An Outdoor Oven or a Work of Art?

I have always wanted a stone oven; it appeals to my Laura Ingalls Wilder side.

My Aunt Mary introduced me to the LittleHouse on the Prairie books; I loved them and read them all again and again. I even liked reading about Pa killing the pig, the wood stove firing at full throttle, hams hanging in the smokehouse, meat pies in the oven to be stored for winter, fat rendered and preserved . . . I lost myself in those stories—it seemed like a perfect world. Now, of course, I know better. There is romance in country life, yes, but it is also a lot of work!

(I went to De Smet, South Dakota, when I was 12 to visit the house that Pa had built on the prairies for his family after leaving the Big Woods of Wisconsin. All that was left were the trees that he had planted for each of his children.) 

The large open air stone oven was traditionally a place for the community to bring food to be baked or slow-cooked. First breads are baked then meats slow-roasted, taking advantage of the way the oven retains heat for days. Built from layers and layers of stone, sand, and in modern times, concrete, the oven absorbs heat from the fire built inside and slowly and evenly distributes it.

I had put the idea on the back burner (so to speak) in the mental file marked “Fantasy Projects” . . . until I found Clay from The Stone Guys in nearby Peterborough. My daughter Aubrey Rose discovered her friend’s parents had an outdoor oven; knowing how much I coveted one, she was excited to tell me all about it. And of course I followed up. I (stereotypically) expected the guy I’d spoken to on the telephone to be an older Italian gentleman, wise from decades of working with stone. 

What I got was Clay. (And by the way, how perfect a name is that?!) Young and confident with a flashing smile, he had an iPhone in his back pocket and an iPad in hand to show me examples of his work. He was used to bigger projects —more elaborate structures such as bridges, garden walls and even houses. I’m sure he wondered who this crazy lady out on a farm was.  

I explained that I wanted to cook outdoors using traditional methods. It wasn’t just about building a pizza oven; it was about committing to a culture of cooking. He nodded. 

I had an old silo out back which was taken down for fear of children falling into it or concrete blocks dropping off of it. I wondered if it could be echoed in some way as a nod to agriculture, a wave to a ruin. He said he would think about it. 

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I dared briefly to be excited. Shawn took more persuading. And the girls . . . well, their eyes rolled and glazed over. Another crazy idea, another project. It didn’t seem to make any economic sense. And while I appreciated the concern, I felt sure it was kind of like when I bought 200 of “your grandmother’s” plates from local flea markets. That didn’t really make economic sense at the time, but those plates turned out to be a great idea; they are the perfect choice to grace tables for all kinds of functions at South Pond.

I just had a feeling—a feeling that this oven was a good idea. Clay arrived, set up his tools and then . . . left to work on another job. Great. We talked. I may have begged.

He came back.

We confirmed that the design we’d come up with would be functional and then I left him to his artistic expression. He erected a big canopy over his work; guys came and left again. I didn’t dare to crawl underneath and see what he was working on. What if it was an absolute disaster?

Well, this past week, I peeked . . . and it took my breath away. Clay’s creation was larger and grander than I expected. It has a fireplace on one side for aesthetics, and the oven on the other. The doors are from a boiler Shawn reclaimed somewhere in his travels.

The oven is truly a masterpiece.

It is not finished; it has not had an inaugural fire and the canopy still covers it. Even so, these photos barely do it justice. Some of the stones are from the farm, some from elsewhere. They show the passage of time, weathered as they are by sun and rain, lichen still attached in places. The oven is being handcrafted, stone by stone, with tremendous skill and artistry. Just like the bread and pizza that will soon come out of it fresh and steaming. I can’t wait!