photo by James Ransom

In the U.S., a network of churches across Minnesota is the current national stronghold for community ovens, even sharing tips and tricks for new oven construction online. And Toronto (already a hub for kitchen libraries and timeshare networks) is now a global leader in reclaiming neglected public space as well using ovens as catalysts. The construction of a tandoori oven in a particularly blighted Toronto park has become the quintessential example of how powerful community ovens can be for sparking change.

Today, we’re embracing the concept of “slow food” with open arms, and—in many cities—love a good communal table. But public ovens might just the place where we can truly begin to fill stomachs and build relationships at the same time.

It’s pretty apparent to anyone who’s glimpsed the news recently that we’re currently living in an era ripe with isolation and fragmentation. We’re worried, we’re fearful, and in many cases, rightfully so.

But while humans are, perhaps, fundamentally lonely creatures, I’d like to believe that our hunger for others—whether in the form of neighbors, family or, yes, a heart-pounding love affair—is what truly nourishes us. People are constantly looking for ways to connect, untether themselves from their digital leashes, and sustain eye contact for more than the length of a fleeting glance.

Sure, a person might be able to live by bread alone, but he or she can’t actually live alone very well. Around community ovens, home cooks are able to bring their creations—vulnerable and personal as they may be—into a public space as an offering of individual and group. “My pie crust is wonky. But this is me. I’m here, and I’m trying,” it seems to say.

And maybe, at an oven, someone will break off a hunk of their freshly baked bread and hand it to you with a smile, their eyes sharing a part of themselves, too—however quietly, however small.

Sarah Baird is our newest writer in residence. Please say hello in the comments!

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Sarah Baird

Written by: Sarah Baird


Anna H. March 25, 2020
where is the pic of the two beehive ovens from? do you have any leads on design plans for that type of oven? now would be a great time to build one. No virus could survive that heat... and people could bake their breads!
Cynthia D. March 27, 2020
The design if similar to the one in Kiko Denzer's book "Bulid your Own Earth Oven" which you can buy on Amazon and probably pick up used on Ebay. Do a google search for "Cob Ovens" and "Earth Ovens". They are simple but a little time/labor intensive to build. The effort is worth it. You'll have friends coming out of the woodwork. There is something about fire and food that draws people like flies.
SERA H. July 15, 2018
Hi Sarah,
I had this idea of opening a space like this to become a community meeting point and a means of sharing ideas and food as I know this was they way communities got together. I have since learnt that this is still happening, so wondered if you could recommend any standout community ovens when I could go and learn in europe? I would love to learn somewhere that cooks not only bread but meat and produce veggie as well. Thanks!
Larry N. August 12, 2016
WowWowWOW! Love this!
Laura W. August 12, 2016
I am moving back down to Austin, TX next year to my home and plan to turn my good sized back yard into a commercial kitchen w/ cooking classes and wholesale goods...I've always wanted to put in a wood burning oven out there...does anyone have a link of more local TX groups specializing in what that entails?...my neighborhood is a pretty food entrepreneurial place and having a communal oven would be awesome...thanks
Sammi August 11, 2016
I really enjoyed this article. I'm excited to read more from you, Sarah!
Karin B. August 10, 2016
The little German town I grew up in had a community Backhaus dating back to 1648, it was also a meeting house and the school house. I knew it well because my grandfather lived in it. He raised rabbits where the ovens had been. Early in the last century the bakery would bake our goods on Saturday. We had huge steel baking sheets that I had to walk to the bakery followed by a swarm of wasps if it was plum cake. We did not have to write our names on the sheets. The baker knew that messy cake belongs to Irmgard and the gray dough came out of Emma's kitchen etc., it takes a Village...
Irmavep August 10, 2016
I also spent summers in Greece as a kid in the early '80s-- we would drop off a terracotta casserole filled with dinner at the bakery in the morning (bakery and oven are the same word in Greek, φούρνος/fournos) and pick it up in the evening. Everyone in the town did the same thing-- the baker wrote each family's name on the dish with chalk. Really a necessity, since no one had air conditioning. I wonder if this still happens? (Sharon and Marina, your memories seem to be from the same era.)
Sharon C. August 10, 2016
In 1977 my girlfriend and I spen the summer in Europe. In Greece we hung out for about 5 days in a small town, renting a room in a family home. In the morning the wife would prepare the evening meal on a 2 foot round shallow metal pan. The husband would drop the pan off at the baker's as he walked back to work after lunch. At the end of the day he would pick up the pan, hot from the oven. The summer days were hot so we always ate on the front porch as did the neighbors. Then we would drink ouzo and thick Greek coffee and waited for the watermelon truck to come, kids chasing after it as the melons were rolled off the back of the truck. One of our fondest memories.
C. J. August 10, 2016
One more thing. Alan Scott (NOT the Green Lantern guy) almost single-handedly put wood-burning ovens on the map in the U.S.. He did so to such an extent that the New York times published an article when he passed away in 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/dining/06scott.html?_r=0 There are many in the U.S. who are carrying on his work.
C. J. August 10, 2016
Great article! There are dozens, maybe hundreds of small, community wood-burning ovens throughout the U.S. and at least 2 web-based lists that support their construction and use. In our small community in the Catskill region of New York, we have a very rustic "cob" oven that we use for ad hoc pizza parties and bakes for about 5 or 6 months out of the year. We usually have around 60 people in attendance. All of the food is paid for by contributions and all of the work is done by a core group of about 6 people. There is nothing like food and fire to bring people out of the woodwork.
Marina L. August 10, 2016
I spent summers in Greece as a child (in the 80s) and we had a brick oven in our courtyard. Once a week or so My great grandmother would get up early to stoke the fire in it, and my sister and I had run around to the neighbors the day before to say we were having the oven the next day. All the ladies would come with big trays of breads and filled pies and everyone would stay to chat and tell stories. Needless to say everything was delicious but it was the sense of community that was the most memorable.
Victoria August 10, 2016
Wonderful article! community gardens and ovens would definitly help neighbors get to know each other better and improve our social relationships.
ShelbyBelby August 4, 2016
This was beautifully written, thank you Sarah. With Food52's new direction and massive growth within the past few years I have seen few articles focusing on the community building and nurturing food that brought me here. I hope this will replace the countless listicles, click-bait, advertising partnerships, and pricey bourgeois items for sale. Once agin thank you for telling a story and bringing it back to community and feeding the soul
Annie S. August 4, 2016
I love your compelling and inspiring story. I have always been intrigued with the community oven concept.
In the town where I lived in Michigan there was an old bakery that had community baking events as fund raisers. For a donation the public could use the old brick oven.
I would like to propose creating something like a community oven in my area. Thanks for the inspiration. :)