A builder in Alaska sent me this story about an earth oven she built in Ecuador, with two helpers. At the ages of 10 and 6, they are clearly competent. Margaret writes:
Winters in Kodiak were beginning to get to me. I had it in mind to snow goose it away in a warmer climate for the coldest, darkest part of winter. Alan and his girlfriend, Loretta were due to get married on their farm [in Ecuador]. They invited me to the wedding. And so I went.
I had always said to Allan that if I did ever get to Ecuador then I would build them an oven. What a fine wedding present that would be ……
The boys were on holiday from school and I guess curious as to what this strange white woman was doing scrabbling around the local countryside in search of flat sided rocks with which to build the platform for the oven. Every day the family would join us and we’d pile into Alan’s little truck and go in search of the perfect rocks.
When it came time to start the actual build, Manuel and Juan Carlos became cherished members of the work force. Every morning they would be waiting patiently either by the front door or the growing pile of rocks. We marked out foundation and began to dig. Then came mixing the mortar and choosing which rock would go where. Manuel and Juan Carlos were by now so a part of the build that it was only natural that they would be participating at every stage. We didn’t share the same language so everything was shown by example. I showed how best to select the rocks and how to set them on top of each other being careful to span the join of the rocks they were covering. The boys caught on very quickly. Manuel and Juan Carlos working as a team, choosing very carefully which rock was going to go where, disregarding any they didn’t feel fitted ‘quite right’. They soon learnt that the long, thin rocks that I had rejoiced so much when found were the ‘tie’ stones and they understood straight away the principal.
With the platform came the mess. At the end of every session came clean up. Both boys armed with wire brushes and scrubbers happily plugged away, still not realizing or conceptualizing quite what it was that we were building but getting into it just the same.
Then came the oven itself. The family were now thoroughly absorbed in the whole process so when the word got out that we needed clay and sand and granular finings, materials began to pour in. Including some very, very much sort after red clay that came from one particular far off mountain.
And so the mixing began.
Friends and neighbors flocked. It wasn’t long before everything in the near vicinity became coated, caked and splodged with the gooey red clay.
I helped the boys make the form which they patted until smooth and firm to the touch. When it came to starting the actual oven itself, it was very obvious that the boys were desperately keen to stay in on the action. Things there on in happened very naturally. Manuel adopted the post of ‘Head Oven Builder’ and Juan Carlos and myself as his chief apprentices and tenders.
I saw in both boys the blossoming pride and sense of achievement at the end of each stage of the build. I saw their dedication and commitment to do their best at every turn and their willingness to see each stage through even though it sometimes got late and it was obvious that they were tired.
When it came time to carve out the door and dig out the cavity, Manuel automatically assumed the job and the responsibility be his and rightly so. I stood back, silent, hardly daring to breath, nerves stretched to breaking point as I watched Manuel began to confidently scoop out the sand form. I watched as without any word of instruction, Juan Carlos positioned himself with the squeaky, old, rusty, lopsided wheelbarrow to take away the sand that was coming out.
Between them, Manuel and Juan Carlos designed and built the rim around the oven door, Manuel making sure over and over that the door be a perfect fit, which it was…..
Oh, the boys were so proud when we lit the first small fire. We kept it going off and on for a couple of days and then we fired it up proper. And of course, it was Manuel with the help of his younger brother who fed it until it was a smokeless flaming blaze of molten orange and red.
The boys are older now. But by all accounts still passionately proud and fond of their oven …… the oven that they built. They have reportedly assumed propiety rights to attending and baking in the oven! And word is that both boys have baking down to a fine art!
Love your answer, Kiko! <3
I bought your book ages ago and finally think I will be able to build an oven next year.. .So excited… Be well!
Kiko Denzer says
Thanks, Petra, and best wishes for your build, and everything else.
I hate to burst your bubble but these ovens are common in Ecuador. As a boy in the eighties i helped my grandfather build one and there were many more in the village that had been working for years. I remember there was even a superstition that dictated what additives were added to the lining. I wouldn’t be surprised if those boys had built more then one of those ovens before you ever showed up.
Kiko Denzer says
Of course they’re common in Ecuador. They’re common the world over. After all, an oven is just a hole in the ground. This is just one story about one particular oven, and two particular boys. No one’s claiming “rights” to the design or the process. I don’t know if you read the whole article, but in my opinion, the author (not myself) made it pretty plain that the boys were competent, confident, and experienced upon arrival. In rural Mexico, the kids I worked with handled a shovel with enough ease, confidence, and grace to put most grown American men to shame — and they took pride in the work. No wonder most of our ag work is done by so-called “immigrants.” A friend whose been doing farm work for a long time says it took her years to gain the skill to keep up with the Spanish speaking crew — and have as much fun. Most of her college-educated peers who want to try out farm work end up relieved to go back to school after a summer in the field. Instead of “migrant labor,” we should call them consultants, and pay them accordingly. And make manual labor a requirement for high school graduation…