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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!