Changes in the wind

Gulf Wars, 2011

Gulf Wars, 2011

Last summer, I started noticing that when the thermometer got over 75*F or so, I was having a hard time functioning. Brain fog, fatigue, getting confused easily – and it was even worse when I was wearing my full Elizabethan clothing. This isn’t to say that the clothing itself was intolerably hot by default (I’ve been wearing it for years and thousands of others did so their entire lives) but that I was suddenly having problems with the heat where no such problems had existed before. I realized that the culprit was a medication I have to take every day. It’s not something I am willing to stop taking, so I decided I had to minimize my heat exposure during warm weather. That, sadly, meant giving up my beloved working class clothing of the late 16th century.

I agonized over this decision for a very long time, not the least of which was because I had no idea what time period to do next if the 16th century was out and all others had to be eyed suspiciously for heat index. None of the other SCA-period centuries really appealed to me. I do like the dorky hats of the Burgundians, but I’ve been less than impressed with how the rest of that era’s clothing looks on me. I look like a potato sack in Viking, and besides, the culture doesn’t resonate with me. I like the material culture of the Vikings – beads, obviously, but also the personal items and weaponry and the ships – but I’ve never made it through a saga without falling asleep. The culture just doesn’t feel like “home” to me.

My new Roman kit, Pennsic 2013.

My new Roman kit, Pennsic 2013.

Finally, I decided to become a citizen of Rome. Some of the people I really respect in the SCA have been doing kick-ass Roman impressions for years, and they make it look good. The clothing is dead simple to make, cool and comfortable, and still looks elegant if draped correctly on any size or shape of body. I took Latin in college and studied a bit of Roman history there. A lot of the things I like most about my research in the 16th century still translate to this culture and period – there’s a heady mix of cultures swirling around across oceans, with all the fascinating pushback and compromising and appropriating that intrigues me.

The big stumbling block for me was finding the human faces out of those centuries of anonymous crowds. I have a hard time really feeling interested in a given culture or time period unless I can feel like I know its residents and have a sense of their daily life. It’s why I’m not that interested in prehistoric stuff all that much – there’s just too wide a gulf in what we know to be able to get the sense that they were everyday normal people. For me in the 16th century, I found that easily through the vast body of primary source material and all the Elizabethan-themed movies, books, TV shows it inspired. I really liked being able to read the firsthand words of some fishwife being called into court for slandering her neighbor, or hear a joke told 400 years ago and still find it funny. Most of my experience with Rome was of the sonorously formal “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” type from Latin class and the stoic old white dudes in toga statues you see everywhere with pretensions to neoclassical culture.

It took two TV series, one fiction and one nonfiction, for me to dip my toes into the water and finally see living, vibrant Rome. I started by watching the HBO series Rome, which was a fun show. It was full of historical inaccuracies, but it made average Romans seem real and alive. I followed that up with Mary Beard’s Meet the Romans series on YouTube. It’s a wonderful romp through the graffiti and realities of everyday common Roman life. I highly recommend it. With those two series under my belt, I’d seen the faces in the crowd. Now I’ve moved on to primary source sculptures, frescoes, and paintings. I am excited to have a whole new world of research opportunities!

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Tablets of Drinking Chocolate in the Spanish Style

Tablets of Drinking Chocolate in the Spanish Style

 To every 100 Cacaos, you must put two cods of the long red Pepper, of which I have spoken before, and are called, in the Indian Tongue, Chilparlagua; and in stead of those of the Indies, you may take those of Spaine; which are broadest, and least hot. One handfull of Annis-seed Orejuelas, which are otherwise called Vinacaxlidos: and two of the flowers, called Mechasuehil, if the Belly be bound. But in stead of this, in Spaine, we put in sixe Roses of Alexandria beat to Powder: One Cod of Campeche, or Logwood: Two Drams of Cinamon, Almons, and Hasle-Nuts, of each one Dozen: Of white Sugar, halfe a pound: Of Achiote, enough to give it the colour. And if you cannot have those things, which come from the Indies, you may make it with the rest.

  – Antonio Colmenero, trans. Don Diego de Vades-forte. “A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate.” Published in London in 1640, in Spain before 1631.

Redacted Ingredients:

Cacao ingredients.

Cacao ingredients.

  • 100 cocoa beans
  • 2 cods red chili pepper (approximately 1/2 tsp)
  • 1 handful aniseed (quarter-sized mound in palm, powdered)
  • 2 mecaxóchitl flowers (a dash of pepper was substituted)
  • 2 drams cinnamon (1/2 tsp)
  • 12 drams almonds (~8 tsp)
  • 12 drams hazelnuts (~8 tsp)
  • 1 cup sugar

This recipe is a fascinating glimpse into Mesoamerican foodways (the hot pepper, the use of flowers as spices) and how those foodways were interpreted by the Spanish palate (thickening the drink with nuts, adding sugar).  Marcy Norton’s helpful article “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics[1]” explains that orejuelas is a Spanish translation of the Nahuatl words gueynacaztle (“great ear”) and xochinacaztli (“flowery ear”), two flowers that were used as spices. What Colmenero calls Mechasuehil is probably mecaxóchitl, which Norton describes as a relative of pepper with an anise-like taste. Since I had neither of these things “which [came] from the Indies,” I substituted some anise for approximate flavor. Colmenero says that Campeche tastes like fennel. I elected to leave fennel out, as I’m not fond of the licorice taste and there was already too much of it with the anise. Achiote (Bixa orellana, also known as annatto) gave the chocolate a reddish color and had a slightly “musky” flavor. Marcy Norton compares the taste to paprika or saffron.You can usually find achiote/annatto in the Hispanic section of your local larger grocery store. Cacao beans can be found online or in larger health food stores – it’s often sold in “nib” form (roughly crumbled) which will work fine for this recipe and means you can skip the shelling step.

Using JSTOR, there are references to “rose of Alexandria” or “rose of Castile” as possibly another term for hollyhock, but nothing (from what I found) placing this particular association solidly within the range of period. Nicholas Monardes mentions “Roses of Alexandria” as the Spanish Damascus Rose, which modern botanist Graham Stuart Thomas alleges has survived to the present as the Autumn Damask Rose (Rose Book 304). For this batch, I used the dried petals of my grandmother’s small-blossomed tea rose.

If you can’t find a given ingredient, it’s perfectly period to leave it out, as Colmenero points out: “And if you cannot have those things, which come from the Indies, you may make it with the rest.”


The Cacao, and the other Ingredients must be beaten in a Morter of Stone, or ground upon a broad stone, which the Indians call Metate, and is onely made for that use: But the first thing that is to be done, is to dry the Ingredients, all except the Achiote; with care that they may be beaten to powder, keeping them still in stirring, that they be not burnt, or become blacke; and if they be over-dried, they will be bitter, and lose their vertue. The Cinamon, and the long red Pepper are to be first beaten, with the Annis-seed; and then beate the Cacao, which you must beate by a little and little, till it be all powdred; and sometimes turn it round in the beating, that it may mixe the better: And every one of these Ingredients, must be beaten by it selfe; and then put all the Ingredients into the Vessell, where the Cacao is; which you must stirre together with a spoone, and then take out that Paste, and put it into the Morter, under which you must lay a little fire, after the Confection is made. But you must be very carefull, not to put more fire, than will warme it, that the unctuous part does not dry away. And you must also take care, to put in the Achiote in the beating; that it may the better take the colour. You must Searse all the Ingredients, but onely the Cacao; and if you take the shell from the Cacao, it is the better; and when you shall find it to be well beaten, and incorporated (which you shall know by the shortnesse of it) then with a spoone take up some of the Paste, which will be almost liquid; and so either make it into Tablets; or put it into Boxes, and when it is cold it will be hard. To make the Tablets, you must put a spoonefull of the paste upon a piece of paper, the Indians put it upon the leaf of a Planten-tree; where, being put into the shade, it growes hard; and then bowing the paper, the Tablet falls off, by reason of the fatnesse of the paste. But if you put it into any thing of earth, or wood, it sticks fast, and will nor come off, but with scraping, or breaking.

The first thing I do is put all my cocoa beans on a sheet pan in a warm oven. Heating them up loosens the papery shell (like a peanut skin) to the point where they can be peeled fairly easily by pinching between thumb and forefinger. I’ve done this recipe by hand in a mortar and pestle and by machinery with a food processor. Unless you’re feeling super frisky, use a food processor. This takes hours of pounding and your arm will fall off. Grind the cinnamon, anise, and chili peppers together. Grind cocoa beans to a fine powder, and add the first ingredients. Grind the nuts with a few spoonfuls of the cocoa beans, and add to the rest of the mix.

Finished cacao tablet. Not too great looking on its own, but the scent is AMAZING.

Finished cacao tablet. Not too great looking on its own, but the scent is AMAZING.

If I am doing this by hand, I will take a metate or heavy stone mortar and pestle at this point and pre-heat it in the oven. I get it about as hot as I can comfortably hold it with a dishtowel. Put your powdered ingredients into the hot mortar and pound/grind it until the oils express and the substance starts to liquify. Keep going for a while after that – the more oxygen gets into the mix, the better it will be. Pour the paste out onto wax paper. When cool, break into tablets and store in a box.

If you want to save time and arm muscles, use a food processor. Put the cacao bean and spice powder in a dish in the oven to get it warm all through, then add a few spoonfuls at a time into the processor. I use the grind or pulse setting. It will be disheartening at first because it looks like nothing is happening for the first few minutes. Stop the food processor and take a spoon to the bottom of the mixing container – by now you might have the first beginnings of a brown paste hiding under the blades. Mix that paste into the powder and turn the machine on again. Repeat this, adding more powder, until the mixture takes on an oily sheen and reaches the consistency of peanut butter. As it mixes, the cacao will oxidize and begin to smell like real chocolate.


Drinking Chocolate

There is another way to drinke Chocolate, which is cold; and it takes its name from the principall Ingredient, and is called Cacao; which they use at feasts, to refresh themselves; and it is made after this manner. The Chocolate being dissolved in water with the Molinet, take off the scumme, or crassy part, which riseth in greater quantity, when the Cacao is older, and more putrified. The scumme is laid aside by it selfe in a little dish; and then put sugar into that part, from whence you took the scumme; and powre it from on high into the scumme; and so drinke it cold.

– Antonio Colmenero, tran. Don Diego de Vades-forte. “A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate.” Published in London in 1640, in Spain before 1631.


Take a cup of water. Break off a piece of chocolate tablet (about 1 inch square, give or take). After heating the water, use a molinet if you have one (it’s a fancy wooden beating stick, still used in gourmet circles) or an egg whisk to beat the tablet into the water. Skim anything that floats to the surface and set aside. If necessary, add more sugar to the water; otherwise, pour the chocolate-water back into the foam. Serve cold.

Cocoa as we know it today has been treated with alkali to make it able to dissolve in water. This stuff, being untreated, will separate and float to the surface if you let it sit. It’s pretty gross looking – the oil is orange from the annatto and forms little bubbles in the brown liquid.

I’ve never had enough leftover to know how long it will store – it’s too tasty to sit around for long!

[1] The American Historical Review, Vol. 111, Issue 3.

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Getting started in lampworking

Maybe you’ve taken an intro class or watched a friend do it, and now you’ve got the bug to melt some glass yourself. Lampworking is a great hobby in that most of the tools you need can be scavenged or created with a little ingenuity. Here, in no particular order, is a list of the stuff you need and some ideas on how to get it.

1. A torch. Don’t try a plumber’s torch or the like; they won’t work. Get one specifically marketed to lampworkers. I recommend the HotHead torch. It’s single fuel, affordable (~$40-50), and very forgiving. There are one or two other “beginner” torches out there in this price range, but they tend to break very quickly. My HotHeads have been my full time torches for 6 years now and still work fine. (I put the term “beginner” in quotes because a lot of lampworkers insist that the mixed gas torches are somehow more professional, but you can do a lot with a HotHead. The major drawback is that it doesn’t get as hot as a mixed gas torch and you don’t have as much control in changing the fuel/air ratio of the flame, which is necessary for to get the full effect of some of the specialty glasses.) In period, most beads were made with a charcoal-fuelled furnace or kiln.

2. Colored Safety Glasses. These are a must. You’re protecting your eyes not only from stray glass chips, but also from the high intensity UV and infrared light put off by the torch. A pair of standard safety glasses are okay if you’re sitting down at a torch for a few minutes a year (you’ll hurt your eyes more on a sunny day at the beach) but if this is something you are serious about, get a pair of didymium glasses or welding goggles. Didymium lenses are a specialty thing used in glassworking and metalworking to protect specifically from the radiation and light frequencies in a bright flame. Radiation-induced eye trauma used to be an occupational hazard of glassworkers – it even had a name: glassblower’s cataract. You can probably borrow a pair of welding goggles from a friend until you get your own, but make sure you get one of the lighter shades. The dark glass used for heavy welding is far too opaque for a lampworking torch, and you won’t be able to see what you’re doing!

3. Something to control your beads’ cooldown rate. I use a couple of pieces of ceramic fiber insulating blanket, but other folks swear by a crockpot full of vermiculite. The idea is to slow down your beads’ cooling rate to minimize the thermal shock. There are theories that in period basins filled with hot coals may have been placed in the back of the kiln or built into the side of the crucible, and hot beads were put there to cool as the heat source died. Ceramic fiber can sometimes be found inside old ovens, if you’re in a position to scavenge some. It’s cheaper and easier to buy some – you can get a couple feet for around $10. [EDIT: Ceramic fiber blanket is *not* the same as fiberglass! Make sure you’re getting the right stuff, or you’ll just have an itchy mess.]

4. Glass. Do yourself a favor and buy some glass to start with. If you want to play with recycled shards, that’s awesome, but it’s a steep learning curve. Modern bottle glass has been engineered for injection molding, meaning it is very stiff to work with and rehardens extremely quickly. It will waste a lot of your time, gas,  and patience to try to use it to learn upon. I recommend Effetre or Moretti glass (two names for the same thing). It’s commonly available and works well with the HotHead. Don’t get borosilicate glass or any of the fancy reducing glass while you’re just starting out – they won’t work on a HotHead torch.

5. Kiln wash/bead release. It’s a mix of clay & graphite or other materials, used to prevent glass from sticking to your mandrels. If you don’t use it, you’re making hatpins. This is something you’ll have to buy (or look up a recipe online and mix yourself, but you’ll still have to buy the ingredients). I highly recommend Dip-n-Go Sludge from Arrow Springs. Unfortunately, Arrow Springs is the only distributor as far as I know, and their shipping can be costly, but this is the best bead release out there in my experience. Other brands are prone to cracking (turning your bead into a hat pin) or being difficult to work with.

6. Mandrels. These are sold at lampworking supply places, but you’ll save yourself some money by befriending a welder. Stainless steel TIG welding wire makes *great* mandrels, and most welding shops will sell you a handful for less than you’d pay from a glass place. Just make sure they’re straight – a bent mandrel is a pain in the butt, because the beads won’t come off it.

7. Gas. The HotHead runs on straight MAPP gas or propane. MAPP burns hotter and cleaner than propane, but is much more expensive. I use the little Coleman-style propane tanks for travelling classes and a BBQ tank at home. You can hook up a BBQ tank to a HotHead with an off the shelf hose available at pretty much any place that sells grills or portable heaters. The only downside to those hoses is that they collect oil and dust from inside the big tanks, and over time the rubber lining will degrade and leech oil into your fuel gas. That will leave soot and gunk on your beads and ruin your fun. You need to drain the pressure from the line at the end of each beadmaking session, and ideally take it off the tank and hang it up overnight once a week or so to drain the oil that accumulates. Even then the hose will deteriorate over time. I recommend replacing it once a year. Alternately, if you have a welding supply place near you, you can purchase a few feet of T-rated hose which will handle propane without deteriorating. Despite these things to remember, bulk propane is cheaper than the little canisters and immensely cheaper than MAPP gas.

Other tools:

Bead reamer – gets the kiln wash out of the beads when done and smooths out any sharp edges; a tiny file will do this well. For real improv credit, a piece of rock will grind off a sharp bead end, too.

Marver – a flat or shaped surface used to manipulate beads into different shapes. Aluminum heat sinks from appliances work great for this. You can use the back side for a flat surface, and the grooved top for a texturing option.

Something to hold your dipped mandrels – I use a block of wood with holes in it to keep the mandrels from touching each other. I’ve seen folks use bowls full of sand as well. Whatever works for you.

Rod rest – something to hold the glass rods you’re about to use or have recently used, that will keep the hot ends from touching your work surface. A piece of scrap metal will work for this.

The Worksurface itself – I use a piece of plywood covered with a piece of thin sheet metal as my workstation. It has a metal bracket to hold the torch in place. The whole thing is portable and can be put in place with C-clamps.

A kiln is awesome but not necessary for most beads. For larger work, you will need a kiln to control the cooling rate and properly anneal the beads. If you have a friend with a kiln, you can batch anneal a lot of smaller beads at the same time.

Arrow Springs used to have everything I needed, but they’ve stopped carrying Effetre glass in favor of their own custom mixes.
I’ve used Frantz Art Glass several times this year with great success. They have decent prices and their random discount bin can be entertaining. They occasionally have free shipping deals.
Mountain Glass Arts has a drool-worthy print catalog and a good selection of glass and tools as well.

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Evil Devitrifying Purple

Purple opaque glass is a tool of the Devil. With the least provocation, its surface breaks down from glassy to crystalline, a process known as devitrification. The surface of the glass goes from shiny and purple to chalky and white. You can put the glass in a reducing flame to burn off the devitrification, but that has its own problems. You lose that lovely warm purple color and instead get a sooty grey-blue effect that bleeds over the surface of your bead.


The top of the whorl, showing how the purple spiral devitrified and then reduced to a sad grey.

The underside of the whorl, showing the lovely purple spiral hidden underneath the greyness.

The underside of the whorl, showing the lovely purple spiral hidden underneath the greyness.

That blackness will greedily subsume whatever color you put next to it. (The white devitrified spot will do that, too, looking like a ring of salt crystals in a dried-out tide pool. The black just spreads like an oil slick and contaminates its neighbors.) The quirkiness of purple opaque glass can lead to some very nifty effects if it’s what you’re going for, but a lot of the time you just have to concede the point and admit you’re not going to get the shade of purple you wanted. This whorl is a fine example. I’d made a fine twisty of purple opaque glass and transparent rose to apply to this bead. When I took the bead out of the flame to shape it, it cooled enough that the purple devitrified upon being reintroduced to the heat. I cranked the heat and was able to get rid of the white spreading scum, but the purple didn’t go back to its original color. The effect is interestingly organic – it looks like a fossil, or a spinal column – but it’s not what I was going for. On the underside of the same whorl, you can see the twisty as I saw it in those brief moments before it turned black.

Devitrification can be prevented by keeping the glass very hot right up until you’re done working it. Taking a purple bead in and out of the flame is a guaranteed way to mess it up. Unfortunately, so is using most shaping tools and marvers. Sometimes I use devitrification as an intentional tool, as when I’m making mermaid pendants. In that case, the mottled white/purple looks appropriately organic and fishy on the tails. But overall, I much prefer working with clear purples. They’re much better behaved.DSC07838

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Desirous to See the Strange Things of the World: Part Five

horePart Five. [Or start at the beginning.]

The Matthew of Bristol, a replica of the caravel in which John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497. (Photo from the BBC.)

The Matthew of Bristol, a replica of the caravel in which John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497. (Photo from the BBC.)

Despite the advertising and the high-profile gentlemen who signed on to accompany him, Richard Hore’s expedition reveals a marked lack of seriousness in its approach. As Giles Milton points out: “If Hore had given as much attention to the voyage as he had to publicizing the venture, he might have realized that he was placing himself and his companions in the gravest danger.”68 The notoriously top-heavy Tudor vessels were not especially suited for trans-Atlantic crossing.69 The ships were not adequately provisioned, a fact which would show up all too clearly later on. Furthermore, the vessels he hired were in poor condition, a fact which would heavily influence the coming voyage and limit their captains’ options. Hore paid Dolphyn ₤165 for the rent of the William for the duration of the voyage, providing the vessel was returned promptly upon its return. Contemporary Admiralty records do not list what the going price was for renting an oceangoing ship, so it is difficult to determine if Hore was attempting to cut corners or not.

Regardless of the price Hore was paying for the ships, he was clearly intending to make a profit from the voyage. Although Hakluyt does not mention it, the ships deliberately separated at some point after leaving Gravesend. David Beers Quinn asserts that Richard Hore stayed aboard the William and went fishing on the Grand Banks; Hakluyt’s narrative makes no mention of the ships separating at all, let alone who went on which craft. The subsequent lawsuits show that the Trinity continued up the coast of Newfoundland, probably up around Labrador. More than that is not known. Alan Moyne’s presence in the expedition would seem to indicate that Hore was attempting to follow Jacques Cartier’s route to the St. Lawrence via the Strait of Belle Isle, as David Beers Quinn has suggested. However, all accounts indicate that Moyne remained aboard the William and did not participate in the ill-fated northward venture. This itself is either an act of incredible carelessness or poor planning – the Newfoundland shores are notoriously dangerous, and it seems foolhardy to approach the shoals without an experienced pilot. If Moyne stayed aboard the William, then the Trinity had no pilot aboard at all. The William herself, plagued by persistent leaks, stayed near the coast of Newfoundland before returning to England on September 27, 1536, nearly a full month before those aboard the Trinity made it back.70 Continue reading

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Desirous to See the Strange Things of the World: Part Four

horePart Four. [Or start at the beginning.]

An Indian Werowance, or Chief, John White, watercolour, c. 1585. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

An Indian Werowance, or Chief, John White, watercolour, c. 1585.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

With the background of the major players established, it is now possible to take a look at the facts behind the narrative and attempt a reconstruction of the actual events of 1536. This ill-fated expedition began in 1535, when Richard Hore, a gentleman described as being “giuen to the studie of Cosmographie” (cosmography being the branch of science that deals with mapping the general features of the universe) began negotiating for a vessel. William Hawkins had just returned in that year from a voyage to Brazil with a “savage King” for his efforts, who was “brought up to London and presented to K. Henry the 8… at the sight of whom the King and all the Nobilitie did not a litle marvaile.”47 Giles Milton, in his book Big Chief Elizabeth, suggests that Hawkins’ subsequent popularity and profit may have been part of Hore’s motivation, and it is true that on the one occasion where Hore’s expedition encountered a native, they did attempt to capture him.

By March 1536, Hore had raised enough funds to acquire two vessels, the William of London, and the Trinity.48 Both vessels would cross the Atlantic together, departing Gravesend at the end of April, 1536. Once near the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland, the William would stay on the Banks for an ordinary cod-fishing venture. This is where his expedition deviates from the usual path. The Trinity, carrying these well-do-do adventurers, would loop north and skirt the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. The gentlemen would get a chance to see “the strange things of the world,” and, if they were lucky, capture one of its inhabitants.49 Continue reading

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Not all my projects work: The Bake Oven

A few years ago, I wanted to build a small clay bake oven as a project for the Northern Lights A&S Competition. There are a couple different ways to do it; the one I went with was going to be portable (for obvious reasons). Gode Cookery has several good primary images of this sort of thing. This is the one with the best detail.

Bakers and oven, unknown date. From

Bakers and oven, unknown date. From

It’s a basic clay form, constructed over a wattle framework for support. All the accounts I’ve read say to expect the wattle to burn out in the first or second firing, but that the clay will hold its form after being fired. I took a lot of construction notes while I was at Plimoth. While theirs are massive stationary ovens, mine would be essentially a scaled down version.

The base, the cart, the mortar trough in which I was mixing the clay, and one of the buckets I'd used to collect it.

The base, the cart, the mortar trough in which I was mixing the clay, and one of the buckets I’d used to collect it.

I dug the clay from a bank in a river a few miles away. We could only get to it by boat, so Ekk held the boat steady while I dug and filled a number of five-gallon pails. Once home, I had knocked together a frame already. I tacked some expanded metal mesh into the base (for support, since I don’t think I trust the boards along the bottom edge) and put handfuls of leaves over it to keep the clay in while it dried. Ekk lent me a cart, which is for display purposes only.

The base was pure clay, laid over stacked high-insulating foundry bricks. The foundry bricks are kinda like a ceramic styrofoam and are very good at preventing heat transfer, which I hoped would keep my little borrowed cart from bursting into flames. I planned to add a little bit of chopped hay into the clay mixture for improved stability with the walls. A period technique is to use manure, which I’ve got no problem with, but I suspect if I do that nobody will want to touch it thanks to modern squeamishness. (Seriously, once the oven’s been fired to 500+ degrees, I really doubt anybody’d be catching anything even if there was anything to catch.) But all the old, sun-bleached horse manure we have around the yard is *just* the perfect consistency for chopped hay for this sort of use… Heh.

Mostly finished base with helping chicken. Note the cat paw-print in the upper right corner - our big black tomcat decided to come say hi. Before I could stop him, he jumped up, and just as quickly levitated down and away.

Mostly finished base with helping chicken. Note the cat paw-print in the upper right corner – our big black tomcat decided to come say hi. Before I could stop him, he jumped up, and just as quickly levitated down and away.

Any outdoor project is complicated by livestock. At my place at the time, I had horses and a large flock of free-range chickens. (We’ve since added a goat.) The horses can be especially destructive, particularly since they’re very friendly and like to “help” with whatever you’re doing. The chickens liked to perch on the cart and watch, occasionally jumping down into my work to peck at anything they thought looked tasty. The clay also bore the marks of our two cats, both of whom came over to investigate and left prints in the wet clay. (Much to their disgust.)

The oven framework, right at the point I realized I'd set my outside edge too close to the boards and consequently would not be able to get enough clay on there.

The oven framework, right at the point I realized I’d set my outside edge too close to the boards and consequently would not be able to get enough clay on there.

A number of things went wrong with this. For starters, I don’t have willow trees on the property, so I had to replace a number of the thin saplings I was using as they became brittle and snapped while being woven. When I did get all the main arches up and started weaving my “basket” frame, I discovered I’d placed the arches too close to the edge and would never be able to get enough clay mixture thick enough over the framework.

The realization I’d have to start all over again with the oven layout was pretty demoralizing. It was starting to get really cold, and I knew I only had a week or two left until things started freezing up. Working with wet mud in mid-30s Fahrenheit is not a fun project. At this point, I realized it’d be better to concentrate on my other projects and leave this one for another time.

Side view of the same.

Side view of the same.

As you can see by the leaves on the ground, it was late fall when I started this project, and I honestly should’ve known better. I was unable to finish the oven due to the onset of winter in Vermont, which froze the whole thing solid before it was finished. Northern Lights came and went (it’s a mid-winter event), and the clay base in its cart was slowly eaten by my chickens and horses. Yes, they’re weirdos.

I still hope to revisit this project and try again. A clay bake oven has been a goal of mine for years. I’ve always loved them, both from a period aesthetic view and the delicious pizzas you can make in them. Ultimately, I want to get a small portable oven I can take to long weekend SCA camping events just for the experience of making fresh hot bread in camp.

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