22 July 2008

How to Build an Earth Oven

Do you remember your teachers asking you on the first week of school what you did for your summer vacation? Well, if I were still in school, this would have been a story to amaze my teacher and classmates.
My friend, TH, is an amazing baker and cook. She is also very wise in the ways of crafts and organizing activities that bring diverse people together.

Her great ambition has been to build and use a wood-fired oven in her own backyard. TH is not someone who merely dreams big -- she builds! She did her homework and found a book by Kiko Denzer called Build Your Own Earth Oven. She also found a website showing a group of masons who built an oven of the type she wanted using Kiko Denzer's model. Here is another website I found of a group of Australian gardeners built a similar oven.
Then she and her dad cooked up a scheme to build a test model in his backyard as a practice version. Her two teenage sons helped their grandad build the test oven. This was very wise since they notice a water-seepage problem because the test oven had no drain. So, they knew they had to make drainage holes in TH's oven.
TH's Dad drew plans up for brick foundations to be built in her backyard over the course of several summer weeks with the help of his grandsons. Then, the next step was to create the inner oven wall, made entirely of cobb, that is, clay from a local source, plus sand, mixed with straw.
And that's where I come into the "Earth Oven Project 2008," because TH invited me and a group of her friends and neighbors to be a part of the oven's creation.
It was an extremely hot (mid 90s F) day in mid-July, but not so humid as Maryland suburbs can be in this season. When I arrived on the scene, the boys were mixing cobb, as the English settlers to North America called it. Cobb is the blend of clay, sand, and straw that forms the bricks to create the earth oven. Here's an image of the boys pounding it out by foot and testing its moisture content.

While the boys were mixing cobb, it was up to the rest of us to prepare the igloo-shaped sand mound around which the inner oven insulation would be formed.

After we made the sand mound (notice the brace we used to prevent sand from rolling off the edge), we covered the sand with wet newspaper, rather like you would a form for papier maché. By the time all hands had covered the sand mound with newspaper, TH's husband G had laid out a delicious spread for a hardy lunch. I had brought the beer and cider and there were copious amounts of herbal infusions and lemonade available for thirsty workers.
The next phase was to cover the entire sand mound with cobb bricks, so we spent the remainder of the afternoon doing just that. A shady yard and a bit of breeze go a long way to making summer's heat bearable. So does telling stories, laughter, and watching the boys rough-housing. We generally had a merry time at it, despite the heat.

Finally, about 5:00 p.m. we neared the home stretch. Only a tiny hole a the top of the insulation layer remained.
It takes something very interesting indeed to get me out on a 90-degree day, but this project was well worth it. I can remember with fondness mushing mudpies in my hands, but this is the most ambitious "mudpie" experiment I have witnessed. It's also very like molding a clay pot on a grand scale. The end result is larger than any typical potter might attempt on her/his own. The very social aspect of building something like the earth oven as part of a group, including several families, several generations is not unlike our pioneer ancestors did when a house frame or community barn needed to be built.
The outer layer of insulation and the final brick housing for TH's oven will be constructed by her, her family and friends next weekend.
I look forward to coming over to her house someday soon to enjoy wood-fired bread or pizza baked in her backyard.

PS. if you wish to know more about this fabulous earth oven, please contact my friend who runs Dances with Loaves in Maryland.

05 July 2008


I enclose to you a copy of the declaration of independence as agreed to by the House, and also, as originally framed. You will judge whether it is the better or worse for the Critics.

—Thomas Jefferson, Letter, July 8, 1776, to Richard Henry Lee.

(Borrowed image source: Portrait Miniature of Jefferson by John Trumbull, Collection of Monticello. 1788)

I have been living near the Chesapeake Bay now for quite a few years. I have come to think of Maryland as "home" on many levels. The number of years I have lived on the East Coast is growing equal to the number of years I spent growing up in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio.

I have loved American history since I was a child. I never did think I would become a scholar of American history at all, but I liked to read stories of America's War for Independence from Britain such as the ride of Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty who threw tea into Boston Harbor. When I was about 9 or 10, my parents took me on vacation to Colonial Williamsburg where I became entranced with the dirt streets, cobblestones, carriages, fine folks strolling the paths, and craftsmen inviting you to watch their works in progress. I could imagine all the important politicians rushing to meet the Governor or attend the House of Burgesses, while their pretty wives and daughters embroidered or played music in grand parlours. (Now, if you want to take an arm-chair tour of Colonial Williamsburg, you can just visit their "Tour the Town" link. If only I had Internet access as a child!)

I think it was that particular vacation, where my parents took me for the first time to visit the home of a man who I have come to admire among all the so-called "founding fathers," Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson's home, Monticello, situated on a green ridge-top in Albemarle County, Virginia, enchanted my young mind. The lush trees embrace the river winding through the valley, and you drive up a winding road towards the distant past. When I was young I thought it had been there for centuries.

I had never seen a house like Jefferson's. So stately was its octagonal form balanced right on top of the entrance hall. (I mean, who builds a house with an octagonal dome? How cool is that! ) Inside was a treasure trove, where maps hung on the walls and natural specimens from Lewis and Clark's journey were spread around the room. I was fond of Jefferson's inventions like the Great Clock that tells hours, minutes, seconds, and day of the week, using cannonballs as weights to drive the device. He also had beautiful writing instruments and nifty scientific instruments all over his office and library.

Over the years since that first trip my fascination for Jefferson has only grown more complex and deeper. I find the fact that he was a conflicted slave-owner interesting, but it becomes even more so when you learn that he had a long relationship with his wife's half-sister, the mulatto woman Sally Hemings. (Yes, I believe the DNA research.) He was truly a renaissance man, being a scholar, a traveler, a statesman, an architect, an inventor, a scientist, a amateur fiddle-player, and a lover of the finer things in life.

Yes, I must admit I have fallen under Jefferson's spell a very long time ago. He must have been a charismatic gentleman, if introverted. He strikes me as a man more apt to put pen to paper in response than to speak aloud in passion.

But to think of what he and his compatriots in Philadelphia risked in the two years leading to the Declaration of Independence is beyond me. They risked wealth, reputation, career, life-and-limb for their belief in freedom. True, they put parameters on who could be free in keeping with their own time, but I cannot hold that against them.

We each have to walk our own journey through time and space. What my "culture" is today, will become different with every passing day. That is what history is all about. Finding fragments of time standing still, but we all know time does not stand still.

Each year on Independence Day I celebrate the lives of men who were quite flawed and human, but who nonetheless changed their world, their culture, with a big idea: Liberty, that is, freedom from autocratic government.

How many countless people across this Earth have been caught up in their revolution ever since?

I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.
—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison (January 30, 1787); referring to Shays' Rebellion