In community oven, neighbors ‘make bread then break bread’
Melina Kelson, of Skokie, and her husband Pete Podolsky work on their backyard oven that is being built to serve the community. The couple are seeking donations to complete the project. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
WHAT: Melina Kelson and Pete Podolsky are building a community-oriented backyard oven with the help of donations.
AMOUNT RAISED: $11,839 as of this week.
Updated: November 19, 2012 1:00PM
SKOKIE — Communities come together in different ways, and Melina Kelson and husband Pete Podolsky came up with an extraordinary one.
In the back yard of their Skokie home the couple are building an outdoor brick oven — not just as a new way to prepare food for themselves but as a community-building and environmentally friendly project.
Kelson and Podolsky wanted to raise $11,000 in a Kickstarter project to help pay for the oven, but they have already surpassed that amount with still about two weeks of donation-gathering to go. Had the duo not been able to reach their $11,000 goal, they would not have received a penny under Kickstarter rules.
“In just three weeks, you and other good people like you have turned Bootleg Batard from an idea into a community of caring, sharing, inspiration and excitement,” they said on their Kickstarter web page. “From Maine to California, more than 125 caring people like you joined us in reaching the first goal in the journey to build this oven. We are so grateful that you believe in the vision of sharing a traditional oven and helping to forge a community centered on naturally good, real food.”
This is certainly the right couple to undertake such a nutritionally sound project.
Kelson and Podolsky knew each other since junior high. But it wasn’t until later when they fell in love and got married.
A professional chef for 15 years, Podolsky was at the National Restaurant Association show at McCormick Place and needed a pastry chef. Enter Kelson who was finishing culinary school. After getting married, they moved to Skokie in 1997.
“Since we first moved into this house, we’ve talked about putting an oven in the back yard,” Podolsky said.
Kelson said the backyard oven was always a dream: “I didn’t realize it would ever become a reality.”
Since that dream first formed, Kelson became a teacher for the Kendall College School for the Culinary Arts. She already has helped build two outdoor ovens — the first in 2006 for a Chicago community center. It originally was supposed to be used by a baker, but it has become much more of a community oven — the same kind of use that Kelson and Podolsky envision for their own backyard addition.
“Outdoor ovens have become a unifying force since people first began building ovens,” Kelson said. “There would be an oven in each community, and people would bring their food and bread and they would bake together.”
Or to put Kelson’s and Podolsky’s vision in a pithier way: “People gather, they bake bread together and then they break bread together.”
Kelson’s second oven was built at Kendall College where she has used it as part of her instruction.
Before she became so enamored with the concept of the “community oven,” Kelson learned sustainable agriculture working with community-minded organizations such as Milwaukee-based Growing Power, which states it wants to “put the ‘neighbor’ back in the ’hood.”
She and her husband created a lovely community garden outside their house in 2007 — long before their backyard oven project caught fire.
Kelson emphatically states that the outdoor oven is the best way to bake when it comes to conservation and energy-efficiency.
“The way an oven like this works is on retained heat rather than direct heat,” she said.
The ideal use is to fire up the oven and when it’s super-hot, one can cook flat breads and pizzas. The fire burns out and the coals are spread around so that the insulated area remains heated for more cooking opportunities — the temperature gradually dropping. The oven might be hot for three days, Kelson said.
The Kelsons envision doing their own baking and then letting the neighborhood know the oven is available at coordinated times for the next three or so days.
“You start talking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and everyone becomes closer,” she said. “You know your neighbors better. It’s as much about community as it is about cooking. So many people don’t know their neighbors anymore.”
That’s just what happened when the couple installed their garden, Kelson and Podolsky say. People came by, they contributed, they visited, they got to know each other.
The couple started building the outdoor oven in June with $7,000 or so of their own money and have worked on it regularly — both with their own hands and hired hands.
The $11,000 in raised funds have allowed them to complete the heart of the work. They welcome other volunteers to work on the project and see what they have accomplished.
The next jobs, they say, involve building the external brick facing and insulating the oven. Then they need to locate a competent designer to plan a shelter that the village of Skokie would need to approve. Once that shelter is built, funding for tools and structures to increase the capabilities of the oven for the community are needed.
Kelson and Podolsky say they are fulfilling their “Oven of Dreams” for “If they build it, people will come.”
“We’ve already generated so much interest,” Kelson said. “We got 80 backers in a week as soon as the project appeared on Kickstarter. It shows just how interested and excited people are about this whole thing.”