SKOWHEGAN, Maine — They came from Brooklyn, Portland, Minnesota and Montreal.
Sweltering under a tent at the state fairgrounds in Skowhegan, a group gathered to learn the basics of building by hand a primitive oven with sand and clay. Expert Stu Silverstein led the oven-making workshop, part of the 10th annual Kneading Conference, a two-day event in Skowhegan.
“No air pockets. Get it nice and tight,” the 77-year-old artist from Waterville instructed.
Building a mound over a newspaper-covered dome of sand, the busy class mixed clay and pressed it into the surface. When it was 3-inches thick, they took turns cutting a doorway and pulling out the sand to create the baking chamber. Then they lit a fire to cure it.
Silverstein’s earth oven workshop is as much a staple of the celebration of grain as the popular dough and ancient wheat demos. Each year his hands-on how-to becomes more of a draw.
“People are attracted to him like a magnet. The beauty of Stu’s work is he’s trying to make wood-fired baking and baking in general accessible,” conference founder Amber Lambke said. “He wants people to be unafraid, he encourages mistakes. … There is no wrong way to do this.”
The wiry, soft-spoken man with gray frizzy hair was patient during the workshop. He answered multiple questions in the muggy, late-July heat.
People such as Ben Flanner, president of Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm in New York, were there to glean the do-it-yourself skills and try them at home. Flanner couldn’t build an oven like this in the city, but as a large scale rooftop farmer in Brooklyn, he’d like to add it to his arsenal.
“You just can’t get this stuff from a book, you have to feel the clay,” Silverstein’s assistant Roy Feihel said. “They are learning from the best.”
Silverstein is passionate about organic infernos from the dawn of humankind. The mud ovens he specializes in don’t come with manuals, but they can be crafted for about $250. Conference attendees leave with a syllabus of materials, including links to YouTube videos, books and sourdough culture recipes to get them fired up.
“As we move more into the digital age, part of us yearns for something that is not electronic,” Silverstein said.
Smoothing wet earth onto a mound with bare hands, it’s hard to imagine a more tactile offline activity.
“People want to cook with fire. It’s a primal instinct, that’s how we started preparing food, and we haven’t forgotten it,” he said.
Though he’s built ovens in Guatemala, in Maine schools and numerous backyards, his path to cob ovens started in France.
“A trip to Paris inspired me to do them. I was in the most famous bakery in Paris, and I was extremely inspired. As soon as I saw it, I knew my baking practices had to change,” he said.
Baking bread for more than 40 years and building earth ovens for more than 12, Silverstein sees this biblical food as “an equalizer.” To him, “it doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or Democrat, bread is bread and everyone appreciates it.”
Even Branch Rothschild from Allagash Brewing Co. was enthralled. The Portland brewhouse manager skipped a beer panel to learn oven-making.
“We just built a new break area, and there’s a little patio. We are hoping to have a little pizza oven,” he said, sweating in the sun.
Wood-fired baking, like brewing, is on the rise. And both artisanal crafts merged at the conference.
“I like cooking with fire. Working with basic elements, earth, fire, inspires me. To me it’s a lot more vital than turning on a little nob on a range,” Silverstein said. “Cooking outdoors in the open is pretty exciting.”
After two hours into the class, people were ready to get their earth oven on.
“I want to build one in the woods by myself,” Chuck Meyers, a retired accountant from Minnesota, said. “This is something you can do by yourself with minimal skills.”
Paula Oland, who a baker from New York has dabbled in wood-fired pottery, said she sees similarities between the two pursuits. The only difference?
“Pottery has a more stable shelf life, bread does not,” she said.
Though perfectly fine loaves can be pulled out of convection and brick ovens, the crowd seemed drawn to the more elemental mode.
“The ancient bakers baked in the same manner as they do today, the same way 2,000 years ago,” Silverstein said. “It’s a nice concept, people can feel connected to prehistory.”
On the first day, the oven was cured with a live fire, which hardened and strengthened it. On day two, students will bake flatbreads inside. One lucky person can take the oven home, or it will be auctioned off.
Silverstein, a filmmaker and baker, enjoys sharing the skill because the eager Skowhegan audience appreciates his knowledge.
“I love to teach a class and see that people are enjoying themselves. They go home and bake bread, and it’s totally nonpolitical,” he said.
Though clearly a pillar of this conference run by the Maine Grain Alliance, he waves off notions of grandeur.
“I come here to build ovens, bake bread and have a good time,” he said.