Foodstuffs: Deep in the N.H. Woods, Campers Make Bread Rube Goldberg-Style

Aug 23, 2018

Sourdough bread fresh from the 'Brawn and Bread' oven built by campers this summer at Beam Camp.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

The scene is one part Keebler Elves, one part Lord of the Flies.

A skinny kid with spaghetti arms swings a hammer, while another wields a blow torch. The nearby oven is cranking at nearly 1,000 degrees, when a collective urge to sing Led Zeppelin breaks out amongst the crew.

[Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.]

This is Beam Camp’s unique approach to baking bread. Each year, deep in the woods of Strafford, dozens of kids from across the globe come to Beam Camp to build large scale, whimsical projects. In years past, it’s been a 30-foot water slide, a giant kaleidoscope, and oversized flip books.

This summer, the campers, ages roughly 11 through 17, are constructing a bread oven and attached grain mill.

[You can find NHPR's previous story on Beam Camp here.]

“I kind of laughed, cause I’m like it’s kind of gonna be hard,” says Deborah, 14. “But, like, Beam really makes it happen, with all the teamwork and the staff are really putting into their hard work and stuff, so it gets done.”

The 'Brawn and Bread' project was designed by Cathrin Walczyk and Michael Garnett.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

What’s getting done this time is not just a bread oven. It’s more of a Rube Goldberg machine that deconstructs bread making. On one end, two stationary bikes have been welded together.

Isabella is grinding away on one of them.  

“So, when I’m biking, the chain is moving the pull, which is connected to wheels, that’s milling the grain and putting it into the bucket,” she says, laboring to catch her breath.   

Another kid grabs the flour bucket and adds it to the wild sourdough starter. Others are busy chopping wood that gets fed into the brick oven.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

Along with learning masonry and welding, the campers have been practicing their bread-baking skills inside the cafeteria.

“It has been a very carb-loaded last week or so for the camp,” joked Brian Cohen, one of Beam Camp’s co-founders. “Lot of butter being eaten, as well.”

Baking good bread is already complicated, but Beam Camp is happy to pile on the challenges.

“Yeah, that is the core of everything we do with kids,” says Cohen. “And to teach them the tools and techniques that they can use to address those kinds of challenges. And by extension the greater challenges they face as they grow up.”

Each year, Beam teams up with professionals to sketch out the projects. This year’s ‘Brawn and Bread’ oven was designed by Cathrin Walczyk and Michael Garnett, a husband and wife team from London.

The couple came to Strafford to oversee the last few days of work. They hope the project shows campers all the labor that goes into a product we often take for granted.  

“I guess it is not about making it difficult but breaking it down into the processes,” says Walczyk.

All that hard work on the bicycle is about to payoff.  

“Looks like the first loaves are coming out,” Cohen says.

A counselor pulls out nine round loaves of sourdough. They are set aside to cool and then, rather than Led Zeppelin, the campers release a collective “whoa” as the bread is sliced.

It’s tangy, slightly charred. Homemade, in every sense. 12-year old Rafi sums it up.

“Like, this is so crazy, like we built this oven...and now if we have water and we have this grain, we can make bread forever,” he says.

Forever, or at least until camp ends and school starts.