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Report by guest baker Yo Utano.
Walking, or even driving on one of the main roads in the Lawrence Heights community, you can’t miss the orange brick structure on the north side of the community centre. Toronto Community Housing Corporation built this oven in 2009, to increase neighbourhood safety by making a focus for neighbours to meet. So far, there had only been one baking day, in which the TCHC and North York Harvest Food Bank collaborated. Like the oven in Prospect Park, NY, this one has both an oven and a fireplace with brick shelves in between. The oven is shaped like a beehive, and it has no chimney or door. I was curious about how the fire would go but more excited about the fireplace, as I had just experienced one in NY.
Today we were three : Mayssan, Michael and myself. Jutta came later. We arrived at Lawrence Heights at 9 a.m. after picking up some food materials from the North York Harvest Food Bank just down the street. We learned that there was an assault in one of the buildings yesterday, so our oven contact person had to be away at meetings to discuss the situation. Shortly after we arrived, the caretaker came and gave us access to the kitchen and all the cupboards. The fire was built, and cooking began.
Today’s menu was a March Break special:
The fire went well, except it burned our eyelashes. Without a chimney sucking up the air at the front, a hot blast blows at you on a windy day like this. But no worries, it can occasionally happen with ovens with a chimney, too. And it is not that bad, just some crusty eyelashes and bangs. At the fireplace, the trivet we brought was a little too high to have a pot on it, so I used two bricks to place the pot and pan over the embers. After the potatoes were cooked, onions were sautéed here while the embers underneath charred whole onions. We rolled out the dough, dressed it with vegetables, plenty of garlic, oil and salt, and put it in the oven. The shelves in the middle came in handy to put tools and toppings. It was such a cheerful sight with all parts of structure in use and various kinds of cooking taking place. It’s like having different compartments and pockets in your suitcase; functional, lots of possibilities.
The only thing was that there was hardly anyone to see it and eat the food.
Staff from the Health Center came to eat, and we called every passerby to join us as well. Most were on their way to the Mall and didn't have time to stop. We managed to grab an Afghani woman and her son who showed me how they made their bread. Here’s what they did: she took a good amount of dough with oiled hands on an oiled tray and poked it with her fingers to flatten it, shaping it like a thick pizza crust. Then her teenage son used a fork to make patterns and let the air out — he kept poking for quite a while. It was too bad that they had to leave for another commitment without seeing the bread out of the oven, but the bread was delicious.
The community worker Domenic tried to send over a bunch of kids from the Parks and Recreation community centre, but they never made it. I had no kids who would make biscuits, so I rolled it out to make my own. By then, the coals in the back had calmed down and the oven wasn’t as hot. We baked the biscuits in a cast iron pan at the front of the oven, and ate them with more butter as dessert.
I very much enjoyed baking with this oven. The fireplace is, again, an exciting feature to me, and that it is so high above the ground (about my waist-high) is interesting. It’s nice that you don’t have to bend over to cook, but you have to watch for the hot coals falling on your feet. The shelf underneath seemed to keep warm, so we put leftover pizza there.
The oven, the kitchen (very close to the oven), and the staff from the collaborative agencies all seemed happy to have the place used. Fire and food would serve the community well if they appeared more. And someone like me can learn a lot from it.