Aspen Times Weekly: Hearth & Soul
October 20, 2015
Carbondale Community Oven
IT WAS AN HISTORIC LOW as a food writer: "You must not be into the whole food thing," the guy commented, a smirk creeping across his face. I'd just admitted that the glossy vegetable calzone pulled from the brick oven was not, in fact, homemade. Instead I'd picked it up — then a giant, raw blob — for $14 at New York Pizza in El Jebel en route from Aspen to Carbondale, where I was to experience the Carbondale Community Oven at a public bake on Saturday afternoon for the first time.
I didn't mention to this sweet, curious group of graying foodies that a lovers' quarrel had me leave pounds of lovingly prepared whole-wheat-semolina dough back in Fat City, so I mumbled something about my recipe not working as planned and left it at that. A tiny piece of my foodie heart died, though, and I wondered if my reputation would ever recover. These people were part of the Slow Food movement, after all — talk about a lame first impression!
Thankfully, my wise journalist friend and avid bread-baker Tom Passavant was there to reassure me. "The dough, it knows," he said with a wink. Community Oven maven Linda Romero Criswell agreed. "Having a fight with your boyfriend — that makes dough not turn out, I swear," chirped our fearless leader. "Just like how you don't play head-banger music when making bread. You play classical music."
Bad vibes aside, Passavant said, "There are no rules. The oven is unbelievably forgiving. We can put 20 loaves in, and they're all so different."
Indeed, the community bake-off — one of only three lately, due to an intensely hot and wet summer — at the brick oven outside in a public park behind Carbondale's Third Street Center welcomed loaves galore: olive bread, tomato bread, whole-wheat bread, bread with flaxseed, chewy Italian bread, bread made with beer-yeast starter, cheese quesadillas, cinnamon-sugar apple rings, and my sad, misshapen calzone.
By the time I'd arrived — about an hour after the first loaves hit the hearth at 1 p.m. — the oven's temperature had dropped significantly, as the fire built the evening before and stoked overnight had long been extinguished. (Hot coals are swept from the hearth into a chute before bread enters the oven; bricks surrounding the 32" x 38" domed structure hold the thermal mass, which is able to cook bread for hours afterward.) I took a small comfort in knowing that the pizza I'd planned to bake probably wouldn't have turned out, anyway.
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Built in the summer of 2011 by a crew of about a dozen volunteers —with finishing help by Gallegos Corporation stonemasons and using nearly all materials donated from local businesses (including a gorgeous pink hearthstone slab gifted by Balentine Collection) — the oven is a sturdy square of peachblow brick, sandstone, and tinted mortar with a welded sheet-steel chimney. (The group followed plans developed by legendary brick-oven builder and author Alan Scott from California.) A heavy wooden door edged in 16-gauge steel was crafted by member Sean McWilliams, a blacksmith by trade; a metal plaque is engraved with the group's motto: "The flavor of bread shared has no equal." The whole shebang cost just $3,500 in materials — most of which was spent on the hefty cement foundation that extends a few feet below ground — a screaming bargain compared to similar ovens elsewhere, which the group estimates top $20,000.
Romero Criswell, an avid home baker and former director of the Mt. Sopris Historical Society, spearheaded the project, which meant showing up at Town Hall armed with a freshly baked loaf and a half-pound of butter to request permission (see "How to Build a Community Oven," opposite). Once construction was complete, the bakers gifted the oven back to the town, which owns it, technically, and pays for liability insurance. Now the bread enthusiasts — spanning high-school kids to octogenarians, and who will gather roughly every two weeks through autumn for a friendly bake-off and potluck — have their sights on the next phase: getting approval to build a covered shelter that will extend over the oven and to the edge of the community gardens adjacent, facilitating year-round use.
My timer buzzes. Unfortunately, the temperature in the oven is about 350 degrees and dwindling — nowhere near the 600-plus degrees of a commercial pizza oven, and much cooler than it was when "Midnight Stoker" John Colson (who happens to write "The Weekly Conversation" for this publication) fed the fire inside the structure late last night and early this morning.
"The deeper the heat has penetrated into the bricks, the longer and more consistent that heat will be," Passavant tells me. "The heat from all four sides is very intense and even — you get beautiful crusts. When you do pizza, you leave some of the fire in back and the doors open, because you want it to stay really hot. The air circulates along the floor of the oven and smoke flows up and out."
Most interesting, though, is the nature of the oven itself — which represents a gathering place in small towns across the world for thousands of years. "Every time we bake, the oven reacts differently," Passavant says. "It's a living, breathing thing." Indeed, bricks inside the oven are stacked closely without mortar, allowing the walls to expand and contract by as much as an inch with varying temperatures.
As I learned on Saturday, the Carbondale Community Oven bakes more than bread. It warms folks to an age-old tradition. Romero Criswell and company urge newbies to join the next bake, likely October 24 (check the group's website for updates), with recipes for sharing. And though these gatherings thrive on togetherness, Romero Criswell advises everyone to take the role of Midnight Stoker at least once.
"It's really special to come here in the middle of the night," she says. "There's nothing but you and that oven, glowing at the level of your heart."
Carbondale Community Oven