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History Of The Ovens

1995

March 12: Margie invited the West End public health inspector for lunch. He and I had had some testy discussions when I first wanted to get food into the park. One day he told me to relax, that he didn't care about the red tape, he cared about food safety, and that he was willing to give us advice without throwing the book at us. So that made Margie invite him. And in fact he came with a very friendly manner. We asked him, how will we keep the baking legal? He said, don't worry about it much. There's a loophole in the Health Act. It started out with church suppers. Sometime fifteen years ago some health department tried to shut down the church suppers at a county fair, and their member of parliament just about lost his seat over it. Politicians know that community suppers are practically untouchable. You're a community group. You don't come under the restaurant rules. So don't worry too much about our red tape. Concentrate on keeping your food clean and not poisoning your neighbours. Handwashing, handwashing! Get all your community people washing their hands when they cut up food. Try to wash the dishes hot. Forget about adding a lot of chlorine disinfectant. Some people think too much chlorine can make food workers sick. Just have lots of clean hot water, and clean hands, and only very fresh food. Don't let things spoil.

What a gift this sensible man gave us.

First oven fire

September 8: Felisa Shizgal, the artist who painted our wildflower signs, lit the first fire. Dave Miller, who had been such a good amateur helper to our oven contractor, assisted by giving her a bundle of twigs and she stuck them in the oven on top of some newspapers, struck a match and then --- by glory! The oven was lit. The flames flared up and started spreading back. The Italian men were walking round and round the oven, exclaiming and muttering. All of us looked at each other and laughed, and slapped each other on the shoulders, and laughed, and scratched our heads. It didn't really make sense, but here it was. A real bread oven, far from Calabria. Real smoke coming out of the chimney.

There it was.

October 4: We decided to have an opening ceremony, and Mayor Hall let it be known that she would be the right person to "open" the oven. It's scheduled for October 7th. Because we wanted to serve some wine with the bread, we had to fence off the area around there. The Parks crew brought the fencing and pounded in the steel stakes. I could see the basketball guys watching. All summer long they watched the oven being built, but kept their own counsel.

October 5: I sent out a press release about the oven, and the CBC morning radio show said they wanted us to do a phone-in interview. Yesterday afternoon one of their staff came by with a cellphone, and left it here for us. Dave Miller and I started a twig fire in the oven early this morning and stood there with the cell phone and an umbrella, because it was raining. At about 8.30 the phone rang and it was the show's host, saying, "one minute to air time." We waited in total silence until he said, "well folks, we're back and we have a report for you now on Toronto's first outdoor community bake-oven." I chattered into the phone for a while and then Dave got on. He held the phone near the fire so people could hear the twigs burning. The host finished the interview with a little joke: "Dave Miller and Jutta Mason. A miller and a mason for Toronto's first brick bread oven in a park. How about that?"

While we were speaking into the radio world, some people walked over. They stood and watched the two of us under our umbrella, taking turns talking on a cell phone by the bake oven. When the interview was over they said they'd been driving by the park and heard the start of the interview on their car radio. They looked over and there was the oven with us standing there, so they stopped their car and got out and watched the rest of the interview in person.

October 6: Fabio, the boy who always knows everything first, came to my house early in the morning. "You should see the park," he said. "It's a mess." I said "What do you mean?"

"The oven roof shingles are all over the ground and the benches are turned upside down and also all those extra trash baskets they brought when they put the fence up, they're lying in the flowerbeds." I walked down to the park with him, and sure enough, somebody had decided to go ahead and wreak havoc. Fabio and I pulled the wire trash baskets out of the flowers, and picked the shingles up off the ground. We set all the benches upright again. When we were done it looked better, but the roof was ripped right down to the plywood in places. I called Dave Miller and we stapled plastic on the plywood, in case it rained.

Later someone told me a rumour that the basketball guys thought we were putting up a permanent fence, and didn't like it.

October 7: D-day. I got up very early, at 5.30, and went to light the fire. The park was dark, and cold, and very damp. The twigs were so long and so tangled in the firewood barrel that they came out in big bunches that still had to be pulled apart. They scratched me with what seemed to me clear malevolence. I stuffed the oven full of twigs, hoping they were not the green ones we were saving for the spring 末 I couldn't tell. As I lit the match, light began to appear in the east, showing outlines of heavy clouds. The wood caught, but it burned feebly. The park seemed lonely and dangerous and I felt so foolish. But there was no way out of this official oven opening.

While I waited for the fire to catch properly, I took the Parks Department's three-colour bunting and started fastening it to the fence. This was a cumbersome job and I didn't know what I was doing, but it distracted me from the morbid regrets I was having about stupid park bake-ovens and stupid, ugly, menacing public space.

An hour after first light Dave and another staff arrived. I was struggling with the bunting, and the fire was still flickering feebly. It was by now fairly obvious that the twigs must be green. But which twigs weren't? They all looked identical. Dave showed me his secret (why secret?!!?) stash of drier wood, so we squeezed some of those pieces in the oven too, trying to leave a bit of room for air to circulate. The fire responded, and we were rewarded by a giant plume of white smoke that hung a few feet off the ground and floated all the way down to Dufferin Street. Then the wind came up, lifting the smoke higher into the air and also tearing off my feeble fastening for the bunting.

By then, though, the park was in full morning light and all the rest of the special-events staff had arrived. Someone went to buy coffees and someone else turned out to be a bunting expert. My pre-dawn desperation gradually melted away.

Mayor Hall at Oven Opening

By the time the mayor came at noon, the fire was not half-way burned back and the oven didn't feel very hot. We couldn't bake bread yet but Isabel had made a soup over a campfire beside the oven. There were thirty people there at most. The mayor made a little speech, first outside by the oven and then in the rink house, because it began to rain. She spoke about love and community. We offered her a bowl of Isabel's soup and no bread, and then she went off to her next engagement. After she left, though, a neighbourhood baker came with dough and said 末 the dough's ready. We'll just have to bake it with the fire still inside. She pushed the fire as far back as possible and stuck the loaves in. The clouds divided to show a little blue, and more people began to straggle over from the neighbourhood. We poured out glasses of red wine and cups of soup and half an hour later the bread came out. It was lumpy and dark on one side but it smelled so extremely good that I thought people were going to tear it, or each other, to pieces to get some. Another baker came to help out, and another batch went in the oven. A photographer arrived from the Toronto Sun and took photographs. More bread came out and was eaten, and a third baker put her bread in. The sky cleared completely and it grew even colder. The bunting flapped around in the wind and we realized that all the wine drinkers were inside. All the trouble we went to, to get an outdoor wine license! We would have never had to put up the fence if we'd said on our liquor permit that the wine would be inside. Maybe then no one would have got alarmed and ripped the shingles off the roof. And all that infernal bunting, that took half the morning to put up! But there wasn't time to think about that. More people came, more bread came out and more bread went in, and musicians made music. By the time the oven was officially opened and the bread was all eaten and the people went home, the oven was lovely and hot.

We realized we definitely need a better wood supply.

October 13: Thirty-nine years ago today my mother, my little brother, and I got off the boat in Montreal and embraced my embarrassed, emotional father, who had come to Canada from Germany a whole year before us. On that day 39 years ago I thought that I would just stay in Canada until I could decently leave home (I was nine) and then sail the high seas for the rest of my days. Who would ever want to live anywhere other than on an ocean liner? But then I got stuck on solid ground, and now I seem to live much of the time in a park. I stay in one place and other people sail by. I was watching at the oven while Nigel attached the oven door, and three different people came by to tell us something about the ovens of their youth. There was a woman from the Ukraine, a man from Trinidad, and another man, very old, from Poland. He spoke about his mother, who baked once a week and always tested the oven heat by throwing in a handful of flour and watching how quickly it turned brown. You never taste bread like she baked, nowadays, he said.

I told him I will never bake bread like his old mother baked, but I hope I'll learn, in ten or twenty years, how to bake something very good. Unless, of course, I've left on an ocean-going ship before then.

There was a phone message when I got home. A Parks staff person had phoned from another community centre, saying there was a very rude man who wanted to get hold of me, something about firewood, and here was his number. I called the man and he said, "I'm sorry. I was very rude to the employee because she behaved so stupidly. I asked her about the bread oven and she said she knew nothing about it. But she is supposed to know if she answers the telephone!"

It turned out he had read the Sun article about the oven and he wanted to offer us an unlimited supply of perfect firewood. "I'm from Guyana," he said, "and in Guyana people believe in helping each other out. You could even say that's their main hobby. I have a small factory here in Toronto, in which I employ 12 of my countrymen to take apart big hardwood skids which are cracked. Then we rebuild them into smaller, sound skids, which leaves a lot of hardwood scraps that are waste. But I, Hussain Ali, do not wish to take this wood to the garbage dump when I could be giving it to the park for the bake oven. I have twenty barrels of it right now, and I'm willing to deliver it to you myself, if you will just give me the directions. Then you can show me the oven and I can see for myself whether it's the same kind of oven my family used to bake in, in Guyana. It sounds to me like you are doing the perfect thing, and you should be supported. I want nothing for this, only the satisfaction of doing something helpful. Thanks to Allah I have the means of doing so."

So I gave him the directions. After I hung up, I thought, so that was the point of the oven-opening festival. There was the cold and the rain, the empty park and the green twigs, the wretched bunting blowing off in the wind, but then the reporter came and he wrote his article and this man from Guyana read it and wants to bring us perfect wood, forever.

October 15: I waited in the park today until an old, blotchy van drove up, its back doors tied shut with rope. Hussain Ali got out, and his wife, and their teenage son. We shook hands, I pointed out the oven, he backed his truck up to the garage, and the three of them unloaded the promised barrels of wood. The wood looked perfect, as he said. Four-foot-long, mainly hardwood pieces, from all over the world. Some of the pieces were rose-coloured with a beautiful grain. Some of them were dark, almost black.

I've heard that in Malaysia, mahogany trees are sometimes cut up for skid-wood, sold by corrupt politicians to the Japanese for next to nothing. Then this wood travels across the world bearing its loads of refrigerators or television sets, or boxes of cheap plastic toys bound for our local dollar stores. Eventually the wood cracks under its loads and is picked up by our friend Hussein Ali at the trucking terminal. He and his immigrant countrymen scavenge the good wood, and the cracked ends are converted into heat and bread in our oven. The wood has travelled so far from its original grove, now perhaps turned into a wasteland. It's hard to know what sense it makes, and why we would end up baking an out-of-date bread with such squandered materials.

But that's only one, regrettable layer of reality. Another layer is the kindness of the Ali family, all three expertly rotating the heavy drums on their bases, until they were neatly stored in the corner of the garage. We walked around the park, and they were curious about everything they saw. "The oven is somewhat like the ones in Guyana," Hussain said, "and in another way not like them at all. Those ovens back home are long gone anyway, at least in the larger places. I can't really remember them."

Lily Weston

November 15: We had rink staff orientation for the winter skating season. Since only one of last year's rink staff elected to return, we had quite a few new rink guards (three of them female!), plus Lily Weston as the daytime building attendant and Jacqueline Peeters to make pizza at the oven on family Sundays. Last week Jacqueline came with a pizza-dough recipe from the restaurant where her husband works. We practised making it in the oven. It was really good.

So we decided that at this rink staff meeting we'd serve pizza from the oven. That meant that while Tino was meeting inside with the rink staff I was out at the pizza oven making pizzas. When the first four pizzas were done I brought them inside to the meeting and went back outside with four more to cook. Five older boys were sitting on the oven roof. I knew a couple of them. They were clowning dangerously and they seemed in a strange state. They obeyed when I told them to get down, but then one of them grabbed the rake from me and pulled some burning twigs from the oven. In two seconds they were waving the burning wood at each other's faces. I shouted at one kid I knew, to stop his friends, but he didn't acknowledge me. They were completely caught up in a new game, pulling out more flaming branches, flinging them at each other like snowballs. Because of the early snowfall we had, the flames were snuffed as soon as the pieces hit the ground, but it seemed like any minute someone would get a burning brand in the face. I screamed at them but they were possessed with the thrill of their strange game. I kept hoping someone inside the building would hear all the yelling, but the distance was too great, and no one came out. I was caught. I couldn't get them to stop and I felt I couldn't leave them to get help in the building, with the firebrands flying around.

When the wildest one of the boys went back to the oven with the rake, to get some more fire, I yanked the rake from his hands and threw it on the ground. He cursed me and I grabbed him by the sleeve and shouted at him and just started pulling him toward the rink house. He resisted but I was so angry at him not listening to me that I was stronger than him. So I just kept dragging him along.

Part way to the rink house his resistance stopped and he began to wail loudly. When I opened the door of the rink house, the rink meeting was interrupted by the spectacle of their pizza cook (me), grim and a bit hysterical, holding a weeping boy by the scruff of his jacket. I handed him over to Tino and ran outside with three staff to bring in the others, but they had run off across the park. When we came back inside Tino was gone 末 the kid he was holding had twisted out of his grasp and taken off, with Tino in pursuit.

Tino came back a few minutes later, saying the kid, whom he knew very slightly from another community centre, had got away. Even when he was running, Tino could still hear the kid cursing and sobbing loudly.

I couldn't understand their behaviour other than to think they were all under the influence of some speedy drug. If anyone had got hurt by the fire, would that have been the end of the oven? The end of an eye? A huge lawsuit against the Park?

Jacqueline cooked the rest of the pizza. I had to calm down.

December 6: St.Nicholas' Day. I decided to bake some bread, so I came down early and put a fire in the oven. Hussain's wood was just as he said, dry and hard and perfect for heating a bake oven. In the afternoon I mixed bread at a table set up in the rink house. I wanted to do the mixing right in front of the kids who were skating, so I had all my ingredients set up on the table and I went back and forth between stirring and kneading, three times for three different kinds of bread. At first the kids ignored me but after a while some of them came over. One of the girls helped me mix herbs into the final dough, and told me her mother makes corn bread at home. She said, "if my mother saw me making bread, she wouldn't believe her eyes." Some boys she knew went by and jeered at her, in a friendly way, and she turned red and cursed them, in a friendly way (I think). And then she kept kneading, with great concentration, until the dough was ready to put in the pans.

December 21: It was Jacqueline's last pizza Sunday before Christmas. How she accomplishes these days is almost unfathomable. But each Sunday there have been more families than the previous week. I guess people like the exotic combination of skating and wood-oven pizza, even just the smell of the smoke that drifts over the ice from the oven. Maybe some people come just to see how Jacqueline manages to juggle it all 末 surely a piece of performance art.

She arrives first thing when the rink opens at 10, as often as not with all three sons. The little one is only five but already a fine skater, as are the older two. As soon as they get here they all four go out to the garage and fill the wheelbarrow with wood and newspaper to start the fire in the oven. This is not so easy. Vigilance is required, in case a piece of skid wood has paint spots or some other suspect substance on it, that might not be destroyed by burning at 800 degrees. To keep the food pure, four pairs of eyes are needed to scan every board that's put in the wheel barrow.

Once all the wood has been put in the oven, the newspaper crumpled up, and the match struck, they go into the rink house and the boys get their skates on. Jacqueline tightens their laces and adjusts helmets and sorts gloves until they all leave for outside. Then she hides their bags under the counter in the kitchen and gets her dough started. This is easier now that we've got the loan of an old Hobart mixer. Jacqueline puts water in the mixer bowl, and yeast, then flour and oil and salt and pepper (her secret ingredient from the restaurant recipe) and turns the mixer on. She stays right beside it because the mixer came with a warning: if anyone tries to reach in when the dough hook is going around 末 it goes so smoothly and slowly 末 they will probably die. The dough hook will catch the person's arm and tear it off and they will bleed to death. Even though only one arm is caught and pulled out of its socket, it's not possible to reach around with the other arm, to turn off the switch, because the pain is too horrible for movement.

I was telling this to one of the kids who was watching us use the mixer, and he nodded. Yes, that's how his uncle died. He was a baker in Portugal and when the household got up one morning they found him on the floor beside his mixer, in a pool of blood, dead.

We've told the story to everyone who comes near the mixer. Some of the kids wouldn't even come in the room after that. Who needs a horror movie if you can stand at the rink kitchen door and just shudder at the mixer going around? And yet, the sound of it is wonderful to us. Jacqueline can stand right beside it and let it work the dough while she cuts up peppers and sausage and onions and mushrooms, gets out the pizza sauce and puts corn meal on the wooden peels. Once the dough is mixed she puts it in a huge bowl and covers it with a damp cloth. She attends to the boys, runs out and checks the fire, runs back in and punches the dough down, rolls it out, puts it on the wooden peels, and attends to the boys again. Meantime people come by the kitchen/office and ask her, what are you doing there? When she has time, she answers. But already people are asking, is it almost time for the pizza to be done? So Jacqueline spreads the tomato sauce, and sprinkles the cheese, and puts on the toppings, and drizzles the olive oil, and out she goes to put the first few pizzas in. Once they're in she runs back inside and grabs oven mitts and platters and the hoe that we use to move the pizzas around. Then she's back out, a quick check on the boys - "I love you too but I can't talk right now," - and then back to get the first pizzas out and put some more in. She runs inside with the done pizzas and shoves them on the tables in the kitchen/office, cuts them up, runs off again calling out the price over her shoulder, to the rink guard who has a line of hungry people at his counter - back in again with the next pizzas, 末 oh no, the first ones are gone already 末 and into the other kitchen to get some more dough. She told me once she feels like Charlie Chaplin in his assembly line movie, and it's easy to see why.

Sometimes her kids come in and help. They're home-schooled and they know that Jacqueline has to work and they have to help sometimes; children are not allowed to be childish when their mother needs help. They're good, too, but they're young and they get bored, and eventually they set up a chess game in the other room and Jacqueline is on her own again. There are pauses, and times when there's help from other staff or skaters. But mostly it's Jacqueline's dance, choreographed by her, and with her as the principal dancer, dancing all the time.

Meantime people skate around with traces of tomato sauce on their faces. Then they go home and tell their cousins, or they invite their friends to come for the day from Mississauga, and next Sunday even more people come to the rink. Now that the holidays have started it will surely get worse. It's wonderful that so many people are rediscovering the rink, but sometimes I worry 末 how many more can fit?


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