Hearing about our popular Harlem Bake events, a homeless shelter, part of a Russian Orthodox Church in the low-income Brighton Beach area of New York, got inspired to build their own oven. The priest, Father Vadim, imagined building a wood-fired oven on wheels in order to take it out to the streets where the homeless gather and to try to inspire them to bake with other locals and, hopefully, to help break their skepticism, touch their hearts to open up, and help them change their lives. But how to build the oven, and with no money on hand? An angel showed up: an immigrant from Ukraine who turned out to have built the ovens of one of the biggest monasteries there, Pochaev! He volunteered his labor, invented the design, and in just a few days in January the oven was ready, and, indeed, it proved to open up the hearts of the homeless. On a freezing January morning, 2012, one homeless Muslim man, in particular, had tears in his eyes when he shared how the fire in the warm hearth in the freezing cold reminded him of his far-away homeland and it gave him new hope to go on!
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.
With the belief that wood-fired ovens can again serve as unique focal points of unity in neighborhoods around the world, Nadezhda first experimented by building a mobile wood-fired oven part of what she envisioned as a Mobile Bread House.
In 2012-2013, Nadezhda and a volunteer team of a designer from Pratt Institute, New York, and architects from Harvard University, with the financial support of Princeton University and the local Princeton artist Pete Abrams, created the Mobile Bread House (MBH). Built on a trailer out of recycled shipping palettes, the MBH houses also a special custom-made dirt press for creating dirt/mud bricks that could be used for building community ovens in different neighborhoods.
With one of the Princeton University Mobile Bread House’s construction team members, Sarah Kantrowitz, an architect from Harvard, the two were invited to present the Bread Houses project at the Venice Biennale of Arts, as part of the American Pavilion community arts projects. Nadezhda and Sarah Kantrowitz organized the construction of a wood-fired oven in a low-income neighborhood of Venice, on the island of Lido. It was built in the yard of an old, desolate and dilapidated hospital, which local creative and socially engaged young artists wanted to revive as a community center for all ages and ethnic groups, such as the many local immigrants from the Balkans, Ukraine, and Russia, taking care of elderly people in their homes.