I’m a fan of old-fashioned virtues. Give me honor and courage and fortitude over such trumped-up nonsense as cleanliness and moderation and, God forbid, honesty. I think virtues matter, and I chose my husband because he is built of – he built himself of – the qualities I most value.
Which makes it hard to explain the wood-fired oven.
It began about three years ago, when I read a book called Build Your Own Earth Oven, by Kiko Denzer. The idea that you could make a functioning oven, the kind that can reach pizza temperature, out of good old-fashioned mud, was too good to be resisted. All we needed was a little time, a little clay, and twenty bucks for incidentals.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I have only one thing to say about that: Hah!
The transformation of this project from simple and cheap to complicated and expensive began long before we started building the oven itself. Every oven needs a base, and we decided ours couldn’t be cobbled together from plywood and sawhorses. It was going to be made of stone, and the $500. we spent on two pallets of it was just the beginning.
In my first attempt at stonework, I stacked those rocks ($500! For rocks!) into half a pedestal. I didn’t like it, so I tore it down and built it again. It took months.
Then came the question of filling the pedestal with material that would act as insulation for an oven that would get very hot. Kiko Denzer suggests something called “urbanite.” The only kind of urbanite I was familiar with was the kind I used to be, but it turns out that Denzer was suggesting something different. “Urbanite” is another word for the broken pieces of brick and concrete that I would have called rubble, back when I was an urbanite.
I can’t tell you what we put in there, it was so long ago. There was some urbanite, but there was some other stuff too, and no one will ever know because we entombed it in a layer of concrete that was to form the base of the oven deck. Those of you with a criminal bent should entertain the idea of a wood-fired oven. Ours won’t be excavated until long after any statute of limitations has expired.
To form the deck itself, we had the brilliant idea of using kiln shelves. They’re flat and large and designed for high heat – the perfect surface! Two out of three, it turns out, is bad after all. Large and designed for high heat, they certainly are. Flat is another question.
“Undulating” wasn’t what we were going for in an oven deck, so we had to added another layer. This time, of firebrick.
And that’s when we got completely derailed. Firebrick isn’t available at your garden-variety home-improvement store. You have to go to a specialty masonry purveyor, and the one we went to was Drywall Masonry Supplies, in nearby Yarmouth. There, we met Kristen, to whom we described our project. She got hold of the special refractory concrete we needed, and set us up with firebrick. And then she introduced us to Tony.
Tony is a mason, and he had built a wood-fired oven. Kristen thought he would have some helpful suggestions, so she gave him a call and told him what we were doing. He did have suggestions, and invited us over so we could see his spectacularly beautiful brick oven, and talk masonry. One look at that oven, and Kevin decided that we, too, should have an oven built of brick.
Kiko Denzer was out of the loop.
It was only after we bought the firebrick to build the dome that Kevin discovered that dome-building was the very apex of masonry proficiency. Once you spend an entire career building simple, square things out of brick then maybe – maybe – you can tackle a dome.
The brick sat, stacked next to the oven base, for months, and then a year, as Kevin watched videos and read tutorials on building domes out of brick.
This state of affairs is uncharacteristic for my husband, who embodies old-fashioned virtues. Dirty and immoderate he may be, but he finishes what he starts.
And, last week, almost three years after we first began this project, he did. Kevin built a dome out of brick, insulated it with a ceramic fiber blanket, and encased it in a layer of refractory concrete. Just like that.
Last night, we lit it. And there’s no way you can have a wood-fired oven burning in your backyard without putting a pizza in it. We didn’t have time to make our own dough, so we bought some at Stop & Shop. We invited my parents and their friend Gail, who’s visiting, to come over, emphasizing the experimental nature of the meal.
It takes more than the threat of experimentation to scare my parents out of pizza, so they came over to join us. And they were there to bear witness as, two years and nine months after we broke ground on our wood-fired oven, Kevin pulled the first pizza out of it.
There is still work to be done. We have to build a box around the dome, fill it with perlite for insulation, and build a roof to protect the whole shebang from the rain. But the dome holds. The air circulates. The heat maxes out our infrared thermometer, which can measure up to 932 degrees Fahrenheit.
We need to make the chimney a little higher to improve the draw, and we definitely need to get the sand off the deck, but it appears that our oven is a smashing success.
Honor, courage, fortitude, and pizza. I believe my life is complete.