Easter Eve seemed an auspicious date to kick off the third year of monthly bread bakes at the Carbondale community oven, but on a blustery Saturday afternoon, it was pizza that really drew a crowd.
From a handful of regulars with bread to bake, the crowd swelled to more than a dozen people bearing various toppings. “It’s about sharing the fire of friendship,” firemaster Carlos Herrera said as he drew the first pie from the oven. Linda Criswell, the oven’s founder, provided cheese and sauce. The dough was donated by Peppino’s Pizza.
“Pizza bakes bring people out, so I guess we’ll be doing more of them,” observed Criswell.
Criswell is a bread enthusiast first and foremost (she’s even been known to gather her own yeast), but she’s happy to see the oven get any sort of use. When the oven cools down too much for bread or pizza, people sometimes brings casseroles to cook overnight, and Criswell often makes oatmeal for the Unitarian service the next day.
“It’s all an experiment,” Criswell admitted. “We’re not the boss. The oven is the boss. There is no sure fire way of making it work the same way.”
There isn’t much precedent to go on. Community ovens are an old concept in countries like Turkey and Morocco and are becoming commonplace in Toronto, but Carbondale’s oven is one of the first of its kind in the United States. People are beginning to take notice.
“There’s ovens going up all over the country now, and people are calling us to ask for advice,” said Criswell.
For a small town like Carbondale to be a step ahead of cities like Minneapolis, Fort Collins, Bridgeport and Los Angeles took a lot of community support. Criswell originally envisioned a something smaller. Then Carbondale Town Manager Tom Baker suggested the Third Street Center as a site, and Tom Passavant brought in Slow Food Roaring Fork.
Through fundraising and material donations, the group was able to construct a wood-fired oven large enough to take 16 loaves of bread at a time. It sits next to a community garden on town-owned land adjacent to the Third Street Center nonprofit hub. Like any park, the town’s insurance covers the space, and an open container law applies.
Since summer of 2011, the oven has been lit monthly for fresh bread baked right on the hearth. Bakers as young as 6 and as old as 85 have tried their hand at breadmaking. Everyone who stops by gets a piece. “We always make extra,” said Criswell. Left over loaves usually end up donated to Feed My Sheep.
Pizza was a later addition, as were a pair of metal doors bearing the inscription, “The flavor of bread shared has no equal.”
Other improvements are in the works. Oven organizers were able to purchase a commercial mill, and they hope to have locally grown wheat to grind in the fall. Criswell said the idea started when a local rancher stopped by a bread bake: “When he tasted the bread from this oven, he wanted to grow wheat like his father did.”
There’s also a plan to build a cover to protect the oven from the elements and provide a space for year-round events.
The oven will be lit again for the Third Street Center’s tree planting and barbecue on May 17. A grain-grinding demonstration using the new mill will take place at Sopris Park on Dandelion Day, May 10.