On the first Saturday in January, NCS and Treetops received a wonderful New Year’s present. Physician, author, and NCS alum Daniel Wing, class of 1962, delivered two wood-fired ovens that he had built himself. They were constructed on a revamped farm wagon at Dan’s home in Vermont, then transported to campus via a flatbed trailer truck.
An expert in artisan bread baking and masonry ovens, Dan built the ovens for School and Camp for the simple reason that he thought we should have them. He built us two (one for bread and one for pizza and roasting), because different uses call for different kinds of ovens. And he built them on the wagon so they can move between School and Camp until we settle on a permanent home for them.
The gift is an extraordinarily generous one. The ovens took several months to complete, at a cost approaching $25,000 had we contracted for their construction. Dan also spent two full days on campus, training staff and students how to use them.
Now that the ovens are here, they seem a fitting addition to our program. Students and staff have taken to them quickly, enjoying each step in the baking process—kneading the dough, preparing toppings or stuffing, and maneuvering the long-handled peels to get the pizza or bread in and out of the oven—almost as much as eating the scrumptious results. And the timing of Dan’s gift is fortuitous. The ovens are a perfect complement to our new 7th Grade Edible Schoolyard class, instituted this academic year as part of our partnership with the Edible Schoolyard program. And somehow pizza or bread straight from the oven tastes even better when you’re making and eating it outside in the cold, bundled in winter coats, hats, and mittens, the scent of burning wood and smoke from the fire swirling with wind-driven snow.
“My first exposure to good bread was in Brazil,” he began, “where I lived with my family during fourth and fifth grades. Every morning for breakfast, we had fresh bread delivered by a boy on a bicycle. These were slim rolls of white bread, like small European-type baguettes; despite the occasional well-cooked cockroach, they were delicious.”Dan’s father was an MD who worked for the World Health Organization, instituting public health education in several countries. Back in the States, Dan enrolled in NCS as a seventh grader, following his older siblings David (NCS 57) and Deborah (NCS 61). He took note of the whole grain bread served at School, among other fond memories of NCS.
Dan moved from consuming bread to baking it during his college years. At Oberlin, where he majored in biology, Dan was elected a bread baker for his dining co-op. For two years he spent his Friday nights baking enough bread for the day ahead, 17 loaves at a time.
Dan continued to bake bread (and often pizza) for friends and fellow students at Dartmouth Medical School. After graduation, internship in New York, and residency at the University of North Carolina, he joined a family medicine practice in Chelsea, Vermont. On his small farm in nearby South Washington he raised beef cattle, did some sugaring, and baked bread. (Later, he and his wife moved to an old house in an adjacent town, Corinth.)In the early 1980s Dan ventured to the University of Washington for a residency in physiatry (physical medicine and rehabilitation). “Think Gabby Giffords,” Dan replied, referring to the former Arizona congresswoman who survived a gunshot wound to the head, “and the effort to restore her health. I enjoy helping those broken or hurt as they begin to recover. I guess I’m just a fixer and a doer.”
While in Seattle, Dan was introduced to sourdough bread. The natural leavening appealed to him and the attraction stuck. He began to bake exclusively with natural leavens. “You can’t bake good bread without good dough,” he said, “but even with good dough, you need an oven that can bake it properly.” In the 1990s Dan had his first chance to bake in a masonry oven, the kind best suited to sourdough bread, and soon turned his attention to building one.
He sought help from the leading expert in masonry ovens at the time, the late Alan Scott, a West Coast icon whom Dan met on a visit to the Bay Area in 1995 after Dan’s granddaughter was born there. (In an interesting coincidence, Alan was integral in building the masonry oven for the famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, established by Edible Schoolyard founder Alice Waters, and the clay oven for the inaugural Edible Schoolyard program at King Middle School in Berkeley.) With Alan’s guidance, Dan built himself an oven at home and continued his quest for the perfect loaf of sourdough bread. He also closed his medical practice and began what became a nine-year stint as a traveling physiatrist, working in rehab units all over the country so he and his wife could spend more time with their granddaughter. In this arrangement Dan worked in medicine roughly half the year. He soon found a compelling task for his free time.
Over the first year of his friendship with Alan Scott, Dan urged his mentor to put down on paper his vast store of knowledge. “Eventually, I realized that Alan was never going to write the book,” he said. “So I did.” In 1999, co-authors Daniel Wing and Alan Scott published The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens to rave reviews. The book details the history and chemistry of sourdough bread and includes how-to instructions for building a masonry oven. Nominated for a James Beard Award for best writing about food, the book has sold 65,000 copies.Now fully retired from medicine, Dan continues to bake at home, teaches seminar courses in sourdough baking twice a year, and advises individuals and organizations considering a masonry oven.
He was pleased to spend time with us on campus in January. Dan enjoyed his own student days here and believes that NCS greatly affected his and his siblings’ development. After all, he said, “I live in a place just like this one.”