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Squishing the Day Away

“That’s it. Just keep stepping it down until it feels lighter and fatter,” my fellow blue-clay stomper, Jeff, explained. He had done this job for much of the previous day and so was momentarily the resident expert since our mentors were across the room working on the construction of the alder-branch frame for the clay oven we were helping build.

“Did you say batter?” Mish, a fellow novice who was making bricks out of the dough we were stomping together, asked. The stuff in his tray did actually look like some kind of chocolate-blue cake batter. No matter what the word, though, the clay in my tray still felt hard and skinny; nowhere near ready to be shaped into bricks. So I stomped and squished for a total of twenty minutes or so, only stopping every few minutes to yelp and remove sharp, pea-sized rocks from beneath the tender soles of my feet. Then again, maybe I wasn’t such a wimp: The definitive work on this subject, The Bread Ovens of Quebec, published in 1979, explains, “The clay is pounded, worked or trod upon in a simple trough or a horse can be used to tread it under its hooves (emphasis is mine).”

In truth, the firm wet clay squishing between my toes felt more like a therapeutic foot massage than actual labor, and it didn’t matter in the least that we had some 30 5-gallon buckets of clay to go. It was an immediately rewarding task and someone exclaimed, “I recommend this job to everyone. It’s even better than a perfect poop (Ok, the someone was me but since my wife has requested I lay off the bathroom humor, I was going to remain anonymous. Oh well.).”

We were participating in a thousands-of years-old tradition, helping to make the Quebec-style oven (the technique and style was brought from France many centuries back) and I could have squashed the whole day away, for all I cared. And I didn’t even need to be distracted by reading a magazine or listening to music.

* * *

Being a clay-oven laborer is the perfect alternative to being a gym rat; it’s like Crossfitting but with a much worthier end: delicious food. From stomping apart bucket-size lumps of clay, my thighs have the same ache one usually has after a good hour on a $3500 Stairmaster. From lifting, scraping, and shaping roughly a ton of blue-clay into the gloopy unfired “bricks” that will become an insulated domed oven, my shoulders and arms are so tired I actually need the wrist-rest in front of my keyboard. And bending over for hours placing and then smashing the bricks together onto their frame of alder branches has made my lower back feel just like it was pummeled into submission by a sadistic self-defense instructor.

In other words, I found the perfect workout.

The oven we were helping build will be the centerpiece of the 12th Flatbread Company restaurant--a New England powerhouse in the simple, local wood-fired-pizza genre--opening in Rockport, Maine in early July. My family and I have headed straight to Flatbread's Portland, Maine site whenever we can ever since we first discovered the place 15 years ago in Portland's "old port" waterfront district. Their signature dish, the wood-fired flatbread, delivered the trifecta of perfection in pizza: it is smoky, crispy and just the right amount of chew. The atmosphere was a perfect one for families with all ages of children. What kid--or parent, for that matter--isn't mesmerized by a roaring fire, even or maybe especially one in a vast clay oven? It’s our primordial heritage. Once in the door, our children immediately went to sit or stand near the giant pizza oven, staring contentedly into the flames for uninterrupted spells lasting however long it took for our food to arrive.

A similar thing happened to Bobby Morgan, 46, who is opening the Rockport restaurant with two partners. He started out at the first Flatbread Company restaurant in Amesbury, Mass and has been with them ever since. “There’s something about the smell of the wood-fired food, the simplicity of the menu--we’ve been serving local, organic ingredients since before it was the thing to do--that immediately makes everyone who comes in relaxed. The shoulders physically drop a couple inches when people walk in. And families feel at home… there’s been a number of times when I’ve had to go up to parents who were enjoying their Cabernets a bit more than minding their kids and said, ‘We want everyone to have a good time but this isn’t childcare.’ It’s just that relaxing.”

I happened upon this project by accident this past weekend. My daughters were applying for jobs at the restaurant and I rode along just to keep them company. Not only did I end up helping with the oven-building, and learning first-hand how to build one of the best traditional ovens for wood-fired cooking, but I also applied for a job myself, as a bartender. Even better, I met a cool group of artisans. I liked learning from them all but Johnny, age 70, who traveled around the world in the 60s by bicycle and sailed crossed the Atlantic with his family at another point, was my across-the-generations doppelganger (but far more accomplished). This was his 20th clay oven, and while he was constantly helpful and entertaining he was equally direct about correcting mistakes. I’d carry over a brick “Well, that’s not going to cut it, is it Hodding? Take it back and bring one we can use here.” He even sent back a brick my friend’s 80-year-old mother made (it was oddly endearing and seemed to be his manner of flirting--so watch out DeeDee).

What I liked just as much, though, was being introduced to yet another facet of cooking and its history--and all because I decided to apply to bartend on a whim. I hadn’t known that the Quebec style oven even existed, that 50 years back--and before--you’d find one of the ovens in many backyards in Quebec and that their history stretches well past the last few centuries that white people have been making and using them in America. Even better, my son Angus joined me--and the hundreds who came out to help make the final bricks--and was soon covered in clay from his hands to his face…

In truth, the clay ovens had me at the first squish and I’ve started drawing plans for the base for my own Quebec-style clay oven. What real Pantry Project would be complete without one?

I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

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