Essays - Summer 2009

Any Way You Slice It

Sundays at the community oven aren't just about the pizza

By Rob Gurwitt | June 1, 2009

By now, it’s a ritual. I weigh out two kilos of flour a little before noon and make dough, then set it aside to rise. At 3 P.M. I realize I only have an hour for toppings and frantically throw together a sauce, slice and sauté potatoes, get onions and olives ready, grate cheeses. At 4 o’clock I pick through the woodpile, hunt around for matches, and head down the hill into town.

The oven is a hulking presence on the edge of a mostly unused field, a 10-foot crouching beaver, as the old Québecois farmers to our north used to say, made of thick clay, with an iron door at one end, and resting on stocky blocks of granite. A waist-high wooden workbench stretches out from one side, and a couple of picnic tables, weathered to capriciousness, sit nearby. The oven has no chimney or flue, and heating takes time. You have to light a fire in the mouth, then gradually push the burning pile back as you keep feeding it, setting up a current that sucks air in along the floor of the oven and carries smoke out in a layer above. Inevitably, as I toss in wood or peer inside to consider the flames, there’s a breath of singed hair, and it’s not because I touched the fire.

The field is quiet. There’s work to do—wash down the workbench, fetch a bucketful of water from the nearby stream in case things get out of hand, chop scrap lumber into manageable lengths—but mostly I sit in the sun, tend the fire, watch the occasional car pass by, and wait for things to heat up. Which they will. I have a comrade in arms in this undertaking, Dan, and soon enough he’ll be here to finish off the firing and lay out his half of our prep space while I go home to get my dough. In short order the field will fill with cars and people, and Dan and I will be madly flattening dough and topping it and choreographing our two long-handled peels, while kids cluster at the workbench or chase each other around and their parents sit and yak, and we bring out pizza after pizza until everyone is sated and it’s hard to see what we’re doing in the sudden dusk.

“You know what I love most about this?” Dan once asked after everyone else had left and we were cleaning up in companionable weariness. “You never know how many people are going to show up.”

It’s true. Dan and I, taken with the idea of making pizza for a crowd, started these Sunday evenings at the oven a while back. At first, we’d get a dozen people or so—our own families and one or two others—but these days it can be as many as 40 or 50. Friends bring friends or parents or the out-of-town guests who are a fact of life during a Vermont summer, and the possibility that we might not have enough to feed everyone gives the whole thing the occasional edge of desperation. Dough meant for a single pizza extends to two or three, while toppings grow out of whatever’s at hand: a smear of basil purée, a touch of leftover olive paste, a friend’s fiery homemade salsa. It’s been a near thing once or twice, though people bring salads and pies and sometimes their own pizza makings. We’ve never sent anyone away hungry.

Heartening as it may be to feed this many people, for me the deep satisfaction lies elsewhere. What I love is that it’s all about the pizza. And that, of course, it’s not at all about the pizza.

Most Americans don’t take pizza seriously. This is because what they consider to be pizza really isn’t to be taken seriously: a circle of dough with indifferent sauce and far too much cheese. The advertisements you see on television with a slice being lifted away while thick strands of molten cheese stretch just to the breaking point? They’re not ads for pizza; they’re for cheese resting on a convenient tray of bread.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that pizza ought to be turned into some epicurean jewel—“Ah, is that a Ligurian-style crust?”—à la coffee or chocolate or, God help us, beer. It’s just crust and toppings.

Still, why settle for mediocre? Given a choice, wouldn’t you go for a pizza whose crust is thin and crackly but yields to chewiness? Whose sauce (if you like your pizzas red) is robust with long-simmered tomatoes and edged with a little salt, basil, and oregano? That holds a balance among crust, sauce, cheese, and whatever else is going on top, so that each flavor stands out in your mouth yet manages to blend in? Whose top is blistered and bottom charred in a few spots so that you get a fleeting but deeply satisfying feel for the alchemical power of intense heat?

If you live in New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up, or in one of the other East Coast cities where southern Italian immigrants settled around the turn of the last century, you can find pizza like this at the joints where homesick Neapolitan bakers set up shop many decades ago. There are raging debates about whose is best—Pepe’s or Sally’s in New Haven, Lombardi’s or Di Fara’s in New York, Santarpio’s in East Boston or Marra’s in South Philly—but these are family arguments, deeply felt and irresolvable.

What the best places have in common is a belief that pizza making is a craft; that good crust is indispensable to good pizza; and that a set of coal-fired brick ovens can do the job right, baking a pizza in just a few minutes. The heat has to be intense enough to cook everything quickly so that the dough blooms and crisps up before it can dry out. Jeffrey Steingarten, the Vogue food columnist, once toted a sort of thermometer gun around New York pizzerias. He’d point it at their ovens to see just how hot they got. “At the reasonably authentic Neapolitan La Pizza Fresca Ristorante on East 20th Street,” he reported, “the floor of its wood-burning brick oven measures 675°F; the back wall (and presumably the ambient air washing over the pizza) pushes 770°, and the domed ceiling 950°. The floor of Lombardi’s Neapolitan-American coal oven soars to 850° measured a foot from the inferno, less under the pizza itself.”

You can understand, then, why home bakers who like good pizza tend to be frustrated, since home ovens don’t go much above 550 degrees. In one of the more memorable passages in American food writing, Steingarten recorded his attempts to get around this shortfall.

First, using his own oven, he tried to fool the temperature sensor by wrapping it in wet paper towels that he’d pre-frozen. “The results were brilliant, especially in concept,” he wrote. “My oven, believing incorrectly that its temperature was near the freezing point, went full blast until thick waves of smoke billowed from every crack, vent and pore, filling the house with the palpable signs of scientific progress.” The pizza was not a success. So he went on to put a raw pizza into a friend’s electric self-cleaning oven, switched on the cleaning cycle, and watched happily as the temperature got up to 800 degrees. “Then, at the crucial moment, to defeat the safety latch and retrieve my perfectly baked pizza, I pulled out the plug and, protecting my arm with a wet bath towel, tugged on the door. Somehow, this stratagem failed, and by the time we had got the door open again half an hour later, the pizza had completely disappeared, and the oven was unaccountably lined with a thick layer of ash.” He eventually settled on using a barbecue grill, a baking stone, and a lot of hardwood charcoal, though as he admits, “the procedure is tricky.”

Steingarten possesses considerably more kitchen moxie than I do, so I’m not sure why it took me so many years to realize that an alternative to setting my house on fire was located right down the hill in town.

The oven was built on what was left of Day Barrett’s land after the gravel pit he owned there was scraped down to the bottom and the old farmer bequeathed the land to the town—on the condition that the town put it to some use. No one could figure out what to do with what amounted to a sandlot until late in the 1980s when a local stonemason decided it would be the perfect spot for an oven. He constructed it along the lines of a centuries-old model used by farmers in Quebec—where records of such ovens date to the 18th century, and Diderot and d’Alembert, in the massive Encyclopédie they finished in 1772, described an approach to making one that is still being followed in rural Quebec. “We notice,” they wrote, “that the best ovens are those wholly constructed of clay and then allowed to harden gradually, in stages, until a very hot fire vitrifies the clay. In these ovens the bread bakes easily, perfectly, and for little cost, especially when the dome is not too high, when care has been taken to make the sides of the dome sufficiently thick, and when the cracks have been adequately repaired.”

The Bread Ovens of Quebec, a 1979 monograph that is one of the founding documents for the small movement of bakers who like to make their own wood-burning ovens, makes it clear that this question of the dome’s height is crucial. Too high or too low, compared with the oven’s opening, and you need a vent hole to make it work, which makes the whole thing less efficient. Our oven is slightly off, longer and higher than it should be, and it can be troublesome in the wrong wind. Still, it doesn’t have a vent hole and it holds the heat for a long time; a full 24 hours after the fire has burned out, it’s still warm in there. The Québecois used this quality to full effect, baking bread and then, once the oven had moderated a bit, sticking in a pot of pork and beans or potpies or cookies or cakes or, in summer, fruit cobblers. They also, once the embers had been removed, used their still-warm ovens to disinfect the chicken, goose, or duck feathers with which they stuffed mattresses and pillows.

Our town’s oven was never used for feather cleansing, as far as I know, but for a while after it was built people would congregate for an afternoon of baking or roasting. This was sporadic, though, and while there were a few families that regularly made dinner there, after the first rush of enthusiasm, it mostly stood cold and forgotten.

What rekindled the oven for almost everyone was the appearance one day, in the center of town, of a hand-lettered sign reading, “Bread 12–5.” An arrow pointed up the road toward the oven. Suzanne, a local farmer who’d had a hand in the oven’s construction, had decided to start baking and selling bread there on Friday afternoons. She would mix buckets of dough at the farm, stick them in the back of her pickup, spend the morning heating the oven until it had reached just the right temperature, and start baking.

Her bread, which was excellent, caught on quickly: thick country loaves of sourdough, raisin, whole wheat, walnut, or rosemary, dusted with scorch marks. You’d pull into the field in the afternoon and find Suzanne, stippled with flour, serenely pulling loaf after loaf out of the oven, and Millie, her mother, laying them out to cool or tipping them into shopping bags for waiting customers. Invariably, several people you knew would be sitting at the picnic tables because their loaves were still baking, or simply hanging out and chatting because it had become that kind of place. In fact, the whole idea seemed appealing to so many people that two other bakers, one on Mondays and the other on Wednesdays, began baking and selling bread at the oven.

Around this time I discovered that my kids, though they happily ate the pizza I made at home, actually preferred the stuff you could get at a pizzeria nearby—doughy and over-cheesed though it was. I had long since inured myself to unhelpful commentary about my cooking, but this was a dagger to the heart. It could not be ignored. People learn to value whatever’s familiar—think of Americans’ preference, at least until “lifestyle” malls came along, for driving to featureless seas of asphalt, leaving their cars there, and walking the short distance to big-box stores with no windows that look precisely the same no matter what town or state they’re in. A generation of bad development nurtured this retail Stockholm Syndrome, and I was not about to let my children go further down the road to its pizza counterpart.

Dan’s issues were slightly different. He’s an architect who spent his formative years in Canada’s maritime provinces, which are not exactly incubators of Neapolitan-style excellence. But he’s also a perfectionist. If there’s a technical way to improve on something he’s working on, even if the technology is a few centuries old, he wants to try it. As a baker and home-pizza maker, he’d for years chafed at the limits of his kitchen. So after a lazy conversation one day about whether the bread oven was being put to its highest and best use, we decided the time had come to see what some true heat could do.

In the nature of these things, the oven’s use is quite informal. Though it sits on town land, there is no sign-up sheet down at town hall. So Dan and I decided to appropriate Sundays, and one midsummer’s afternoon we headed over to give it a try.

Obviously, with an outdoor oven, you can’t just turn it on, set the temperature, and get on with your cooking, as you can at home. The week before we started, Suzanne gave me a lesson on how to fire the oven. I quickly realized that the trickiest part was getting the temperature right. After lighting the fire, you have to push it slowly backward during the next hour or two to heat up the hearth, the air above it, and the clay dome surrounding it. You need to make sure it is burning comfortably but not too enthusiastically. You want to be able to throw a sprinkling of flour deep into the oven and count to five before the flour darkens, Suzanne said. If the flour ignites on contact with the hearth, the oven is too hot.

That first day we’d have been glad to see a few sparks. Careful not to overdo it, we used our wood judiciously, only to discover we hadn’t gotten it hot enough. By the time we’d pushed the fire to the back of the oven, clearing floor space for our dough, our flour tosses were taking eight or nine seconds to brown. This would have been fine—you just fling more wood in and wait—except that standing right behind us, watching closely, was an expectant knot of kids who were not interested in methodical experimentation. We set to baking. Even though the pizzas took too long to cook, they were pretty good, with a chew we couldn’t get at home. Still, they lacked some indefinable complexity that we knew was within reach.

The following week we upped the wood. The fire roiled. The flour sparked. Not quite sure what this might mean for pizza, we made one up and slid it in. It hissed on contact. Intrigued, we let it go for maybe two minutes, then pulled it out. Black and bubbling, it sat on the peel smoking ominously, like something a probe in a science-fiction movie had just brought back from Venus.

Over time we figured it out: we needed to use scrap softwood, which burns with a gentler heat, and the occasional length of hotter-burning hardwood. We learned to look for a magic moment, just past the midpoint of the oven, when the fire would transform itself. If you’ve ever made chocolate pudding from scratch, you know there’s a point, as you stand at the stove stirring endlessly and wondering whether you got the proportions right, when the liquid suddenly takes on a satiny gloss as it begins to consolidate, looking less like cocoa and more like molten chocolate. The fire would do the same thing, passing from a muddled campfire to a liquid wave of dark flame, almost like gelled heat, before settling down at the back of the oven to a steadfast bed of coals.

Our pizza has gotten pretty good, too. At the beginning I was following the dough recipe in Secrets of a Jewish Baker until it dawned on me that while a guy like George Greenstein might have great insight into bagels, challah, and rye and potato breads, pizza wasn’t in his blood. He used oil in his pizza dough—a cardinal sin to the Neapolitans. There it is in the first of “The Pizzaiolo’s Ten Commandments,” carved in stone by the Association of Vera Pizza Napoletana and reprinted by Maggie Glezer in her eminently helpful Artisan Baking: “It must be made only with flour, natural yeast or (baker’s) yeast, salt to taste, and water as needed. All types of fat are absolutely forbidden from inclusion in the pizza dough.” And here’s the thing: They’re right. Supple and silken to the hand, complex and chewy in the mouth, the dough flourishes in the oven’s intense heat.

Toward the end of that first summer, an instructive little stir took place in town. By then the oven was in regular use. The bread bakers were there three and sometimes four afternoons a week. We still had Sundays. And Jamie, another pizza baker, was holding open gatherings on Tuesdays, for which he’d buy dough and then invite anyone who was interested to come and make their own pizzas. The oven had become a part of community life.

Jamie, whose canny use of the media created and then built the sport of Nordic skating in North America—that’s skating over frozen lakes and ponds with long, clip-on blades—thought all this dough-based good feeling was a natural for press coverage. So he invited the local newspaper to do a story about the goings-on at the oven, and a piece soon appeared. It was the kind of story you skim over breakfast, mutter “Isn’t that nice!” and then turn to the comics page. Unfortunately, it proved less forgettable to state health officials.

As it happens, bakeries in Vermont must have potable running water, and the statute does not mean this to include nearby streams. The pizza gatherings, being voluntary events at which no money changed hands, were of little interest to officialdom. On the other hand, brazen commerce in freshly baked bread was enough to launch an investigation.

Small-town New Englanders generally do not go in for uproar, but our town manager fielded calls ranging from sputtering outrage to polite suggestions that perhaps state officials were overreaching. But the state seemed to have the law on its side, and though it’s anyone’s guess what sort of civil disobedience a batch of bakers and wood-fired-bread enthusiasts might dream up, it was hard to imagine that this could end without drama. Then, to everyone’s relief and, I suspect, secret disappointment, officials announced they had read the regulatory language more carefully and made a discovery: In order to be regulated as a bakery, an establishment had to have four walls. An outdoor bread oven didn’t count. With this face-saving maneuver, they retreated to Montpelier.

What struck me while these events unfurled was that people were rising to the defense not so much of the bread itself as of the idea of the bread. The truth is, had the bakers been shut down, good bread would have been available elsewhere—though without the faint smokiness and inviting scorch marks conferred by the oven. What could not be replaced was the appeal of what Suzanne and the other bakers had created out of flour, yeast, salt, water and a community-owned oven; the comfort of finding the baked goods there each week; the conversations that sprang up as people dropped by to pick up their loaves; the mysterious pull of the oven itself, with yeast-scented smoke curling out of it and livid embers visible inside every time a baker pulled open the doors to feed dough in or pull bread out.

Since the oven’s run-in with the authorities, I’ve been aware that, while pizza was the reason we started, it’s not the reason we keep going. Don’t mistake me: I will take to my grave the deep satisfaction of standing at the work counter and looking out at the woods as I stretch a ball of dough over my wrists and listen to the exclamations as some artisanal-looking pie gets pulled out of the oven, quickly sliced up, and brought out to the crowd. Still, the really sharp pleasures lie elsewhere: peppers from a neighbor’s garden, which she roasts and then shyly contributes; the kids playing in the meadow with no grownup even thinking of organizing them; the confidence with which one or two regulars, who for a long time only hovered around the oven as we baked, now sidle up to the workbench, pull out their own dough, and get to work; the comforting thrum of conversation among friends.

Right after college I spent the better part of a year working as an apprentice at a theater outside Philadelphia, aiming to become a lighting designer. What captivated me about theater lighting was how the preoccupation with technical detail—with amps and volts, the shapes of lenses, the color of gels, the manipulation of electrical circuits—added up to beauty: a moonlit night, a storm at sea, the slow fade into heartache. Now I can’t help thinking that our pizza community is assembled from similar bits and parts. Those 18th-century French smallholders, their children who emigrated to Quebec, the stonemason who built our oven, Suzanne and her bread, long-gone immigrant bakers in New York trying to preserve a bit of home, the question New Haven expatriates invariably ask one another when they meet for the first time: “Pepe’s or Sally’s?”—all of these underlie our Sundays at the oven.

We’ll never rise to Pepe’s heights, and we certainly don’t kid ourselves that the old Neapolitan bakers would approve of, say, fingerling-potato, green-peppercorn, and smoked-cheese pizza or—Mio dio!—sliced green apples with cheddar. Nor, I imagine, would those Québecois farmers quite know what to think upon seeing pizza come out of one of their bread ovens. Yet I like to believe that both the Neapolitans and the Québecois farmers would recognize the hurried slap of dough on a peel, the easy laughter that good food kindles in a crowd, the irresistible draw of fire on a cooking hearth. For ourselves, it’s enough to know that these people have come for our pizza, and that all of this—the pizza, the oven, the hot wood fire within—would be meaningless without them.

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