Food and Pottery for Credits

by Helen Armstrong on April 10, 2017

I found myself in mid-January knee deep in Beaver Creek, digging clay from the riverbed with a garden trowel. It’s moments like these when one is forced to reflect: How did I get here? Why am I here? 

The answer: Culture of Cuisine: Food and Pottery. It’s a new class that’s co-taught by an art professor and a biology professor, and this was their first time offering the course.  Their plan was lofty. Over the course of the class–six hours a week–we would construct an outdoor oven, fire it, and bake bread in it, all while creating our own personal projects that combined food and pottery.

I took the class in the hopes of branching out–and to complete a necessary science course for my university requirements. And branch out I did, in extremely unexpected ways.

I had no idea that the course would involve the construction of an oven, a reality that was made all too bitter by the fact that we were plunged into the creek in the second week to dig out clay to make the oven. We dug out bucket after bucket of rust-colored clay and then, once it was hauled up to the Murphy Hall art building in the bed of a pickup, we had to take it all out and lay it on shelves to dry. The class has about 15-20 students, but even with all of us working, these tasks took awhile.

Gathering the clay was only the first step. We had to make it into an oven–no easy task. We had to form it into a dome, pat sand and clay down, arrange the bricks to make the base and opening. It was a big job, and I won’t lie–it was cold working outside in January and February. But once the oven was constructed, seeing the fruits of our labor was much more rewarding than I would have thought when my hands and toes were freezing.

When it came time to fire the oven–set a fire in it and dry it out–for the first time, we had to go collect sticks. Lots of them. Again, this was winter in Pennsylvania, so it was cold work walking around campus collecting sticks–let alone also catching some weird looks.

But, ultimately, our hard work and occasional suffering was rewarded when we finally got to do the one thing we were waiting for–make bread.

Since finishing the oven, we’ve made bread a few times, and churned our own butter. Overall, the course is unique, and hard at times, but how many American college students get to say they’ve eaten bread that was baked in an oven they made?