Ovens of Peace

Relationships are fragile in Beirut. Instability at the top filters down into your intimate life. Neighbours, brothers, sisters, lovers – they can all turn on you overnight. Governments collapse. Friends emigrate. Houses that survived the Ottoman Empire disappear in a week, killed off by sky-high real estate values. Trust is essential; trust is impossible. That’s one legacy of the long, lingering civil war, which officially ran from 1975 to 1990 but never really ended.

But the furn is another legacy. During the war, cooking gas would periodically run out. When that happened, Beirutis returned to a tradition as old as the city itself, the habit of the communal oven.

The practice of sharing an oven goes back to the ancients, when Babylonian temples fed their subjects on the leftovers from the feasts of the gods. But the urban public oven came into its own in the medieval Whenever there’s the threat of violence, people rush to the bakery for bread, of course, but also, I suspect, for reassurance. Mediterranean. In cities all around the Middle Sea, Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Armenians alike brought bread and other foods to the oven at the pandocheion, a Greek word for inn that means ‘accepting all comers’. For a small fee, the public baker would cook your food, saving scarce heat and fuel for all to share – a kind of culinary carpool. Private ovens encouraged segregation; public ovens led to mixing, cross-pollination, and negotiation – in a word, relationships. And probably, I imagine, a fair amount of food and recipe sharing across religious and ethnic lines.

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