Part 7: Give us this day our daily bread

(c) 1998 by Robert Waldrop, but feel free to print this page for personal use.

We had to have some cornbread with our black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, and so I mixed up some pancakes using cornmeal instead of flour and they tasted great. Since it seemed likely to me that we would need all the luck we could get in the new year, I made sure that everybody ate some of those black-eyed peas. We cooked them on a propane cook stove, bringing them to a boil and then putting them in a crockpot insert which we then put into a box packed with newspaper. We were still learning how to do this, so we pulled the peas out a couple of times and heated them to boiling again, which wasn't necessary, but oh well, all of our mistakes should be so minor.

It was necessary to get busy on making some yeast-raised bread, however. So on January 2, I made a sour dough start using flour, water, yeast, and some sugar. I had quite a bit of yeast on hand, but figured that I might as well make my mistakes in sour dough cooking now, while we still had yeast, rather than later. If worst came to worst, I figured we could gather wild yeast from berries in the woods, or hope that some wild yeast in the air would seed a start, but why borrow trouble. Better safe than sorry was already an important value, day 2 of this new world.

Our first bread oven was in the back yard, made from several stones. We used a flat piece of broken concrete for the base, stacked stones around three sides, and covered the top with a final stone. We built a fire in it, heated it up, and brushed out the ashes and coals. We baked our first loaf on January 3rd, baking the bread directly on the hot stone. We burned the first three loaves, but the next 3 were delicious. Even the burned ones were pretty good with the burned bottom cut off. (That's the secret about home-made baked goods. Even when you make a mistake, they often taste good.)

But we knew that we needed something better, so we started accumulating materials. I had plans for a homemade outdoor oven which were pretty straight-forward. We scrounged some concrete blocks and ordinary building bricks, some concrete reinforcing wire and chicken wire, a few boards, and traded a half gallon of gasoline for 3 bags of cement and a 28 gallon paper drum.. The only other requirement was soil, and we had plenty of that. In retrospect, I wished that we had bought a dozen sacks of cement and just stacked them in the basement for use afterwards, but even in 1999 it was very hard to envision just how changed things would be. Cement was readily available in the spring, but people wanted a lot of value for it.

So we laid a foundation of 16 concrete blocks, and then on top of them we put 2 layers of bricks (this figured out to 96 bricks). We put a stack of bricks on the sides and back 3 bricks high, about 4 inches in from the edge of the other bricks. We cut the paper drum in half and set half right on top of the bricks (we also cut a whole in the top of the paper drum the size of a #10 can for the chimney. We put concrete reinforcing wire over the drum, and then chicken wire over the top and back of the drum, and around the front opening (cutting holes for the chimney in each layer of wire. OF course, the first time we built a fire, the paper drum burned, but that was the idea.

The next step was making a door using 2" thick boards, and we put a handle on the door. To make the mud, we mixed 1 shovelful of cement with 3 shovels of garden soil that we had mixed with water so that it can be forced between the wires by hand, yet it isn't runny. We molded the mud all over the wire, making the walls about 4 inches thick. We covered the floor with a 1 inch layer of mud. We put the #10 can in the chimney hole to keep it open. We then put the door in place and molded a close-fitting oven opening, taking the door out when the mud had firmed a bit. We also put two large metal hook-eyes in the top of the oven so we could secure a sheet of galvanized metal over it to protect it from snow.

We put gloves on and smoothed the surface of the mud, dipping our hands in water. We covered this with wet cloths, a plastic sheet, and let it dry for a week, keeping the cloths damp. When it was completely dry, for a nice touch we painted the exterior with latex paint.

Baking bread in this oven is easy. We had to make some tools, the first being a baker's "peel", which we made from a broom handle and a thin piece of plywood large enough to hold a loaf of bread.

About 2 hours before we are ready to bake, we remove the door and open the draft hole and build a fire inside. By the time we are ready to bake, there should be about 4 to 6 inches of embers and ashes covering the floor of the oven and the outside is hot to the touch. We scoop out the embers and ashes and put them into a metal rubbish can. If it's winter, we often reuse those embers to help warm the inside, or maybe we pour them over a Dutch oven to cook the rest of our dinner.

After scooping out the fire, we close the draft hole with a stopper we made of tin can lids and rags. We dip a broom in water, sweep the floor of the oven, and use an oven thermometer to check the inside temperature. If it's hotter than 325 or 350 degrees, we open the door to let it cool. We sprinkle the peel with cornmeal and slide the first loaf into the oven. We usually shuffle the loaves a bit as the rear of the oven is hotter than the front. We also pour some water on the floor alongside the loafs twice during the baking time (about 45 minutes) to create steam.

The construction of this oven was a community event, as everybody was curious as to what we were up to, and while it did provide a large baking area (about 2 feet by 3-1/2 feet), it wouldn't be big enough for the whole neighborhood. Many experts were present and helped supervise the process, but even so we were able to get it built. Within a week, there were a half dozen other ovens in various stages of construction. This added another item to our agenda, as the increased demand for wood for both heating and cooking would eventually put a strain on our wood supply. This suggested a need for cooperative wood lots and other structures for a sustainable wood and energy supply. When we got into methane, we also started thinking about how methane could be used to fire an oven like this.

If it's not one thing it's another, as they say, and it was as true on this side of the year 2000 as it was in the 1990s. In the 90s, it was one bill after another, this money for that expense to satisfy whatever need. We still have those needs and wants, but we're meeting them in ways that often don't involve money. We take knowledge and combine it with creativity and work and some resources to put the daily bread on the table. We are still inter-dependent with our community, but those interdependencies are concentrating at the strongest levels -- localities and regions.

A big factor is that we have to really think about the design of whatever systems or processes that we are creating to replace our old ways. In the past, we were just too rich for our own good. We had unimaginable wealth and power, and we made very bad choices. We designed things to fail and wear out, converting capital goods into consumables. Then, when we were finished with it, we just tossed it -- out the window of the car, into the trash can, and didn't think any more about it. We actually threw glass and paper into land fills, mixed up with all kinds of other useful materials, in such a way that the end product was pretty useless for anything!

One of the things I worried a lot about in 1999 was trash disposal, but in retrospect that was a completely backwards way of thinking. If you don't think of useful items as trash, but rather as useful items, then you don't think about ways to get rid of them, but rather on how to use them to maximize the security and quality of life of the household. The trash problem disappeared really fast, as people just couldn't afford to throw things away anymore. The various illegal dumps in the area began to be cleaned up as people foraged for useful items and things they needed. Some of the earliest enterprises that developed in the summer of 2000 involved mining the city landfills.

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