Deb Bachmann: 'It's going to be unique to each person who builds one.'
In much of the world, cooking is done with wood and coal, over open fires that pollute the air and harm the cook's health. The need for wood deforests the countryside, and cooking fires rival automobiles in the amount of CO2 they introduce into the air.
The quest to build a better stove for developing nations is on. One simple solution is to cook food using a solar oven. While complicated versions are available commercially, a basic model can be made with sturdy cardboard, aluminum foil, glue and duct tape.
Deb Bachmann is involved with Madison's fledgling group Solar Cooks in Dane County. It teaches people here how to make their own solar cookers and raises money to send simple mass-produced cookers to Haiti and other developing nations.
Bachmann grew up in Sun Prairie in a "hands-on" family. "There was the feeling that whatever you wanted to do, make something with your hands, or create a better world, you could do that." So when she heard about Solar Cookers International (SCI) from fellow solar enthusiast Josie Pradella, she felt an immediate connection. SCI is a charity that sends solar cookers to "sun-rich, fuel-scarce regions."
Basically, the cooker is a piece of cardboard cut in the shape of a large oval. The oval is further scored to cocoon around a dark aluminum cooking pot (dark absorbs more heat). The cardboard is also covered in aluminum foil to direct more heat toward the pot.
SCI allowed Bachmann to use its model as the template for her oven, but that's just a start. She continues to tweak it, trying ways to angle the cardboard to better catch the sun at Madison's more northerly position.
"People are doing all different things with it," she says, improving the design by trial and error. "It's going to be unique to each person who builds one."
The same goes with coming up with workable recipes. On a midwinter trip to Florida, Bachmann cooked brown rice in four hours, but summer will allow faster times and more complex dishes.
At a recent solar oven-making workshop at the Willy Street Co-op, a dozen people made their own versions out of salvaged cardboard. They were motivated by various reasons - from looking for a way to cook without heating up the kitchen on summer days, to learning a simple technology that can be taught to kids at a day camp, to just liking the idea of building a workable oven themselves.
"We have a lot to learn," says Bachmann. "We want people to think outside the box, and that isn't just rhetoric. In this instance, it's also fun."
Solar Cooks in Dane County will be conducting two make-your-own solar cooker workshops at Monona Terrace on Saturday, April 16. See schedule on p. 6 of the Isthmus Green Day guide for more information.