A friend was sick, and I offered to bring her some cookies from D'Amato's. She wasn't familiar, and I said, "Last coal-fired bakery oven in Chicago" and sent her this column. Re-reading it, after five years, I thought, "That's a nice column," and decided to lay it out here, as a reserve, in case I ever found myself at midnight with another day looming and nothing to share, or, if you're reading this on Oct. 13, in the Upper Peninsula where I can't access the Internet to write a blog post. That day must have come last night, because here this is, for your reading pleasure. And if your reaction is, "I read that in 2009!" well, I enjoyed reading it a second time, and I wrote the thing.
If you've never seen four tons of coal dumped in an alley — and my guess is you haven't — it's a surprisingly complex process.
As the bed of Paul Schoening's blue dump truck tilts slowly upward, a lone preliminary lump of Harlan County, Ky., coal tumbles to the ground, as if reconnoitering.
Then, the whole mass shifts, slightly, almost expectantly, while remaining on the truck bed.
Then, a scattering of pieces, ranging in size from eggs to loaves of bread, clatters to the asphalt.
Then, all at once, the coal crashes down in a roaring cascade, five long seconds of dry, percussive sound, like 10 bowling balls scattering a hundred bowling pins. The 8,000-pound pile is a yard high, 10 feet across and 6 feet wide.
Five men, employees and owners of the Coalfire Pizza Company, 1321 W. Grand, set upon the coal with shovels. Using two green wheelbarrows, it takes half an hour and 40 trips to move the coal into the restaurant's coal bin.
DOWN TO 2 CUSTOMERS
Coalfire is one of two remaining customers of the Gruene Coal Company, the last coal hauler in Chicago.
Once, the combustible black rock -- the carbonized remains of plant life that dinosaurs failed to munch -- heated most buildings in Chicago
"Calumet High School, it was unbelievable," recalls Schoening, who in his first and best year -- 1968 -- sold 10,000 tons of coal.
Now, he sells 100 tons a year. A dozen tons to Coalfire, the rest to D'Amato's Bakery two blocks east, at 1124 W. Grand (the one owned by Victor D'Amato, not to be confused with the D'Amato's Bakery at 1332 W. Grand, owned by his brother, Matteo).
The proximity of Gruene's last two customers can't be coincidence, and isn't. Coalfire was started three years ago and intentionally opened near D'Amato's.
"One of the reasons we chose this location was D'Amato's was right down the road, using the coal bakery oven," says owner Bill Carroll. "We figured, if someone objects to our using it, it's [already being used] right down the road."
Why a coal-fired pizza oven?
"Mostly, it's to get a high temperature," says Carroll. "You can achieve a similar high temperature with wood, but the coal fire burns a little more evenly. You don't have to stoke it as much, and it's a little cheaper."
Co-owner James Spillane suggests a more nostalgic reason -- both men are from Massachusetts, home of coal-fired pizza.
"I wanted to burn coal," he says. "I really couldn't tell you the difference between wood-fired pizza and coal-fired pizza. But coal — coal fuels cities; coal was the fuel of the Eastern cities."
Midwestern cities, too. Chicago was once defined — and blighted — by coal. "Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal, wreathed in palls of gray smoke," wrote Richard Wright, of his first visit here in 1927.
IN 1913: 800 COAL DEALERS
Gruene Coal, founded in 1883, was among 800 coal dealers listed in the city's 1913 directory. It has been Chicago's only coal company for decades. Schoening, a weathered but jovial mustachioed man in a watch cap, is its owner and only full-time employee.
Most of his income is from selling fuel oil -- he considers coal "a hobby" and a tribute to his dad, who owned the Old King Coal Company on the Near South Side.
The next day — and this was coincidence — Schoening made one of his monthly deliveries to D'Amato's. This was a much easier process, since D'Amato's oven uses crushed coal — stoker coal — which a rusty hopper shoots into the oven.
The bituminous coal — softer, smokier coal than the harder, better-burning anthracite — is like coffee, in that it costs the same ground or whole: about $1,350 for 4 tons, delivered. Here it doesn't get dumped in the street, but is poured, through a hatch in the back gate of the truck, onto a black rubber conveyor belt that hurries the coal through a little metal door in the May Street side of D'Amato's and into the coal bin in the basement.
Above, workers place loaves of dough on wooden pallets attached to long poles and thrust them into the oven to bake, a job unchanged for 5,000 years.
Across the street, Vic D'Amato, sitting in his small office at the wholesale branch of the bakery begun by his father, brothers and himself, considers the question — why keep the last coal-fired bakery oven in Chicago? — with a patient grimace, as if a child had asked something naive.
The building, he explains, was constructed right after the Chicago Fire. It was built around the coal oven — the oven is part of the building itself and hence part of D'Amato's Bakery. It's still there — he doesn't actually say this, but I sense it — because anything else would be wrong.
When she heard that I was visiting D'Amato's, my wife had instructed, "Bring home bread." So I dutifully secured a loaf.
That evening, I brought home the loaf of D'Amato's bread that had been baked that morning on a large wooden pallet shoved into the century-old coal-burning oven.
"This is very good bread," my wife said, more than once, adding further instructions: I was to return frequently to get more of this very good bread.
I cut myself a thick slice, buttered it and took a bite. Delicious. Yet. Perhaps it was me. I'm sure it was me — but I somehow thought I detected a trace of coaliness; not a flavor, but a hint, a suggestion. A second bite. It must be psychological. But, yes, a whisper of coal.