Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A life measured in pizza

Note: below is the first chapter of an upcoming e-book for home pizza bakers. As Rubber Pancakes fans, you’ll be the first to know when the book is available for download.

I love pizza. By that, I mean I love pizza.

There were a few years when the kids were little that things were typically insane. Work, school, sports, band rehearsals, music lessons, karate classes … the typical daily chaos of the young American family. And we ate pizza on average two nights a week.

After a few months of this, one day Beth apologized for the fact that we so often depended on the skills of the local pizza baker to supply the evening’s small slice of allotted table time.

I remember looking at her like she had two heads. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “I could eat pizza five nights a week!” She had nothing to worry about. It was no overstatement. That’s how much I love pizza.

Of course, in the real world, eating pizza five nights a week is not such a practical plan. It would be a quick trip to lost money and gained pounds. (But, how cool would it be?)

Oh, well. We can dream of a universe where pizza is less costly. Maybe some day, in a life after this one. But in our particular corner of the cosmos, we play by the rules. And pizza is an occasional treat, timed near gym workouts to pay the piper. Sigh.

Although I haven’t done the research, I expect most Americans see pizza as a commonplace, ubiquitous thing. It is, to a degree, especially if you live far from the East Coast. But for me, it’s more than that. It’s near to a religious experience. For starters, I’m Italian and I live in New Jersey. That gives me a huge advantage over much of the rest of the population. New Jersey might be about the best place on the planet to be a pizza addict. By proximity alone, we’re under the influence of two of the world’s greatest pizza towns: New York and Philadelphia. And both have hundreds of examples of really fine pizza.

At the risk of sounding like a snob with a superiority complex, I pity the folks in California and South Dakota and Iowa and – who knows where? All those places where “pizza” refers to a slab of dense, mushy bread topped by sugar-sweet sauce and overloaded with fat, salt and pasteurized processed cheese. The stuff that’s churned out by faceless Fortune-500 chain conglomerates with shareholders to reward.

If I had my way, the FDA would force those outfits to call their product what it is: pizza substitute.

Now I’m not saying you can’t enjoy pizza in places where it’s not truly understood. In fact, millions do. All over the map. But that’s the dirty little secret of the pizza-industrial complex. If all those unschooled millions knew what pizza is really supposed to taste like, the conglomerates would head into chapter 11 faster than you can say mozzarella.

But that’s a topic for another day.

I can’t reconstruct the day I ate my first pizza. It was probably before I learned to walk. But this, I can guarantee. It was really good pizza. Because 1) mass-produced pizza substitute didn’t exist back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And 2) Once it appeared, Italian-Americans living in New Jersey won’t eat it. Ever. Under any circumstances. Period.

No, my first pizza was either one my dad stretched himself, topped with homemade spaghetti sauce and baked up in our own kitchen. Or it was a thin, crisp, perfectly balanced masterpiece of flavor nirvana, hand-tossed and baked in that magical little Dante’s inferno that was our neighborhood pizzeria’s oven.

So is it any wonder I am so particular about it?

Even under the most routine and commonplace circumstances, in my life, pizza was always special. A celebration. A full-blown riot of texture and flavor that makes your taste buds sing and gives you one more reason to thank God you were born human on planet Earth.

Especially at Grandma’s house. Oh, man. I could write volumes on how good my grandmother’s pizza was. I’ll save that for future chapter. Suffice to say, it was heaven on earth.

As my young brain developed, it was permanently suffused with pizza perfection, coming from every angle. So it was no surprise I jumped at the opportunity to learn to make it myself, both for fun and profit. I was a professional pizza baker before I had a driver’s license. Although my career has since shifted from pizza man to wordsmith, I still look back with wonder at those early years of exploration and adventure – learning how it was really done in the backroom and blazing stone ovens of that neighborhood pizza joint that employed me.

It was nothing short of black magic. There, I learned to harness the power of yeast. I mastered the unique skill of rolling a dough ball, just tight enough to make the perfect pie after a day of rest in cold storage. I watched my teachers, haggling for better quality cheese and tomatoes. And under their watchful eye, I practiced the black art of doctoring: tricks of the trade we employed to finesse industrial tomato products from their prison of pedestrian mediocrity.

We weren’t making gourmet pizza. There was no such thing, in those days. We were a bunch of young, adventurous guys, none higher than middle management. We had little or no say over what got delivered – those decisions were made over our heads. But we cared. We did everything possible to force a pretty good pizza into existence from crates of nondescript ingredients, delivered to the back door via tractor-trailer. Whether we had the authority, I’m not sure, but we made decisions about how to handle the stuff, once it came off the truck. And it’s the reason our pizza was just a little bit better than that of the guy across the street (and a million times better than the chain joints). It was a life lesson that stuck. Do your best with what you have, even if that means breaking the rules.

So began a life-long odyssey in search of another trick, technique or revelation towards a better way to make really good pizza. And with 30 years of knowledge and experimentation under my belt – I can make this statement, with confidence: if I could invite you over some night, you would find the pizza I make at home among the best you’ve ever had.

Thus begins our journey. Stick with me. In future chapters, we’ll explore together what separates good from great in the world of pizza baked at home. You’re in an enviable position. Whether you’ve never made pizza at home before or you’ve been at it for a while – I will help you make it amazing. The ingredients are not exotic. In all likelihood, everything you need is available at your local supermarket. That wasn’t always the case – but today, we live in a world of shopping diversity and that’s a boon to the home pizza maker.

Just like in the backroom of my childhood employer – it’s all in the decisions you make on how to handle your ingredients. And I’ll unlock the secrets for you, one step at a time, as we take the journey together.

To be continued ...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why hike the "A.T.?"

First, let me set the stage. Stripped to its core, hiking the Appalachian Trail in the southern mountains consists of the following, more or less: First, rise at dawn and climb a steep, uphill mountain path, for, say, four hours. Next, clamber down the other side, two hours or so, and try not to make like a snowball. Repeat. The next day, start the cycle over. Rain or shine, wind or snow.

Oh, and did I mention? Do it with 45 pounds of food, water and survival gear strapped to your back.

Only the pathologically upbeat would describe what you do in between all this recreational activity as sleep. Before dark, you put on your plastic underwear*, slip into your plastic sleeping bag and zip yourself into your plastic tent. Utterly, physically, mentally exhausted – you shut your eyes and try, optimistically, to take a nap.

Because a nap is all you’re going to get. Fighting the mountain doesn’t end at sunset. All night, every 20 minutes, you wake up, disoriented and with heart pounding to either A) rearrange yourself after you and your plastic sleeping bag have slid into a small ball at the downhill end of the tent or B) yell at the bears to get them out of your campsite.

And you’re truly off the grid. There’s not much of a safety net, at least where we hiked – 40 miles on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Cell phones don’t work. If you have a serious heart attack, you might die. Simple as that. You might survive, depending exactly where you are, if you get lucky with a cell phone and if there are people around to hike to help. But that’s not a thing you can really depend on. And you could easily be dead before the good Samaritans get to civilization.

If you fall and break a leg (easy to imagine where the trail meanders inches from heart-stopping cliffs and ravines) you may or may not get out alive. You could freeze to death, take a snakebite, die from dehydration or starve after bears steal your food. The Appalachian Trail is a tutti-frutti variety pack of opportunities for demise.

Sound like fun? Trust me, it’s not. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

So the obvious question becomes – why? All the standard responses. The hiking is in some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery that exists on the East Coast. The Appalachian Trail (or AT, as aficionados prefer) is a true enigma. It runs over 2,100 miles through 14 states, Georgia to Maine. Largely intact, in the form its forward-thinking planners and builders devised back in the mid 1920s, it’s mostly wilderness. Yet it rarely strays more than a few hours’ drive from the country’s most densely populated megalopolis.

And it’s bona fide, Katy-bar-the-door wilderness. At least it feels that way. What struck me – besides the natural beauty of largely undisturbed tracts of woods, rocks and mountaintops – was the quiet. There are few places so close to so many people where you can experience what the earth sounded like before we started building highways, electric refrigerators, cell phone towers and godforsaken leaf blowers. (Don’t get me started on that infernal engine of Satan.)

When you’re out there, there are times when all you can hear are bees working the meadow flowers, trees creaking, an occasional bird squawk. And that’s it. No backdrop of motors, sirens, fans, phones and all the rest of the cacophony of chaos that we have grown accustomed to, every day. The world is a deafeningly noisy place once you’ve heard the quieter bits of the AT.

But solitude isn’t enough reason to risk your life and forego indoor plumbing and a warm bed. You can experience that kind of solitude on a half-day hike, humping nothing more than a bottle of water and a Snickers bar in your Sponge Bob rucksack.

There are the views, of course. When you finally do get to the top, the vistas are nothing short of astonishing. From the top of Max Patch, for example, the AT hiker is treated to an indescribable 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge, the Blacks, the Smokies and more – stretching as far as the eye can see.

But that’s not enough reason. As you’re making that 4,600-foot trek to the top of Max Patch, one of the things you see is the bloody parking lot. You can drive nearly to the top of Max Patch, for God’s sake.

The hiking is, at best, arduous and at worse, unimaginably terrifying. If you’re not in shape when you get there, you’re going to have a miserable time, especially if you’re only doing a few days – not enough to get into condition as you go. The trail is occasionally smooth and level, but more often gnarled with roots, rocks and poison ivy. Blisters become your constant companions. And an extra bonus comes in autumn, when we did our four days – acorns. By the thousand, each a ball bearing underfoot, ready to acquaint you up-close-and-personal with the Newton’s laws of acceleration in the style of Wile E. Coyote.

And that’s where I landed (no pun) when I finally came up with a decent answer for why? You do it, because it’s hard. It’s what psychologists describe as flow: true happiness that results from a challenge towards a goal, requiring intense concentration to the complete exclusion of all else.

For me, the concept describes the AT experience nearly perfectly. You’re in the zone, so to speak. You have to make your next destination, be it a shelter, gap, mountaintop or checkpoint. Nothing else seems to matter. Time is distorted. You focus exclusively on putting one foot in front of the other – and not just anywhere, but in the exact right spot that hopefully won’t send you hurtling down the ravine. The activity becomes its own reward.

And it’s you against the mountain. You either come out in one piece to hike another day, or you don’t. There’s something comforting about that kind if binary finality. It’s a black and white world we rarely get to glimpse in the daily negotiation of life – governed by so many shades of gray.

I think that’s what makes the AT special. And possibly a popular motivation for the thousands who try it each year – some going full-Monty in an attempt to hike all 2,100 miles in one go. (My hat is off to them.)

In a hyperkinetic, hyperconnected, 24/7 world, the AT is a place where you can simply be. And at least in our little corner of the world, precious few places can stake that claim.

*Everything you wear on the A.T. is synthetic. It's a safety issue. Cotton takes forever to dry, in the event you hike through a downpour. And wet means cold.