We used our backyard wood-fired brick oven to feed friends and help our community

Pizza for the people

pizza for the people

Illustration by Babeth Lafon

Among the items my wife and I selected for our wedding registry, a 20-quart stainless-steel stockpot best symbolized the hope and good intentions we brought to our young marriage. It wasn’t just cookware, we told ourselves. The vessel idealized who we were as newlyweds and who we hoped we’d become by our pearl anniversary.

The pot, we believed, would make our home an extension of the hunger-justice work, like food-waste soup kitchens, that served as the backdrop of our courtship. Its tall sides, heavy bottom cladding, and sturdy handles would allow us to cook for big crowds and embodied how we understood domestic hospitality as a couple: that our home and kitchen should be open to the community, that good things can happen when diverse people gather around a table over bowls of vegetable soup.

Almost 20 years later, the symbol has changed—the pot, now dinged, rests on a shelf above our stove and descends to pop popcorn on movie nights—but the signified remains the same. A brick oven took the pot’s place.

When my wife, Jo, a pastry chef and professional baker, said she wanted to build a wood-fired brick oven in our backyard to start baking bread and pizzas, I couldn’t see the appeal. There’d be ditch-digging involved, expenses of cement and brick, not to mention all the logs needed for fuel. I went along with the plan anyway. The result was a beautiful 4×5-foot hearth with an arched ceiling and a lintel made from Georgia granite. When the mortar set, we lit the oven’s first fires, and I soon wondered why I’d ever objected to its creation. Humans, we know, have always been drawn to fire. And this fire would attract more people than a soup pot ever could.

Wood-fire baking is labor intensive. Its flames eat tons of fuel—we use scrap from woodworking businesses and downed trees from neighbor’s yards—and we stoke the fire for hours only to produce a few dozen loaves. But the spectacle matters more than efficiency. We chose to funnel all that labor into community.

In the year before the pandemic began, the oven encouraged us to transform the rest of our yard into an outdoor pizzeria. We invited friends from our life’s various nooks to meet new people as they stuffed themselves with sourdough pies topped with pestos made from our yard’s edible weeds. Guests brought their own beer and chipped in for ingredients. But the fun stopped as the virus spread. Wanting to help our community, we turned to baking bread and donating the loaves to families in need. The impact felt short term.

So, we called on the same community that once partied around our oven: Come pick up to-go pizzas and, in exchange, donate as much as possible, for example, to a family experiencing a housing crisis. A day of oven work translated into a down payment on an apartment for a single mom. In return, I believe each bake strengthens our marriage, cements our purpose. And that pot, I think, looks good in retirement.

Gallant hosts the Hear-Tell podcast about writing and is working on his second book, South from Somewhere Else.

This article appears in our Summer 2021 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.