When friends come to visit Nina Van Harn during decent weather, the first place everyone heads is to the backyard.
The 39-year-old Wyoming single mother of three decided to build a clay pizza oven all on her own, inspired by Pinterest and drawings on YouTube, miscellaneous other sources, ingenuity and a little luck.
“Ever since I was young, creating, building or improving something has been my coping strategy for feeling powerless,” said Van Harn, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family in rural West Michigan and was forced into an arranged marriage at age 19.
She went on to become the first in the state to successfully obtain an annulment for such an arrangement.
“Now that I am no longer subjected to someone else’s rule, I continue to create as an expression of freedom and continued self-empowerment.”
Here, that translates into a 36-inch pizza oven that has become the focal point of gatherings since she finished it in 2020.
“The design follows a very traditional cobb oven shape,” said Van Harn, who also works full-time and is going to college.
Cobb is a building material made from clay, sand, straw, water and soil, similar to adobe.
“One thing I did follow was the dimensions have to be very specific as far as the height versus circumferences versus the door height in order to get that proper air flow — almost convection — going,” she said. “It’s really cool when the air is getting sucked in and smoke rises to the top and you see this very distinct line where the smoke doesn’t go down because cold air is coming in and pushing it up. That’s how you know you got it right.”
Van Harn used scrap for pretty much all of it except the fire brick for the floor of the oven itself. The base is composed of old pavers, dirt and wood, and filled with soil, glass wine bottles and fine-grain sand.
“Everything else I just sourced and recycled,” she said. “Most of it came out of my yard, including the dirt for all of it. The clay came out of one of my best friends’ yards because hers is all clay. The straw I procured from a friend in Ada, who has goats.”
Building a mold from sand, bricks and bottles and layering newspaper to create an inner barrier, she worked the cobb until it was six inches thick. Then she had to let it dry for a few weeks.
Finally, Van Harn began experimenting with pizza making. It took some doing to get a handle on managing the heat to determine optimum times for baking pizzas.
“You can get it too hot where the crusts will burn before they bake,” Van Harn said. “It’s a lot of trial and error.”
She not only learned to successfully make wood-fired pizzas in just a few minutes but captures the residual heat to bake roasts and other foods that can cook overnight in the leftover heat.
“There’s a life cycle,” she said. “As it’s warming up, you can grill corn, roast garlic. At the hottest point, you can cook your pizzas.
“As it’s cooking down, I put a grate in there to grill up steaks, chicken, fish. Then once the coals have started to cool down, I fill it with clay pots of meat, shut the door and pull it out in the morning … we’ll have tacos for breakfast, or we’ll make pork butt and have carnitas.”
Along the way, Van Harn discovered that the pizza oven became a sort of glue that brought people together for companionable backyard gatherings.
“It really became a draw for people,” she said. “My friends come out for a pizza night, and we can sit out on the patio afterwards and have a fire.”
Her close friend Meghan Bozman just moved from the Grand Rapids area to Texas but used to attend frequently.
“We spent a lot of time out there drinking wine, coffee, just hanging out with friends,” Bozman said. “I’d bring my dogs over and they would just play. Then we would have pizza parties, and at some point, we’d all be sitting around cutting up vegetables and meats and cheese, prepping it all while Nina put together homemade dough, every time, never store-bought. And we’d assemble it outside.”
Ever the perfectionist, Van Harn plans to replace her oven with a new, 48-inch model she’s building — also from scratch — that she said will make it possible to bake larger pizzas. It’s all in the interest of enhancing what has become a tradition in her backyard.
“It feels homey,” she said. “It’s just a celebration of something very simple.”
Basic Pizza Crust
2¼ to 2¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 package fast-acting yeast
1 cup water
4 tbsp olive oil or oil
In large bowl, combine 1½ cups flour, sugar, salt and yeast; mix well. In small saucepan, heat water until very hot (120 to 130 F). Add warm water and oil to flour mixture. Blend at low speed until well moistened; beat 2 minutes at medium speed. By hand, stir in a half to three-quarters cup of flour until dough pulls cleanly away from the sides of bowl.
On floured surface, knead in one-quarter to one-half cup of flour until dough is smooth and elastic, about 3 to 5 minutes. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and cloth towel. Let rise in warm place until light and doubled in size, about 30 minutes
Place oven rack at lowest position. Heat to 425 F. Grease two 12-inch pizza pans. Punch down dough several times to remove air bubbles. Divide dough in half and press into greased pizza pans. Bake at 425 F on lowest oven rack for 15 minutes. Top with favorite toppings. Bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until crust is golden brown and toppings are thoroughly heated. Van Harn’s favorite toppings are olive oil, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil and oregano.
— Adapted from “The Complete Book of Baking” by The Pillsbury Company, 1993
This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.