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Community cooking: Making pizzas the old-fashioned way

Students line up to eat as Sue Sailer carries a freshly-baked pizza to the table while teacher Mary Karkela cuts another pizza into pieces. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus1 / 9
Sue Sailer explains the inner workings of her wood-fired brick oven to students from Mary Karkela's 1:15 p.m. Creative Cooking class last Wednesday. Sailer also hosted the 11:15 a.m. class earlier that day. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus2 / 9
Sue Sailer moves a pizza from the oven to the table. In all, 26 pizzas were made last Wednesday. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus3 / 9
Students laugh while trying to stretch the dough for their pizza. Learning and cooking together are some of the benefits of using old-fashioned outdoor ovens. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus4 / 9
Bonnie Johnson, far left, a friend of Sue Sailer's, helps students select their dough for pizza-making. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus5 / 9
A pizza cooks inside the oven dome, where temperatures reach about 500 degrees. Ovens like this one can hold their heat for days after the fire goes out; in olden days, villagers would share communal outdoor ovens to bake their breads and other goods. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus6 / 9
The Sailers want their outdoor oven to be used in the spirit of "Learn. Bake. Share." Marie Johnson / Perham Focus7 / 9
Some students said the homemade, wood-fired pizzas were the best they'd ever had. Sue Sailer made the dough by hand and students got to pick their own fresh toppings. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus8 / 9
Mary Martin, second from left, shows Perham High School students from Mary Karkela's Creative Cooking class how to work the dough into pizza crust. The class was on a field trip to Sue Sailer's residence north of Perham to cook pizzas in her new wood-fired brick oven. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus9 / 9

Learn. Bake. Share.

Those three words are depicted on the side of Sue Sailer's new wood-fired brick oven, a permanent nod to the spirit in which the oven was built.

In ancient times, outdoor ovens like these were communal. Villagers would gather around them to bake their breads, share family stories, debate the controversies of the day and teach each other new ways of preparing food. The ovens created a sense of community.

Last Wednesday, that feeling was recreated in the backyard of the Sailer house, north of Perham. Sue hosted more than 50 Perham High School students and a few of her own friends to share what she's learned about wood-fired brick ovens and then bake artisan pizzas with the kids.

It was a sunny fall day, and an earthy, appetizing aroma of dough baking at the hearth was in the air as Sailer shoveled dozens of pizzas in and out of the oven's baking chamber. Kids stretched and shaped dough for the crust, picked out their toppings and then watched as the intense heat of the oven worked its magic on their pies. It took only a few minutes for each pizza to cook, as the temperature inside the oven exceeded 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Everybody cooked and ate, talked and laughed.

Sue and her husband, Fred, had just finished building the oven about one week before this, and already, the spirit of "Learn. Bake. Share." was coming to life.

Sailer became interested in wood-fired brick ovens after reading an article about them in the Star-Tribune newspaper. That was enough to get her to sign up for a class at the North House Folk School in far northern Minnesota, where she learned more about the ovens' history and was instructed on how to build one of her own.

The communal spirit of these kinds of ovens appealed to her, she said, and building one seemed like a project her late parents would have appreciated, making it near and dear to her heart.

"My father was a builder, tinkerer and fixer; always curious to see if he could build something that was out of the ordinary," she said. "My mother was a wonderful baker, intrigued by process and the science of cooking and baking. She also naturally understood the power of relationship-building around food and food preparation. So, I have realized within doing this project, it has become an active prayer of gratitude to them, each day I worked on building it and each time I discover something different when cooking in it."

With help from Fred, several friends and businesses in the Perham community, Sue worked on the oven for months. The build process was more difficult and involved than she had expected, but she believes the payoff will be well worth the effort. Already, she's used the oven to make a beef roast, potatoes, and of course, lots of pizzas.

"The sharing of the joys and intrigue in cooking with a wood-fired brick oven is part of the motivation we had in building it," Sue said of herself and Fred. "We will continue to share these opportunities with friends, family and community members."


How It Works

A fire is started in the oven, and its dome chamber absorbs the heat until it becomes white hot (up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit or more). This usually takes 1-2 hours. At that point, the fire is either extinguished or left to burn gently.

Once the oven is up to the correct temperature, the oven door is closed to contain the heat. The oven is ready to use once the heat has lessened a little and has evened out throughout the oven.

The heat that gets absorbed into the oven bricks from the fire radiates down from the dome; that's what cooks the food, not the hot air in the oven or heat from the fire itself.

The radiated electromagnetic waves come from many different angles of the dome walls and oven floor, creating hot spots on the oven's cooking surface.

The heat in the oven stays consistent due to the great thermal mass of the oven's brick, stone and concrete. Thermal mass is the ability to absorb, store and release heat energy.

Once fired up, a wood-fired brick oven can stay hot enough to cook foods for up to a few days.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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