September 23, 2010

An evolving part of operating a CSA farm has been to invite our members and our friends into the wake of our ongoing discoveries about the farm-to-table experience. I believe that no farmer can do a good job unless they become a bit of a chef as well…learning the intricacies and variances of the preparation of the foods they bring into being. How are you supposed to guide your growing choices and skills if you don’t have the feedback of what your own food tastes like, and by extension, how to cook it? Part of our journey has been the study and application of historical technologies, some of them ancient, as they pertain to food preparation. This blog documents another phase of this adventure!

It lay buried at the bottom of a very big email Inbox for years, a link to an interesting Mother Earth News article I found (during one of those interminably long and boring afternoons at a previous desk job that shall remain nameless). Here it is, should the reader wish to be similarly ensnared. It seemed like an interesting idea, to build an outdoor cooking appliance out of….well, dirt….but at the time, living in a rental house in Davis, it seemed equally impractical and against fire codes.

From time to time I’d do a mass purging of old emails, and as I made my way to the very bottom of the list, there it stayed. Countless times the mouse hovered over the delete key, and each time the article was spared from the trash. I kept thinking, “someday this could work, and if you delete it, you will never, ever remember it”.

In all that long time we moved to the farm, and as the years passed, our neighbors (with their allegedly obscenely pricey outdoor kitchen) inspired the need to have an outdoor cooking setup that was much shorter on budget, and much taller on usability. So I built the firepit, that was discussed in a previous blog. So at last the time was at hand. The firepit was the grill/cookstove…and now we needed an oven. For some years the remaining segments of a concrete agricultural standpipe were stored on the east side of our property. These four-foot segments weigh enough that only heavy equipment can even budge them. And ¬†one day in a vision of possibility, I saw one segment as the base stand of our future oven….it was perfect. I didn’t want to be stooping over in front of searing heat, trying to bake. The standpipe idea would make sure the oven was at perfect working height. We positioned the standpipe segment near the firepit and grape arbor with the assistance of a Cat 950 front loader, and then filled it with riverbed gravel. There it sat for an entire winter, to settle and compact. As they say in the vernacular, “that ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Somewhere in this time period, our amazing neighbors Jennifer and Eric loaned us the complete book on which the Mother Earth News article was excerpted, Kiko Denzer’s “Build Your Own Earth Oven”. Reading it proved fascinating…many people had done much more than simply build an oven; they engineered an art project as well. Turkeys, frogs, snails, dragons, falcons, sweeping geometric shapes…all these graced the many photos that were included in the publication. More importantly, the text provided guidance in greater detail as to choices of materials with their advantages and detractions. Winter turned to late spring, and late spring turned to the beginnings of motivation. I went so far as to measure the diameter and circumference of the future oven chamber, place firebricks in the necessary pattern, and then the farm stole all my time away. Most mornings I glared at my peacock, preening himself while perched on top of those firebricks. Those firebricks that were just sitting there. By late June, I’d had enough. We befriended some talented artists, the Hollowells, and invited them up on a weekend to start actually building the thing. How completely serendipitous, to have an art professor on hand to tell us what the heck to do! Previous to the weekend, we made preparations. What will become the void of the oven must be built of mason’s sand. No easy task, that. It took three people the better part of two hours to build this, constantly wetting and pressing with a 2″x4″. And it needed to be perfect and pretty…it’s important to have this be done as uniformly as possible for the best end result. The sand dome covers only the area occupied by firebrick. A lip of firebrick hangs over the edge of the standpipe, not shown in the photo.

Next, the real work began. The first layer called for a mix of mud and sand. The artists, knowing these things, demonstrated for us how to mix in sand and a little cement and work the clay into an elastic, sticky mess. The layer needed to be 4″ thick. Making the building mix was hard, sweaty work on a hot day. After forming and cutting the opening for the door with a butter knife and smoothing all the mud, it became time to drink beer and eat dinner by unanimous decision. We placed a tarp over the mudball in order for it to dry slowly. Two days later we took the tarp off. And there it sat for some weeks. To be continued…..