Monday, July 23, 2012

It's GOING to take a village

The wrong day to wear the Anthropologie tank top.
On Saturday as Owen and I were leaving for the cob oven-building workshop, my husband said, "I hope it isn't too much fun. I really don't want you to build an oven in our yard." 

He said it kindly. I think he knows he's playing a thankless but necessary role in the sitcom of our marriage. I think he deserves an Emmy. 

The workshop was held in a mysterious new art/garden/sustainable living center a mile from our house. I don't understand the business plan at all, but they now have a fabulous new oven courtesy of our workshop. Is that the business plan? People pay for workshops in which they build the center's infrastructure? Shrewd! In a few days the clay will be dry, they'll scoop out the sand, coat it with plaster, fire up the oven to 800 degrees F, and start baking phenomenal pizzas.
The plank-topped platform in back is what we started with.
The workshop was fascinating on many levels, starting with the people who teach and take cob oven building works. Let me assure you, the dream of the '60s is alive in cob oven-building workshops. Two beverage stories to illustrate my point. 1. A gentle young man was drinking a "smoothie"(his word) that consisted of crushed blackberries and plums he'd foraged from around town. That was it: mashed up fruit he'd picked on the side of the road. In a Mason jar. 2. Midafternoon when an older man in the class asked whether there was anywhere around he might buy a cappuccino, there fell an awkward silence. It dawned on me that the coordinator didn't want to mention that there's a Starbucks right across the street. Finally, after saying there wasn't really any place around to get coffee, he almost apologetically mentioned the Starbucks. The older man -- maybe the only participant there who was older than I -- happily went off to to procure his cappuccino.

As to the oven, "cob" is the old English word for durable, sustainable earthen material that was once widely used in construction. I dislike the word "cob." I don't know why. What to call a cob oven if you dislike the word "cob?" "Earth" sounds sanctimonious. "Mud" sounds dumpy. Clay?

In any case, we mixed a lot of cob, stomping to a Pandora station that played folksy songs in Spanish.
Owen and some other cats mixing cob.
The teacher sort of danced on his tiptoes in the cob, but everyone else just shuffled.

We made a round, hollow base for the oven that we filled with empty Jim Beam and kombucha bottles.
I dutifully opened a bottle of wine last night to use in our oven.
It was subsequently packed full of a perlite-earth mixture, topped with a smooth layer of sand, and then the brick floor went down. Sorry for the scant photos; I had to wash my hands every time I took out the camera.

Over the brick floor, we mounded a dome of damp sand.
We smoothed it out a lot after this photo was taken.
Then we shaped the oven itself out of cob, over the sand. No photos of this process whatsoever. I should be fired. But I was living in the moment!

Somehow, by the end of the day, we had this.
Just like my mother, Owen has a passion for clay.
As I mentioned, when the cob is dry all the sand will be scooped out and you will see just a domed oven. It needs some prettification and plaster and I personally favor a brick arch to define the door (the teacher showed us how to do this.) Also, I don't love the beehive coils; I prefer a smooth dome. But I do think it's a beautiful little oven.

There are many, many details I couldn't write down because my hands were covered with cob and just a day later I can't remember them. What ratio of sand to clay for the base? For the dome?  How much? Mix it until its the texture of oatmeal? Or a milkshake? Etc. I wish I had a recipe, but I guess I'll figure it out as we go along. I have a lot of regular work this week, but Owen and I are going to forge ahead, try to get something done on the oven, however small, every day. 

35 comments:

  1. Fabulous ! Great work to you and Owen!

    Kelly @ parsleyandpumpkins.wordpress.com

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  2. Even though it may sound sanctimonious, there's a great little book called Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer that I bought a few years back. I really, really want my own outdoor oven. My husband is resistant.

    Anyway, you can find it here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/build-your-own-earth-oven-kiko-denzer/1103542671?ean=9780967984674

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  3. Jackie -- I have that book. What is wrong with our husbands???

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. So glad you have it. I know!! Stupid husbands. :) He won't let me have chickens either. In his defense, the covenance of our vinyl village won't allow them either. Must. Move. Soon.

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  6. I think my husband just sees himself carrying big bags of clay down to the yard where I will make a giant mess. In his defense, I've made a number of messes over the years. He is mostly very tolerant.

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  7. I need to pick up that book. If we owned our little plot of land, I could convince my husband to help me build an oven back there. And now that I've seen the building in action, I feel like I NEED one!

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  8. Excited to follow this process! Goats don't eat clay do they?

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  9. Wait a minute. I just realized my husband would be into building a cob oven in the backyard. What's wrong with me that I haven't started building one yet?

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  10. I feel like there's some fantasy book in which some creatures are called Cobs, like the goblins in The Princess and the Goblins?

    Are you and Owen going to be working on the oven you built at the workshop, or the one in your own backyard. I must say, I think I'm with your husband on this one---wood-fired pizza is cheap and plentiful in the world.

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  11. Ginny -- why yes, yes it is.

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  12. Jen, my son and I used that Kiko book as a loose guide to build an oven in our backyard in Napa one summer several years ago. Despite being pretty half-assed about following the instructions, we succeeded. Pizza was made:
    http://whinecountry.blogspot.com/2006/06/fire-it-up-dan-came-up-from-berkeley.html

    Good luck!

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  13. Cheers to baby-steps everyday! Excited to see the progress and the final product.

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  14. I love this post. A particular favorite is the reference to "Owen and some other cats."

    I just turned to my husband and asked if we should build a pizza oven in our backyard and he looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. Have the goats, perchance, worn him out?

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  15. Anyone who has ever built a clay oven knows the best way to get one built is to hold a workshop. It's how we did ours, although our base is bluestone. I never saw the bottle technique before. Must be a CA thing. Your husband will love it once it's built. I find men go all Fred Flintstone over these things and tend to become more interested in using them than most women. I do recommend getting one of those digital hand-held temperature gauges to tell how hot the oven gets, but otherwise the primitive technique works beautifully.

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  16. I think we all have the same husbands: no oven; no chickens. What is the base of the oven that apparently was there when you arrived? I have longed to do this for years. Love hearing about it all!

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  17. The secret, taught to me by my dear mother, is to tell one's husband about the idea, endure the eye roll, and then, about a week or so later, begin the project. The husband will come over to tell you how you are doing it wrong and he will take over the project. This is especially effective if there is dirt, motors, tools or fire. As 2 of the 4 are present - it should be happy family event.!

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  18. I LOVE this idea. Is the book mentioned in comments a good reference on how to make this?

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  19. This looks really neat -- bet you could make some amazing bread in that oven as well. But what are the bottles for?

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  20. My husband and I have been talking about a brick wood burning oven in our back yard! Pizza and bread...yum (we live in San Jose). I started following your blog after reading your book...which I greatly enjoyed, thanks!

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  21. There's a mysterious sustainable living "farm"/commune 2 miles from my house; they sold me some incredibly bitter lettuce one day. The process went something like this: Me: "How much is it?" Young hippies: "well, we were thinking, like, maybe $2?" Me: "Okay, I'll take some." Young hippies: "Well, here's a bag, and you like, take what you think is fair." Me: "GODDAMMIT! That never works! I take too much and you passively-aggressively say things like 'wow, that'll make a lot of salad' or I don't take enough and I feel cheated! Just give me the damn bag of pre-measured lettuce! IT'S THINGS LIKE THIS THAT SEND PEOPLE TO SAFEWAY!!"

    I should find out if they have a cob oven or if they're planning to Tom Sawyer their way into getting one like your place.

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  22. Ida: Nice article about the ice cream! Inspiring, as always - makes me want to make some!

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  23. Hi Jen. Not a fan of ice cream but your piece was a lot of fun! It pretty much confirmed why I dislike ice cream cookbooks.

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  24. Hi Tipsy. I've missed you! Your dad told me about the oven and I'm thrilled. Your base looks fab.

    Two things:

    1.) as I'm sure you know, here in New Mexico those ovens are traditional and ubiquitous. Ancient. It was pretty much the only way the Spanish/Pueblo indians cooked.And here they're called called horno which I think is a pretty word. (Pronounced "orno" as you also well know.)

    2. I'm planning to build one this Fall (or next Spring) and have the base laid. Mine is elevated. I'd attach a photo if I could. Anyhoo, since the mud horno abounds here, I'm going to do more of a Pompeii thing just for a change of pace. The very slight difference is adding a little entry chamber with a chimney from the chamber rather than the igloo part.

    In any case, the Forno Bravo site is terrific in terms of construction, measurements, lay-outs and Q&A. An active forum.

    Their photo gallery of readers' ovens all over the world is a lot of fun! Some very creative ways to finalize the deal (which is also a lot of extra work and why most people simply leave the things mudded over (aka adobe.)

    Here's a link to the gallery of 52 photos.

    http://www.fornobravo.com/pizza_oven_photos/residential_ovens/Thumb51.html

    I apologize for hijacking this thread but my excitement boileth over. Love your site! I'll check in more often. Half of Taos is reading your book. A star you are.

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