An oven in a park is nice to look at when you’re walking through the park, and the pizza tastes good, but cooking in a wood-fired oven is a lot more trouble than turning a dial on your stove. Cooking with fire in public means people will come and talk to you while you’re working, and that can make it very hard to concentrate. If lots of people come for a festival, the clean-up can be a nightmare. So what’s in it for the person who goes to all this trouble?
There are two things I can think of as an answer. The first has to do with an attribute of food that is no longer common, a kind of extreme simplicity.
Elizabeth Meyer-Renschhausen, a German historian of food preparation and women’s work, has written about 18th century ways of cooking everyday meals in rural households. Grains were then the staple of the European diet. The main labor connected with grains was at the front end: growing and harvesting them (much of this done by men). Once the grain was harvested, it had to be hulled or winnowed, then ground in a mill (much of this also the work of men). By the time the grain was ready for the kitchen, its preparation was often very simple. The women took the oats, barley, millet, buckwheat and so on, soaked them and then put them in a pot on the fire. The grains were fresh, the soaking/cooking water from the springs pure, and by all accounts the taste of this grain porridge when cooked over a fire was so satisfying that country people seem to have longed for little else to be the mainstay of their diet. But as the industrial revolution transformed Europe, driving the country people away from their land and into the towns and cities, it transformed the way they ate as well. By the middle of the 19th century, when people’s diet had diversified everywhere, older people still sighed for the taste of their grain porridges, fallen out of fashion. When we look back and see how plain the early meals were, we may feel sorry for our ancestors, living that way, even if it turns out that the women didn’t spend much time slaving over a hot stove. But maybe our ancestors would have felt sorry for us.
Fresh grain and pure water, when cooked together over a fire with a little salt, may have tasted better than anything we could ever get at a fast-food place or even at the supermarket. We can’t know for sure, because everything has changed and those other times are gone. But at our park, when people dry tomatoes in the park oven, or dig up some potatoes from the garden beside the oven, wash off the dirt, cut them in quarters and roast them in the oven with just some oil and rosemary, these simple things taste astonishingly good. The same is true for the bread, which can be made with such simple ingredients. If a sourdough starter is used, even the dried yeast package disappears from the preparations. While the loaves are baking, the smell is rich and subtle. When the bread is pulled out, there are the gold-brown crusty loaves. These foods look and taste BB different. Maybe it’s a little bit like the food people ate in older times.
There are people still living who experienced the simplicity of exchange anchored by a bread oven. Bernard Clavel, a French writer whose father was a baker, wrote that the bakeshop was on the way to local saltworks, and that his mother would open up at five in the morning so that the salters could buy bread on their way to work. His father sold bread to the wine-growers, some of whom gave a cask a wine in exchange, and to the wood-cutter (huge eight-pound loaves), who in return would deliver the wood needed to fire the bread-oven. When the baker ran out of salt, he would drive up to the saltworks to pick up a sack, paid for in bread. [Jerome Assire, The Book of Bread, Flammarion, 1996]
We’re cut off by centuries from the experience of our ancestors. The wood that we use for firing the park oven is not collected from the forest around our houses. We burn waste pieces from hardwood skids, transported from all over the world and originally used, perhaps, to bring shiploads of Nike running shoes here from Taiwan. Our flour was brought by truck or train from Western Canada; we didn’t grow it and we don’t know how to find out who did. The spring water is shipped in from Quebec somewhere. Right across the street from the oven is the Dufferin Mall, feverish commerce all the time; there’s nothing simple about that. When we want to know if the oven is the right temperature for the bread to go in, we go over there and buy a thermometer at Wal-mart, a store owned by an immensely rich man in Arkansas. And I’m writing this description on a computer, in a medium owned by an immensely rich man in Seattle!
Yet there are the interesting bodily sensations of loading and lighting the oven, the heat, the shaping of the bread on the rough wooden peel. There’s no dressed-up ‘historical guide’ in sight to tell us about the old days. There are just these old, simple motions happening now, with the aim of baking bread, or maybe just potatoes. If it’s raining you get wet, and you might feel clammy, smoky, greasy with soot like a peasant. It’s not at all glamorous. You might be hungry and you might want your bread to bake up properly. Of course it’s true that, unlike your ancestors, if the bread fails, you can go to the mall supermarket and buy some. But over there you can’t buy the kind of bread you can make here, so you need to attend to this bread with a single-mindedness that feels out of date, exciting.
That’s one reason a person might want to bake bread in a wood-fired communal oven, and it leads us, as well, into the second reason.
Namely, that a change is as good as a rest. That must be one reason why people are willing to put up with crowded airplanes and tour buses and cramped hotel rooms and pulling their rumpled clothes around in heavy suitcases, to see something exotic, something astonishing, something that’s quite different from one’s daily routine. But such trips are expensive and if something goes wrong you’re far from home, and besides, mass tourism is a pretty odd way to experience the world.
It’s possible to get outside of everyday happenings right in the place where one lives, of course. One alternative to searching, through traveling, for memorable people different than ourselves and experiences unknown to us is to stand somewhere – in a public park, for example – and see whether people and experiences search us out.
Standing in one place, while the unexpected coalesces around us, is quite another thing from the most common form of traveling-while-staying-home these days: on the internet, the virtual trip taken along brain synapses as one’s eyes scan the computer monitor.
Of course, ‘standing in one place’ so you can see what other people are doing isn’t really such a good idea when taken literally. People who stand in one spot and stare at other people scare those people away. It’s unnatural, it’s acting like a tourist or a person whose mind is unbalanced. But if there is a baker in the park, who is there to bake bread, while it’s true that she is firmly located by that oven for some hours, that she is a fixed point while others go by BB still, she is occupied with a very engaging activity of her own. People are drawn to take a look, coming as near or remaining as distant as they choose, or as the baker chooses. The encounters that may happen as a result of this approach are a side effect of the baker’s activity in the park. But they may be so vivid at times that they become an adventure in themselves, and the baker may return home at the end of a long day with much more than fresh bread to think about.
To find out more about the Dufferin Grove Park project, visit http://dufferingrove.tripod.com
Jutta Mason was born in Germany in 1947 and moved to Canada as a child. Before dedicating herself to the Dufferin Grove Park oven project, she worked in a prison, an alcoholism treatment center, various hospitals, and as an independent researcher (mainly on the history of medicine).
Photo: the Dufferin Grove Park oven