Remembering Alan Scott
Yesterday I built a wood fire in my oven at our country house. It still retained heat from the day before, when we roasted a chicken, carrots, and potatoes for dinner. The latest firing was for two batches of rye bread, each made from a different starter.
These bakings, and countless meals before them, are possible because of a soft-spoken man with strong convictions who built my oven nine years ago. He followed a circuitous path from iron worker to insulated wood-fired oven expert. Alan Scott died January 26, 2009 in his native Tasmania, Australia at age seventy-two.
I had a starter oven, built by my husband and me from directions in an old Sunset magazine. It was
made from a mixture of dirt and cement slapped onto a framework of chicken wire. In the end, the shape wasn’t quite right and the walls weren’t thick enough to hold heat for very long. Over time, I stopped using it.
Then I found out about an oven built by Alan that was smaller than those he was building for commercial bakeries and knew that’s what I had to have.
I called him and got on his busy schedule. He arrived with a helper for a three-day stay at our country house. My husband and I had procured the necessary materials; all that was needed was the brick work. The two masons worked long days. I watched, took pictures, and cooked meals. Every now and then, Alan would pause, stroke his beard, and come forth with a few pearls of wisdom. One day he looked at me and said, ”If you were a Mennonite, do you know what you would be doing?” When I expressed ignorance, he answered, “You would be out here learning how to build this oven yourself.” I encouraged him to keep at it, promising I would cook meals instead. Another day he paused, looked at me intently, and asked, “Do you know what you have here?” Not knowing where his question was going, I asked, “What?” “You know how potters have studios, and writers have studios? This is a baking studio.” And that’s what we call the structure that houses the oven to this day.
The last time I saw Alan was about four years ago. He called asking if he could stop by to introduce his new partner, a woman from Taiwan who, unbelieveably, had found him by reading the Chinese translation of my first book, Bread and Chocolate, My Food Life In & Around San Francisco. I invited them for lunch. Although I had heard that he was in poor health, I was not prepared for his frailness. He told me that he was moving home to Tasmania with his new love and was stopping at another bakery the next day where one of his ovens was installed. I think he was making the rounds of his beloved ovens because he knew he wouldn’t see them again.
I’m glad that I persuaded Alan to give me one of his folksy plaques that is embedded in the stucco of the oven’s exterior that simply reads “Custom Oven by Ovencrafters.” I remember him with a smile every time I see it.