The Edgar Thomson steel works isn't the only source of smoke on Braddock Avenue: Beside the old St. Michael's convent across the street, a community pizza oven pours its own plume into the air.
The oven was inspired by an idea proposed by amateur baker Ray Werner. "He said, ‘Ovens do really exciting things,' " recalls Jeb Feldman, owner of UnSmoke System Artspace. "‘People come together around a space and cook, which is a community-building activity.' " And thus, the oven was built from reclaimed material, and the effort of community activists like Feldman.
Nearly five years later, the oven bakes a few times a month in peak seasons, when it serves as a beacon for non-profit events, literary readings (like the upcoming Wood-Fired Words) and other community-based activities. (Inquire about reservations at email@example.com.)
Writer, professor and food enthusiast Sherrie Flick was present for the oven's first use. She's taken her Chatham Food Writing classes — including one I attended — to the oven each summer.
"Smoke, heat, ash — all combine with the food and atmosphere to create a fantastic eating experience," says Flick. "It's like a campfire without leaving the urban core."
Oven temperatures "can top 500 degrees when everything is right," Flick adds. "Baking at that temp is stunning. You get a crispy, chewy crust that's charred and smoky... the wood-fired flame almost becomes an ingredient itself."
Oven gatherings involve a potluck of toppings, many direct from gardens. It's a creative, active, collaborative process, and the heat has attracted some big names, like chef Kevin Sousa, who tried his hand with the oven in May.
Visiting the oven also means a chance to see the Braddock Farms urban garden, Feldman's gallery and other revitalization efforts. Connecting outside residents to this unique eating experience, Feldman hopes, could help foster greater more investment in Braddock's future.
"It's a great example of how to use space and close the [food] loop," he says. "You plant, you grow, you cook and then you eat, and it all can happen outdoors... Every time it gets used, it activates an energy here."