Issue 2-2-14 Website - page 9

Brick Ovens That I Have Known
by Lynne Belluscio
A couple of weeks ago,
I r ece i ved a r eques t for
information about brick ovens
from a man in Richmond,
Massachusetts. He has a saltbox
house that was built about 1785.
The fireplaces and brick oven
were removed a long time ago
and he wants to replace them.
He came across the 1982
published proceedings of the
Dublin Seminar “Foodways in
the Northeast” which included
my research on brick ovens.
The problem was, when they
published the dimensions
of the 32 ovens that I had
measured, the captions were
wrong, and the depth, height
and width were listed wrong.
So I explained the error and
hopefully he will find an oven
that will fit into his house.
After I took a look at the files
that I had put together over
35 years ago, I realized that I
need to update the work and
include all the ovens that I have
measured and photographed
since then. It’s a strange kind
of research – I often say it was
like being the witch in Hanzel
and Gretel - - climbing into all
those ovens.
I started collecting in-
formation after attending a
summer workshop on Open
Hearth Cooking at the Farmer’s
Museum in Cooperstown in
1973. I came home and told my
husband that I wanted to tear out
a wall in our house and build
a cooking fireplace and oven.
Believe it or not, he thought it
was a good idea. (It amuses me
to read about all the outdoor
“pizza ovens” that are being
built today).
Well, before we could start the
project I had to find brick ovens
in the area. I just happened to
learn that they were building
the fireplace and oven in the
MacKay house at Genesee
Country Museum and made
arrangements to photograph the
construction. What was even
better, I met Helmut Daehan,
the German mason who was
building the oven.
In the meantime, I went
around looking at old ovens,
and discovered my “favorite”
oven in Little Canada. I even
had a chance to fire it up, and
found that it worked like a
charm! It was so superior to
any other oven that I had fired,
that I took Helmut to see it.
The mystery was solved, when
it was discovered that the oven
had a beautiful smoke chamber
in the throat of the chimney.
Of course the oven was about
twice as big as we needed. It
was five foot deep and held 24
loaves of bread! When we built
our oven in 1976, we duplicated
the opening dimensions exactly,
and put in the all-important
smoke chamber, but shortened
the oven to three feet. It holds
plenty of bread.
The oven works on retained
heat. A fire is built in the oven
and the bricks absorb the heat.
At first the bricks turn black, but
as the bricks absorb more heat
the bricks begin to clean off.
It’s similar to what happens in a
fireplace, at the back, where the
heat is the hottest. After about
an hour, there’s enough heat in
the oven and the coals can be
shoveled out. The best bread
is baked right on the bricks, so
you have to sweep it out with a
wet broom.
There are several ways to
determine the temperature.
Some throw a little flour in on
the brick floor and if it turns
black, it’s too hot and if it just
browns then it’s ok. I stick
my arm in and count. If I can
count to eight, it’s the right
temperature for bread. A friend
of mine counts to 20, but she
counts faster than I do. After the
bread is put in, a wooden door
shuts off the oven and the flue.
“And how long do you leave the
bread in the oven?” - - - “Until
it’s done!”
When the early settlers came
intoWesternNewYork and built
their houses, it was necessary to
build a large cooking fireplace
and a brick oven. The cast iron
stove was still a new fangled
thing that wouldn’t become
popular until the 1840s. The
stove trade increased with the
iron foundry business in Albany
and the opening of the Erie
Canal which made it possible
to ship the heavy contraptions
by canal boat. And even when
the new-fangled stoves were
installed, it required all new
cooking equipment.
Instead of the round-bottomed
kettles and tall footed fry pans,
all the cookware had to have flat
bottoms. In addition, the little
box oven wasn’t big enough
for more than two pies, or a
couple of loaves of bread. And
without the huge fireplace, with
a reflector oven for meat, many
people had to put the reflector in
front of the stove with the doors
open to roast beef or a turkey.
Many people believed that
the stove restricted the flow of
air in the house because it had
a damper. The fireplace was
like an open window. I always
thought that people regarded
the stove much like we thought
of the microwave when it first
came into the kitchen. Although
it saved energy - - firewood, it
required new cooking utensils,
and wasn’t big enough, and
wasn’t good for meat. And it
wasn’t healthy to have in the
kitchen. As they say, history
repeats itself ...
There are quite a few brick
ovens in the area. Some of
t hem a r e i n r ema r kab l e
condition. Others are in ruins.
Nevertheless, each oven has a
story to tell. And I’m always
interested in finding another
to photograph and measure.
Give me a call if you know of
one. I’ll be going to a museum
conference in Pennsylvania
later this spring and will be
presenting the oven information
to a new group.
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