community ovens illustration

From Scratch

Communities across Minnesota are coming together to make (and break) bread.

Mitchell, South Dakota, is home to a sprawling Corn Palace, adorned with murals made from grain. Houston has an oddball cottage constructed exclusively of beer cans. And in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, the United Methodist Church there has become widely known as “the bread church.”

In this case, though, there are no baguette columns, and no one is walking on sourdough tiles. The church’s nickname came about through its work creating a network of community ovens across the state.

Community ovens have been in use for centuries, not only as a vehicle for firing up baked goods but also as a way to bring people together to share stories and a common resource. Primarily wood burning and built outdoors, the ovens have seen a swell in popularity, fueled by the success of other pieces of the “sharing” movement—like tool lending libraries and seed banks. Equal parts ancient and novel, the ovens have popped up from Colorado to Vermont, with Minnesota serving as a (somewhat unlikely) national hub.

“Our oven is a way that we can reach out to the community in a unique manner,” says Mike Faust, who helped construct the White Bear Lake community oven—and then nine subsequent ovens across the state. At its largest event, the oven churned out 180 pizzas, and then gave the slices away for free. “It attracted people and provided a comfortable way to get to know each other.”

As for oven construction, Faust uses a full-on brick-and-mortar style, which means the ovens require several hours of preheating before loaves can go in. Others, like David Cargo, a community oven advocate and leader in the St. Paul Bread Club, uses a “stacked brick” model, which allows the vessel to heat up speedily. But there’s no technique rivalry to be found here. In true “Midwestern Nice” fashion, Cargo says all methods are good ones. “There’s room in this world for both the staple and the paper clip, you know?”

And if you’re hoping to build an oven of your very own, Faust recommends determining how you’ll use it beforehand. White Bear Lake’s purview includes baking classes, a “breadstick communion” church service, and a charity-focused “baking with a purpose” day. (A large oven can hold up to a whopping 25 loaves at a time.) In Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood, pizza nights have been a focus ever since volunteers constructed a public oven in 2015. The opportunities for creation—and connection—seem limitless.

“Minnesotans like community ovens partially because of our culture,” says Cargo. “There’s a focus on community and mutual reliance much more so than self-reliance. We like to work together.”

Sarah Baird writes for GQ, Eater, The Atlantic, and Food & Wine, among many other publications. She lives in New Orleans.

Illustration by Melinda Josie

Originally Published July 2017