Guest Bloggers
Pizza, Healthy Pizza?
Tom Carrig

Lately I’ve been thinking about how pizza gets a bad rap in the world of nutrition.  Specifically, I find it irritating that pizza, all pizza, is largely dismissed as “junk food.”

Don’t get me wrong, as a nutrition professional I love the work that folks like Jamie Oliver are doing out there.  We need to think more about the things we put into our mouths that fall under the increasingly vague category of food.  But Jamie, like many others, flippantly tosses pizza into the junk food bucket as an evil to be avoided, certainly something to be kept out of the reach of

 
History on a Plate
John Arena

Lately I’ve been thinking about my ninth grade history class. What I recall most vividly was that at the time I had almost no interest in world history. Like a lot of kids that age, I wasn’t looking much at the past, and I really couldn’t understand what all that old stuff had to do with my life. You see, by the age of 15 I had already spent several years in front of an oven and was pretty sure that I was destined to be a pizza guy.
As it turns out my lack of interest in world history had nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with context. If I truly understood that what I was learning was actually the history of pizza, I would have definitely aced the class and saved my parents and my teacher a lot of aggravation.

What it took me several decades to figure out is that every time we eat a slice of pizza we are holding the history of western civilization in our hands. More importantly, every time we make a pizza, we are connecting directly to a string of world changing events going back thousands of years. It is that connection that we must reflect upon and honor if we are to perpetuate our art.

So, let’s take a look at the object of our mutual obsession, the famous Pizza Margherita. While creationist myths can sometimes take on a life of their own, it’s safe to say that the cheese and tomato pizza did not just spring fully-formed from the talented hands of Raffaelo Esposito.
We begin with the most ethereal of all pizza components, the dough. Mix a batch of dough and you are replicating the staple food source that, along with the cultivation of wheat, allowed ancient Egyptians to evolve from nomadic hunter gatherers to builders of great cities. While the Egyptians may not have visited southern Italy the Greeks definitely did, and they brought with them the bread-baking techniques they had acquired when ambitious young Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and put his own people in place as the last Pharaohs.

Next we have that most Italian of fruit/vegetables, the tomato. By now we all know that the tomato is strictly a new world product brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. So how did the tomato end up becoming the ubiquitous symbol of southern Italian cooking? Well, in the maze of European politics that has always included war, betrayal, intermarriage, and Church sponsored intrigue, 15th century Naples was actually ruled by the Spanish who introduced the novel “pomadoro” to Campania where it still thrives on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. In fact the first cookbook to include tomato recipes was published in Naples in the 1600’s.

And now for the mozzarella -- and by that we mean mozzarella d’buffala, the incomparable cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo, an animal that originates in Southeast Asia and definitely didn’t walk to Italy by itself. Depending on your world view, the water buffalo was either brought to the Mezzogiorno by Crusaders returning from their invasion of the Holy Land or by Arab aggressors who had invaded Sicily. Either way, to the good fortune of pizza eaters everywhere, mozzarella d’buffala is a direct result of the clash of religious ideologies that exists to this very day.
Ideally we take these delicious ingredients and place them in a wood burning oven that is identical to the many ovens found in the iconic ruins of Pompeii. These beautifully preserved ovens, with their domed chambers and stone masonry could have only been created by the Romans, inventors of both the arch and concrete.

Now finish that wonderfully blistered pizza with some basil, an herb that originated in India and made its way to the West with traders as a seasoning, a medicine and a religious component.

And there it is: a food that combines conquest, exploration, trade, religious upheaval, colonization, and political ambition. So what part of this is Italian? The fact is that it was only on the Italian peninsula that all of those elements could come together to combine with that most Italian of all characteristics, creativity, to form the Pizza Margherita -- history on a plate.

 
Does Practice Really Make Perfect?
John Arena

Lately I’ve been thinking about pizza and the industrial revolution. Ok, I know we think of pizza making as a craft or even an art form, but let’s face it; before the recent artisan pizza renaissance the state of pizza was in pretty sorry shape. So how did something that was an expression of individuality in the hands of a great pizza maker like Antonio Pero (founder of Totonno’s) become a mass produced commodity, and more importantly how do we prevent that from happening again?

Well, I think the answer lies in practice, or more specifically, understanding the difference between practice and repetition. From early childhood we are told that “practice makes perfect”. We are led

 
My Coffee Farm Quest, Part Two
Jenn Burns

Note to readers from Peter: This is the the second part of Jenn Burn's recent adventure in Costa Rica, picking beans on an organic coffee farm as part of a work study project. Jenn is a student at Davidson College, just outside of Charlotte, and has previously had numerous articles published that chronicle her transition from teenager to young adulthood (I hope to run some more of those here in the future--you can read more about her on our Contributor Profiles page). She is currently working with her college to bring locally produced food products onto the school's food service menu, for the benefit of the students and also to support local, sustainable agriculture. If you haven't read Part One of her Coffee Farm Quest, you will find it in full on the Guest Column page, and I suggest you read it first before moving on to this installment.

 

Day 4: We went to a conventional farm today.  As we approached the farm, Always Accurate Achim stopped the van and told us all to get out because we weighed too much.  He wasn’t kidding.  We had to walk the last hill as the van had no chance of making it with all of us aboard. This road was so steep that with only my socks on, I slid downward.  The next day the van died earlier on the ascent. Always Accurate Achim bellowed, “someone got fat”.  I am not yet ready to relive this day; as I moaned just before lunch, “We have hit rock bottom”.  I was itchier, colder, and more wet than I had ever previously been in my life.

Day 5: Today, I listened.  The sound of a coffee farm, a coffee farm being intently scrutinized by nine loud gringos and one German, is not the sound of nature.  As each person collected samples, identified trees, or meticulously measured coffee plants, there were random bursts of noise.  Of course, each member of our team had their own unique shriek when they slipped. Additionally, partners exchanged information across the farm so we heard yells of, “Leeeeaaaaffff liiitttttter” or “broad-leafed herrrrrbs,” each with unique (and probably unnecessary) tonal inflection.  And, with the most regularity, we heard, “Where are you?” screamed as loudly as possible.  If there is a response at all, it is hardly helpful, as the only landmarks are coffee and large trees.

In addition to learning how to distinguish between types of ground cover, I picked up some interesting knowledge about coffee.  Globally, coffee is a $100 billion industry, and is the world’s second most traded commodity after oil.  Costa Rica is the 12th largest producer in the world. There are about 250,000 acres of coffee in Costa Rica, grown by some 70,000 producers, meaning most farmers have between just two and three acres.  On average, organic coffee farms produce less, sometimes as little as half as much as conventional farms. Consequently, organic farmers are often dependent on the premium prices of organic coffee, which are usually 20-25% higher than conventional prices.  Yet, some organic farms out-produce their conventional counterparts; it depends on the whole system.  To do organic successfully, farmers must be dedicated and not just adhere to the bare minimum of regulations.

The organic farmers I met in the central valley believe in what they are doing whole heartedly, which is necessary, as it definitely isn’t about profit.  One farmer whose organic field we surveyed, Allen Esquivel, switched from conventional to organic beans eight years ago after being hospitalized because of a chemical he used to apply to his fields.  It is now banned from the market due to its toxicity.  He no longer uses chemicals.  Allen says, “Organic farming is not

 
My Coffee Farm Quest, Part One
Jenn Burns

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about my recent adventure on a coffee farm in Costa Rica. It was, for me, a life changing experience--or at least it forever changed my relationship with that powerful bean -- and I don't even drink coffee. But now I can't even smell it brewing without thinking about how disconnected most people are to where it comes from and what the real costs are to turn those little coffee "cherries" into the most consumed beverage on earth. Here's what I wrote in my journal about it:

A coffee farm is nothing like I had imagined.  Coffee is able to grow at a 90 degree angle from the earth, surviving where I thought no life could grow.  I know this because I furiously move my feet in hopes of gaining traction or chancing on some small foothold on this mountain of mud.  I claw the ground wishing these puny herbs could offer something more substantial than an aromatic allusion to being at a spa.  When I stand on the hillside I can reach my hand straight out and touch the land.  It is that steep.  Gravity, a force I normally disregard and under-appreciate, is now my nemesis in climbing this mountain hiding behind the pretense of being a coffee farm.  I finally emerge on the ridge, at the top of the farm, to a beautiful view of at least a third of all of Costa Rica.

Day 1: I am researching the differences between organic and conventional coffee farms in Costa Rica as the final portion of my study abroad program.  My natural resource management professor, who I refer to as Always Accurate Achim, a German (complete with goatee and pony tail), fearlessly leads me and my fellow student researchers.  He laughs the loudest when anyone's feet slip out from under them.  Perhaps we were wooed by access to some of the best coffee in the world; I don't know what else could have made us not just agree to participate, but fight to sign up for this specific project.  I don't actually drink coffee, so I have no idea what I could possibly have been thinking.

In my assignment, I compare organic and conventional coffee using an ecological index, a system that quantitatively measures farm soil, stored carbon, and biodiversity.  As this study uses an amalgamation of my fellow researchers data, I am available to help others collect data.  For example, I measure coffee plants, collect soil samples, or identify and count trees.  I was available for any job that needed to be done.  Most of my time was spent walking the perimeter of the farm, creating the necessary one hectare research plot, and then usually re-marking the plot, as it was never perfect, and Achim always likes to be accurate.  To say the least, my glutes got a good workout.  I emerged from our first day in the field, and felt like I had been "birthed from the coffee," as fellow researcher Eunice eloquently described it .

Fun Fact of the Day: It takes 55 beans to make one cup of coffee.  This equates to 27.5 two-bean cherries, about a full branch on an organic coffee farm, or half a branch on the conventional farm.  Imagine these stout plants with cups of coffee rather than fruits hanging from them, like little apple pies hanging off branches in an apple orchard.

Day 2: Again, my feet are sliding, no surprise as I have taken the path much, much less traveled to ensure proper GPS tracking.  In fact, the farmer of this plot isn't exactly sure how much land he has, as even he has never explored this little corner of paradise.  There was a thin layer of leaf litter that acted like skates on this slanted rink of mud.  To lower myself with at least a wee bit of control, I grabbed hold of bare trunked Cana India, the common vegetative border between organic and conventional farms.  I threw my lower body around my pole, as a firefighter or exotic dancer might do.  Whew, one body length lower and, again, I was sliding.  I lunged forward to grab hold of the next sturdy Cana India to stop my momentum.  Tricked!  This tree I just threw my body weight towards was a very similar looking tree, but with one

 
Following the Chalkboards
Brad English

A long time ago, I took a trip with my high school buddy, Milan.  We went to Europe one winter to ski and roam around a little.  The two of us didn't have any real plans, beyond hitting some key ski spots like Chamonix, Zermat, Davos, St Anton, and Kitzbuhel among many others.  We had a stop planned in a small farm town in Slovakia to visit his relatives but, other than that, our planning consisted of getting tickets and reserving a rental car. 

We hit the ground driving.  Leaving Frankfurt, we eventually made a stop in the Black Forest for some German beer on Lake Titisee.  It was a cold day, and a blanket of snow covered most things.  There weren't many tourists there that time of year, but we found our beer and it was as beautiful a place for a cold beer as I had ever been.  I would find many such places on this trip.

 

StartPrev111213NextEnd

 

Login Form

Who's Online

We have 64 guests online

Peter's Books

American Pie Artisan Breads Every Day Bread Baker's Apprentice Brother Juniper's Bread Book Crust and Crumb Whole Grain Breads

… and other books by Peter Reinhart, available on Amazon.com

Home Guest Columns Guest Bloggers