New Yorkers can be a jaded lot—not easily surprised and thinking they’ve seen it all. But put an outdoor stone oven in the middle of a playground in Park Slope and you never saw such wide-eyed innocence. Such is the case at the Old Stone House (OSH).
The onetime site of the Revolutionary Battle of Brooklyn and home to the earliest incarnation of the Brooklyn Dodgers is now playfield for countless youngsters. It’s also a historical museum, educational site, wildlife food forest and host to a community baking series where everyone’s invited.
At the helm of the stone oven is Jace Harker, who refers to himself as the “oven steward.” Back in 2012, Harker and his wife, Yasmin, found themselves in Brittany, France, where they heard tell of nearby community cooking lessons. While they didn’t actually attend any of the French classes, they were inspired to seek out an outdoor wood-fired oven upon their return to Brooklyn. They found out about a small oven at the Old Stone House and inquired.
“I called up Kim at the Old Stone House and said, ‘Hey, we have this idea,'” says Harker. Somewhat unexpectedly, the response from Kim Maier, the OSH director, was, “Oh, that sounds like a great idea.” Harker and Yasmin got cooking and in 2013 a Meetup group was born.
As participation increased, the group outgrew the small oven, which had been built as an Eagle Scout project a decade prior and was showing signs of weather. “It became impossible to cook everybody’s food in one day in the oven,” says Harker, “so we started thinking it was time to get a much larger oven that would really last hopefully for a generation.”
Drawing on his scientific background (Harker has a PhD in material science), he methodically set to work. First stop was the two-day Kneading Conference in Maine, conveniently located where Harker’s dad happened to live. There the father-son duo studied the arts of wood-fired pizza making, learned new and traditional techniques for cooking and baking with fire and made the acquaintance of oven mason Pat Manley, who—after the Meetup’s raising of requisite funds for his services—would eventually make his way down to Brooklyn for the build.
The crowd-funded effort was crowd-built in late April 2016. “Pat came down for a whole week, and one of the OSH board members was kind enough to provide him with a place to stay,” says Harker. “And we had a core group of volunteers who basically took a week off and actually helped [build] the oven.” He adds, “In fact, one of our core group actually flew in from Arizona where he lives. His sister lives in Brooklyn and told him about it. He was so excited and wanted to help her build an oven that he flew in just for the week to work with us on it.” Meanwhile, an enthusiastic teenager named Andrew Sapini carried on with tradition by making an Eagle Scout project of the oven’s patio, which he and his team formed using the stones from the old Eagle Scout oven. “It’s really been nice how the whole community has come together around it,” says Harker.
While a few finishing touches (including a copper roof) will be added this summer, the oven is now in full swing. The first Meetup of the year took place in late February, followed by a bread baking class in late March with James Beard Award-winning baker Sarah Owens, which seemed to sell out as soon as it was announced.
On the day of my visit, the community was there as if there was never a winter lull. A longtime baker named DeRM showed up from the Bronx with an inspired anchovy marinara that he’d prepped the night prior and wanted to use as a pizza sauce. Lively conversations among former strangers were interspersed with surprises emerging from the oven: an iron skillet of grilled pears dressed in apple juice, maple, cardamom and finished with lemon; an impressive debut of coconut mango muffins from a neighbor named Judy who had been watching the goings-on for years and finally threw together some ingredients on hand to join us; and pizza variations galore.
A man and his young son wandered over from the playground several times to watch. It wasn’t clear which of the two was more curious, but on the third visit, the dad finally asked, “What are you doing?” Jace laughed later and told me that sometimes by the third visit the curious ones come back with cookie dough or some other quick concoction they’ve gone home and prepared. OSH gardener Claudia Joseph stopped by and joined the mix, not missing a beat in the conversation even while shooing the children off the plant beds.
For now the Meetups are happening monthly, though an expansion of events may be on the horizon. Possible projects include deputizing additional oven stewards, pop-up restaurants, pizza days, guest chefs and more classes.
“It’s a lot of fun. That’s exactly what it’s supposed to be,” concludes Harker. “You don’t have to be an experienced cook or a professional chef to enjoy this—anybody can come and you can bring anything. You can bring a potato and throw it in the oven and when it comes out it will be amazing. So that’s something that I really want people to know is that anybody can come.”