Harlem, New York, is both world-famous for its jazz and notorious for its gang violence – a place certainly in need of bread breaking! I asked around and a friend of mine, Elizabeth Ryan, a farmer and activist from Upstate New York, joined my cause and offered her 3-ton wood fired oven on wheels, which had been shipped brick by brick from France to the USA, to travel down to Harlem for Christmas, 2011, all at her expense! The Christmas journey to New York, starting around 5am on a freezing morning, was the first adventure, but parking the oven was an even greater one! But all of our efforts were worth it, since the joy in the neighborhood was overflowing and the people who joined – totally unexpected: teenage boys visibly members of local gangs and hip hop fans along with policemen and grandmothers and kids from various ethnic groups. A mother shared with me that, for her, that experience was truly transformative, because she had just come out of prison and did not know how to reconnect to her daughter, but making bread together seemed to be the perfect way to bond! Our Christmas celebration culminated with a song that praised the real dough even more so than the financial “dough” (slang for “money) – indeed, a “Harlem bake” better than a “Harlem shake”!
The “Harlem Bake” events continued thanks to a local organization helping the homeless and the low-income families called Emmaus House, while the mobile oven is still used for community baking at Elizabeth’s farm in Upstate New York, and people come sometimes driving a few hours to enjoy the unique atmosphere of the oven in its natural setting of a century-old apple farm.