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Here is the introduction of the booklet Cooking With Fire In Public Places by Jutta Mason, 2003 (60pp). For the complete pamphlet (PDF) click here.

INTRODUCTION

This is a booklet for people interested in cooking with fire in public space.

It covers hibachis and portable barbecues, campfires, and outdoor wood-fired bake-ovens, with an afterword on food carts and the street food that can be cooked on them.

The public space where my experience is based is a mid-sized downtown park in Toronto, called Dufferin Grove Park. In the summer of 1993, half a dozen friends began a project there, which we called “the big backyard.” As part of that project we started cooking over campfires with a small group of children aged 6- 12 who had settled on that park as their “turf” and spent most of their days hanging around there, on their own.

Two years later we took another step, building a wood-fired bread oven.

The oven eventually had so many people using it that after five years we built a second one. People who come from other neighbourhoods, or who live near this park and are moving away, have often asked how they could get an oven built in their local park. So this booklet relates what my friends and I learned as we cooked and baked with fire in our park.

As I describe each kind of cooking fire, one of my purposes is to help readers persuade their own park authorities, first, to allow these activities, and secondly to make sure all the necessary equipment is there. For example, the hard ground of a city park, compacted by many decades of city feet, is not always a good place to spread a blanket for a picnic. People need a place to sit, off the ground. The necessary equipment is a picnic table, and if a park has too few picnic tables, chances are there won’t be many picnics.

I will also describe, in a general way, what worked for people at Dufferin Grove Park in cooking over fires of various sorts. It’s easy to be clumsy, cooking as a nomad might, in the open air, but without the skills that nomads have. (A few of us got some inspiration about being more graceful from a homeless Ukrainian group who lived in our park for a while. They wouldn’t talk to anyone, but as we watched them from a distance we saw how they arranged their mealtimes, their wash-days, their reading and nap-times, their storage problems and their campaigns to get through the night. They were skillful, they left no tracks, and they made living in the open air look like an art.) Early photos of our cooking fires show the ground littered with boxes and dishes and styrofoam plates. We learned, but some readers of this booklet will probably be more graceful right from the start than we were.

There are some tricks in this booklet for engaging the bureaucracy when there’s a problem, and there are other tricks for keeping a low profile when you don’t want to attract their attention. There are also various ways of diminishing Friends of Dufferin Grove Park – COOKING WITH FIRE IN PUBLIC the power of people who want to do damage - vandalism - in a park, ways which I’ll systematize into a list for this booklet. Any additions for future booklets, from readers who have other ideas, will be very welcome. Thwarting vandals is a pretty interesting game, sometimes with a bitter taste, but more often successful than you’d expect.

For the most complicated project, building a community bake oven, I will set out the particular steps we went through, trying to remember the main mistakes we made, so the reader might benefit from our errors. There are also some recipes in this booklet, and some cooking-fire-related stories from our park. The largest number of stories concerns what went on around the oven, maybe because the oven was the most exotic, unexpected thing we did here. Part of the motive in telling the stories is to make it obvious that you can be clumsy and foolish as we often were, and still have a very good time. Another part is to show how plentiful the gifts of ordinary people are. When people are not prevented from using their gifts, there is no real scarcity of the kinds of adventures we’ve had in our park. Transplanted elsewhere they’ll take on different forms, equally interesting.

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