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A production of the Southern Foodways Alliance, GRAVY tells new and complicated stories about the changing American South.

May 25, 2022

In “Bread by Fire,” the second episode in her five-part season for Gravy, producer Irina Zhorov takes listeners to the little house in Marshall, North Carolina, whose residents have produced some of the most exciting baking in the South. The property is a hotbed for baking specifically because of the ovens. Two large, wood-fired ovens anchor the space and attract a very specific kind of baker to their side. 

Here’s how the ovens work. You build a fire inside the oven’s chamber and let the heat soak into the masonry, a process that can take many hours of maintaining the fire. Eventually, you let the fire go out, sweep out the ashes, and you’re left with a hot box that functions as an oven. Unlike a gas or electric oven, you can’t just turn up the oven once it cools, or add a little fire if it doesn’t seem hot enough. 

The current owners of the Marshall property, Camille Cogswell and Drew DiTomo, are seasoned bakers who have worked in high-end restaurants. But, despite their expertise, neither had used an oven like these to make bread or pastries before moving in. Learning how to manage the fire in the unforgiving ovens has been a rite of passage for everyone who’s lived and baked here, including the person who built them—Jennifer Lapidus.

Lapidus bought the place in 1997 and ran her bakery, Natural Bridge Bakery, from there. She’d apprenticed with baker Alan Scott to learn to make Flemish style bread, which uses a centuries-old style of natural leavening. Scott, who also designed wood-fired ovens, came from California and helped Jennifer build her ovens. Jennifer procured all her own firewood, often from an hour away, and experimented until she learned how to harness her oven, burning a fire for twelve hours before baking in order to heat the masonry through. 

After Lapidus, Tara Jensen tinkered until she mastered the fire for her bakery, Smoke Signals. She’d start the fire in the evening, feed her sourdough starters, and let the fire burn until the early morning, when she’d start mixing and baking dough. The multi-day process became a ritual. 

In this episode, Zhorov talks to Cogswell, Lapidus, and Jensen all about how they learned to tend the fire and live by the rhythms of wood-fired sourdough baking. She also talks with Rob Segovia-Welsh, who runs Chicken Bridge Bakery with his wife, Monica, about what benefits he sees in working with fire. Throughout these conversations, she explores how baking this way offers potential for connection to a community—and makes the baker’s life a pretty good life.