What was wrong with my Maytag again?

Owning a brick oven ain’t no picnic, friends. As the months have passed since its completion I’ve received increasing numbers of emails inquiring what’s going on with it and where the blasted pictures are. All I can say is the completion of the oven was just the first step in my evolution into an active brick oven operator — which has required, much to my surprise, that I evolve into a logger first.

For as I pointed out in a post a couple of weeks back, ovens need fuel. The bigger the oven, the more fuel it takes, especially for bread baking which requires a burn of between four and six hours to build up enough heat. And that’s a lot of wood, mes amis, especially when you’re trying to calibrate the darn thing as I am now.

So what? Just buy some wood Joe, what’s the big deal? As it happens it is a rather big deal, since wood has to be sourced, delivered, split, cut, stacked and dried before it can become fuel. This is where the forestry arts and baking arts meet, and in truth one has always been an extension of the other, it’s only us knob-turning, switch-flipping first-worlders who have forgotten that. And you know, these last few weeks have really made me appreciate just what a miracle the in-kitchen gas- or electricity-powered oven really is.

That said, let me introduce you to a few of my newest kitchen gadgets. There’s my log splitter:

My chainsaw:

My ax:

And of course all my safety gear:

And darn handy they all are too. I think I’ll call over to Sur la Table and have them add them to the fall catalogue.

So then, for those of you who’ve been wondering how I’ve been passing my time this spring, I’ve been learning how to use all this stuff — safely — especially the saw, which I’ve been taking actual lessons on (so as to prevent the next bake shop I own from being called “Stumpy’s”). Why so much stuff? Because you need separate equipment depending on which direction you want to cut wood. Cutting it along the grain requires a splitter (mine’s a simple manual pump-action job that works kind of like a NordicTrack), but to cut it across the grain you need a saw (smaller cuts in either direction can be handled with an ax).

Goodness gracious Joe, can’t you just buy your wood pre-cut and ready-to-use? Yes and no. On the one hand I live in Kentucky where there’s no shortage of firewood, though most of it is sold in the winter months (for obvious reasons) and then isn’t always the right kind. Oh I can burn pretty much any type of wood, hard or soft wood, even scraps of building planks provided they haven’t been treated. The issue is one of size. I need a variety. I need small pieces for kindling, medium-sized pieces for the “interim” burn (and to re-fuel a fading pizza fire) and larger pieces for the full-on burn. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get all that variety from wood purveyors, especially pre-cut and dried, for any reasonable cost.

Nope, the only thing to do in my view is to get wood delivered by the “rick” (that’s a pickup truck-load to all you non-woodcutters out there) and process it myself. But then of course being my own logger I’m now free to collect and cut fallen tree limbs, of which there is a near endless supply here in downtown Louisville (being chockablock with old-growth trees and subject to regular severe weather).

I tell you, owning a wood-fueled oven makes a hike through the forest preserve, even a local wooded park, a whole new experience. If only I had my good ol’ Husky 142 with me! I shake my head at the absurdity of it all. That my position as a hopelessly spoiled modern American has allowed me to construct a preindustrial-era wood-burning oven for my own amusement, the construction and operation of which has led to the purchase of all sorts of gear, costing me God-only-knows how much money and time — when all the while there’s perfectly serviceable (and cheap!) bread waiting for me at any grocery store. Oh sure I could defend it all by claiming I’m attempting to return to a simpler, more grounded, earth-friendlier state of being, but I mean…come on. I’m a silly, silly, spoiled, spoiled man.

…though one that’s becoming manlier by the minute I can tell you. It has occurred to me that this post on axes, chainsaws and lumber makes the prefect counterpoint to the theme of this week: quiches. Kinda balances things out masculinity-wise. I may be a quiche baker, but I’m a rough-neck, spit-on-my-hands sort of quiche baker, which is not a half-bad thing to be.

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