Tuesday, October 20, 2009

No Corn on this Cob

We gathered together in the chilly damp mist this past Saturday to begin our journey into the world of cob led by my friend Aviva Creatress. After introducing ourselves, we formed a circle and did some stretching and a couple of team-building exercises. I usually don't like that part much. These were kind of fun. No, they were really fun. We were all laughing at the end, ready to get to work.
So, "what is cob?" you might be thinking. Cob is an ancient building method in which clay, sand, water and straw are mixed together, rolled into balls (cobs) then stacked and squeezed together to make walls. Cob has been used in many cultures to build houses, stables, ovens and walls for centuries. There are many benefits to building with cob. The materials are all natural and inexpensive. Only simple hand tools are required. Cob walls are fireproof and have high thermal mass so they retain heat and moderate temperature extremes.
To build an oven you need a foundation on which to build it. In this case local granite rip rap was used. You can use broken concrete, recycled brick, found stones. Anything you can scavenge for free that can be mortared together. Here at the Funny Farm I am building my base with concrete pavers we have leftover from landscape jobs. Free!!! The base is about 4' high to facilitate the loading of the oven. To create the shape of the oven, we mounded and packed sand in the shape of a dome to support the cob walls. Then we built up the walls, layer by layer, one cob at a time. We finished the day by placing an insulating layer of straw coated with clay slip over the whole surface of the oven.

The next day was perfectly clear, the sky bluer than blue. We did some more stretches and some more fun and games then we got back to work. We learned how to make sculpting plaster from chopped straw, clay slip and sand. We smeared a coating of the plaster over the straw insulation. That was really fun. Aviva determined that the oven's spirit animal was a fox so she sculpted a fox face above the door. Then we sang Happy Birthday Foxy Brown! It was hilarious. Because the cob has to dry first we could not put the finishing plaster on the oven so Aviva taught us how to make several kinds.
After the oven construction is completed and the cob is dry, the sand will be removed from the cavity and cooking can commence! A fire is built inside the cavity and maintained for a couple of hours. The walls absorb the heat getting up to 500ยบ. Then the embers and ash are scraped out and pizzas, bread dough, cookies are baked. It takes a very short time to bake them and the oven retains heat for a really long time so lots of cooking can be done from one firing.
Cob building is hard, but satisfying physical work. Cob building projects work well when a group of people come together to complete the task. Traditionally the village gathered to help their neighbor build his home. Building a cob structure is a great way to build community and make new friends. We will be building our oven next spring. If you are in the Atlanta area and would like to join in please let me know. For information on Aviva's workshops you can send her an email @ cobatlanta@gardener.com. I am sure she would be glad to come to your area to lead a workshop. She is a great teacher. The workshop was very well organized and thorough. I am really excited to get our oven up and cooking.
We'll roast some corn and sip some hooch for sure.

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