Bringing people together with brick-oven-baked bread

When Canadian Shauna Kearns came to Pittsburgh last fall for Chatham University’s two-year masters program in food studies, she assumed all cities had a web of community ovens where people lined up to bake bread — just like Toronto, her hometown.

“Or maybe I didn’t realize how important it was for me to cook in an outdoor wood oven,” she says.

“I grew up in a family that treasured the outdoors,” says the 25-year-old, who played goalie on McGill University’s field-hockey team while earning an undergraduate degree in business. She twists her honey-blonde hair in a work-friendly braid and wears shades that, when doffed, reveal a raccoon-style tan and ready-to-laugh aquamarine eyes.

“The first time I baked bread, I just fell in love with the process.”

She had to cross a river to find herself a Pittsburgh oven — the region’s first community oven, built in 2008 on Braddock’s main drag, where it is an element of Mayor John Fetterman’s Braddock Redux, a many-faceted project to reboot the fortunes of the town.

She first saw the oven in action at a benefit for Superior Motors, where chef-owner Kevin Sousa is launching an ambitious restaurant/​community education center. Mr. Sousa’s project will provide polished destination dining along with affordable meals, food service training and jobs for Braddock residents.

Ms. Kearns notes that the people partying were outsiders. “I’m glad the oven is in Braddock. If bread production were localized for that community, it would be so cool.”

She doesn’t mind the commute — hopping a 61B bus three days a week from her Regent Square apartment lugging a yeasty 25 pounds of bread dough in a bin.

Her $5,000 Falk food studies fellowship requires her to use food to connect to community. In an apprenticeship in Somerset, England, with the owners of tiny Tracebridge Sourdough baker, she witnessed the power of bread, baked in a wood-burning oven, to draw townspeople in. She also apprenticed in Toronto at St. John’s Bakery, a non-profit next to a mission that trains the unemployed.

St. John‘‍s will be the model for the bread-baking training program she plans for Braddock. Her post-grad vision is “to replicate the brick oven/​bread model in other neighborhoods.”

Her plan dovetails with a Sprout Fund-backed project, “Bricks and Bread: Pittsburgh Community Brick Ovens,” underway by longtime brick-oven baker, playwright and community activist Ray Werner. He says, “My own oven in the Allegheny Mountains outside Pittsburgh has taught me many things about life. Something good happens, something wonderful, when people gather around a brick oven.”

He envisions wood-fired brick ovens in neighborhoods from North Side to Garfield, giving rise to “communities of bread bakers, pizza lovers and neighbors who will use, care for and share the ovens for all sorts of community events.” He will build the first in Larimer.

Ms. Kearns is confident that “people connect with bread.”

So, she fires up the imperfect Braddock oven, three days a week, humoring its malevolent quirks. Shaping dough she mixed at midnight the night before and put to rise 16 to 22 hours in the fridge, she produces 25 or 30 “sour, but not too sour” dark-crusted loaves a week.

The bread is sold at the Grow Pittsburgh farm stand on Braddock’s main drag and in the community cafe — “$5 a loaf, or a dollar, if that is what people can afford, or $20, as has happened when someone wants to make a donation.”

The balky oven, it should be noted, will be replaced in coming months. All bread sales go toward a state-of-the-art replacement, which Ms. Kearns says, “I really want Braddock people to feel is theirs.” The project will also receive backing from Superior Motors and The Buhl Foundation.

Mr. Fetterman says, “The new community oven would never have been possible without someone with Shauna’s credentials and talent — and the Buhl Foundation.”

Since Braddock’s oven is a community oven, Ms. Kearns says, “People sometimes appear, wanting to use it. Some guys from outside the community showed up with pizza dough and I had to turn them down. ‘You guys have only watched a YouTube,’ I said. “I’m very careful to teach people how to use this oven safely ....” She’s using her fellowship funds to build a reference library for brick-oven bread baking and an oven-use guide.

Grant funds pay for firewood, too. She’s found a Braddock supplier. “The wood must be dried at least a year and not be anything ‘sappy’ that would gunk up the oven.” She chops the wood to size herself.

The hope is to have the new oven fired up for September. Superior Motors will use the oven and is helping fund the project, she says. So, “The new oven needs to be functionally and aesthetically as good as we can make it.”

She turned for expertise to Wandrian Ovens, a brick-oven builder in Vermont.

With Wandrian’s guidance, she was able to tap labor-in-training at The Trade Institute of Pittsburgh in Wilkinsburg, where students, most of whom are still serving time in halfway houses, receive job training in masonry skills. Wandrian supplied plans for the oven’s foundation, which the students have completed.

She is burnishing her own brick-oven creds. She’s already built one primitive but functional oven, which you can see pictured, all aglow, on her Facebook page.

She has a scholarship to the Touchstone Center for Crafts oven-building seminar in Farmington this September and she’ll apprentice at Touchstone’s oven-use workshop. Mr. Werner and Rich Jones —brick-oven experts, breadmakers and cousins — are the instructors at both events (

She’ll soon move to Braddock to be nearer her commitment. With a better oven she’ll experiment with local flours. And begin stretching toward her ideal.

She says that if she is going to try to replicate any model, it’s Wide Awake Bakery in New York State, near Ithaca. The bakers see the bakery “as a way to honor and give back.” This they do, by using the best, freshest organic flours, grown by farmers they know and ground in a small organic mill not far away. They operate a thriving bread CSA and teach local classes, as she wants to do when she can.

This summer as in the past few summers, she squeezed in a canoe trip on the Ravensthroat and Coppermine Rivers in the Arctic. She told Mr. Werner: “These canoe trips in the Arctic are little communities.” she says, “They’re nomadic, self-sufficient. We eat only what we catch and carry. Baking bread in a small portable dutch oven every day in the middle of nowhere encourages a community spirit. It’s the same kind of spirit I discovered in Braddock.”

Virginia Phillips:


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