A generation or two ago, most backyard cooking relied on the simple charcoal kettle grill. Today, sophisticated gas-fired grills with side burners, infrared and other bells and whistles are commonplace – some suburban backyards even come with complete kitchens. On the other side of the fence, however, are those whose interest in sustainability has motivated them to embrace an ancient method of outdoor cooking: the handmade, wood-fired, clay oven.
Building these primitive ovens is a growing trend, a process recently described in Food & Wine magazine as "a little like a barn raising." Many hands are needed to build the stone base, shape and, finally, hollow out the domed top, which is usually made of "cob" – clay with straw mixed in, for stability.
Some pizza restaurants are also turning to wood-fired ovens. American Flatbread, a group of popular eateries in Vermont, bakes its pizza in large, domed ovens made of clay and indigenous stone. A visit to one of these restaurants 15 years ago inspired my sister-in-law, Andi Novick, to construct a clay oven last summer on her organic farm in Rhinebeck, N.Y. – a project that provided an unusual summer experience for a group of college-age boys whose passions center around food.
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