Guest Bloggers
Bread as Ferment for Social Change
Michael Hanson

Recently I was asked to talk about bread and baking to a group of Transition Town activists here in the UK. It got me thinking about the importance of bread in creating and shaping  society and community.  I had much to say, the difficulty was in what to leave out.  I came up with the title, “Bread as a Ferment for Social Change.”  I believe Jesus would have known exactly what it meant. Just as Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple he would probably through modern bread out too. With “Occupy” demonstrations springing up all over the world in response to the crisis in global capitalism/materialism I feel that the simple act of companionship needs consideration.

For over seven thousand years bread has been the staff of life in Europe and the Near East, the staple food of our ancestors. The domestication of grain in the fertile crescent heralded the transformation from nomadic to semi –urban pastoralist society. When disparate groups came together to form small villages,  then large towns (the first of which is widely agreed to be Chatal Hayuk in Turkey), the new communities needed organizing. Farming was easy and agricultural laboring was the natural way to be. On the societal and ceremonial level the new urban rulers needed to create larger and larger communal forms of worship in order to keep control.
This is when I believe our ancestors expanded and developed the ancient forms of fertility/Goddess worship practiced throughout the ancient world. Instead of honoring and sacrificing to a pagan God/Goddess they came up with ceremony and ritual based on grain and bread.

So it is only a small leap -- five thousand years or so -- to Jesus’s brand of bread worship. In the West we have largely accepted the modern Christian idea of ceremonially honoring bread through partaking of the “blessed” sacramental host. In the Near East both Islam and Judaism also have deep respect for grain and bread. In my view grain built community, and bread ordered it. Hence bread has become deeply embreaded (sic) in our psyche and symbology.  Bread, dough, and crust are  “seen” as pecuniary compensation;  so in our current economic, political, and societal crisis it seems very apposite that bread is once again being taken seriously.  The Roman Empire declined when its wheat basket around the Medditerrean was lost, creating bread inflation and social unrest in Rome.  Let them eat bread.  Give us this day our daily bread.  As more citizens near “bread line,” the queue for free food grows longer. How long before the Christian church starts to hand out panis benedictus to the poor?

The good news is that people are beginning to wake up, to sense the change. They no longer want to buy  plastic wrapped industrialized pap that ne’r a human hand has touched; through self empowerment and action they are “baking it for themselves.” They want to eat a holier bread made in an honest way; some want to earn an honest crust through baking at home. We should welcome the rise of the home baker.  Eating good bread is a symbol of how you respect yourself and the earth; baking bread is a metaphor for  one's desire to change the way one lives, and in my opinion the simplest, surest, and safest place to start to make that change. The more that people wake up and bake the better. Symbolically  they are throwing off the chains of the Walmartopoly. I just hope that the Occupy Wall Street protestors are not having to make do with gifts of out of date supermarket factory pap, but are  getting the chance to eat real food and bread.
Bread is as good for community today as it’s always been. Companionship is literally the breaking and sharing and eating  of bread with your community. Now, more than ever before, we should be baking and sharing. Jesus may or may not have fed the five thousand with his bread, but the  seeds of ideas certainly did feed their bodies and minds.

Any campaign or movement that encourages people to eat or bake good bread should  be congratulated and supported. Here in the UK we have a burgeoning Real Bread Campaign. In America I understand you too are having a renaissance in real, or artisanal, bread.  Perhaps in two thousand years time  our descendants may even measure time as BAB (Before Artisan Bread) and AAB (After Artisan Bread). Now that would be a legacy.

Pizza Quest Members: Your comments are welcome.

 
Two Secret Ingredients of Great Pizza
John Arena

If you are reading this it is safe to say that you are a pizza fanatic. You have traveled to hundreds of pizzerias and possibly even picked through some trash barrels in search of the keys to the mythological “perfect pie”. You have spent hours debating the merits of different types of ovens, flour, cheese and tomatoes. Over time what becomes painfully clear is that there are no universal rules, standards or agreed upon recipes for what defines a great pizza.  Of course it is human nature to try to find order in the chaos, so there must be something that is common to all of the truly extraordinary pies, right? Well, it turns out that there is. Truly amazing, life changing, mind blowing pizzas, have two things in common, two ingredients that are available anywhere, but are only truly used and understood by a handful of pizza makers and pizza aficionados.

So, for the first time anywhere, the two top secret ingredients common to every great pizza are: Wabi and Sabi. Wait! Don’t rush out to the local Whole Foods to pick up these items. As they say in the infomercials, “Wabi and Sabi are not available in any store.”  That’s because they are not tangible ingredients, but they are, in my opinion, the crucial elements that can be found in any truly great artistic expression including the pizza you will find at places like Una Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn.

Wabi and Sabi are Japanese words that can be defined as “understated elegance and finding beauty in the impermanent”. This is the reason that we are drawn to the simple pizza bianca at Volpetti in Rome. It is also the reason why you can find 50 people waiting in line in front of Frank Pepe’s on Wooster St. in New Haven. The irregular blisters on the crust of a pizza at Spacca Napoli in Chicago, and the simple choice of organic toppings at Slice in New York -- that’s Wabi and Sabi. But of course there is more to it than that.

The real key to including Wabi and Sabi in your pizza recipe and in your life can be found in the completion of the definition: “Things that resonate with the spirit of the makers hand.”
Think about it, whether we are talking about the tomato pies of DeLorenzo’s in Trenton or the amazing creations of Al Santillo at Santillo’s in Elizabeth NJ, the one thing that every pizza we love has in common is that they are a pure expression of the person who made them. Sure the big chains have consistency and uniformity but none of them achieve greatness. Keep it simple. Let every ingredient shine. Most of all, allow your pizza to show your own hands. This generous sharing of self will allow people to connect to the gifts you offer them. When your pizza tells the world everything they need to know about you, you are on your way to being a legendary pizza maker.

 
A swing through Eataly
Brad English

New York City is a world unto itself.  It's a relatively small island filled with a lot of everything from everywhere.  You can find almost anything you can imagine in this city.  What I find most interesting is that you can be here by yourself and not be lonely.  And, on the opposite side of the coin, you can be surrounded by literally thousands of people and be left alone.    

I have often imagined that when we start our official Pizza Quest tour here in NY we may never finish.  It would be like a black hole, or a Twilight Zone episode where Peter takes us into the city to one pizzeria after the other and we wake up one day to realize we're now stuck in a perpetual pizza quest - tasting our way through the city and surrounding boroughs.  If we ever got to the end of our journey there, we would probably have to start it all over. I have heard that the Golden Gate Bridge is never finished being painted.  It's so large, that when the crews make their way across the bridge painting it, and finally reach the other side and "finish" - they have to start the process over again at the beginning. 

There's even another, perhaps more sinister obstacle we would face on our trip through New York.  We may never get to that imaginary "End" of our search for that perfect pizza in the first place.  We will surely face this manipulative demon day in and day out.  We will run smack into a never ending supply of quest-worthy "detours" that would inevitably become quests on their own.  Trust me!  We went to Cayucos, CA and couldn't get out of there without numerous side trips, taco quests, cookie connections and that town only has about 137 people!

One day, we'll get to NYC with our quest crew.  I'll just have to inform my family and prepare them to move there with me.

So, what's the big deal here Brad?  Why all this talk of the BIG APPLE?  Are you beginning a quest there?  No, not yet.  But Eataly caused me to realize just how all consuming and compelling New York City can be.

EATALY.

Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe have put together a concept that may only be possible in this city.  I finally had a chance to drop in and wander around this new venture of theirs.  It's hard to believe.  It's decadent, but yet it's about simple things - quality ingredients, good food, and a celebration of gathering and eating.  When I visited it in the summer of 2011, and our economy was not looking it's shiny best.  In a way, it struck me as hard to balance reality and this over the top expression of a gourmet food market.  But this is NYC.  You have to realize just how many people are here.  That justifies a different reality that allows Eataly to exist.  Where you may be lucky enough to find a great butcher, fish monger, a fine cheese shop, or bakery in cities and towns everywhere, it's something special when they happen to all be in the same location.  This happens organically on occasion, as one good restaurant becomes successful, it draws another, and another and you begin to have a great neighborhood, village, farmers market, or gathering place.  We really do gather around food either in our cities and towns, or at our dinner tables or breakfast nooks. 

Eataly is that neighborhood where all these unique, quality artisan vendors come to sell their goods.  It is like what Anthony Strong, of Pizzeria Delfina, so proudly proclaimed in one of our early webisodes about his Castro neighborhood in San Francisco.  It had become known as "The Gastro" because of the gathering of so many dedicated food purveyors, restaurants, bakeries who had settled in and it become a place to go to eat, graze, shop, or just get together.  In a city like NYC there are certainly many great neighborhoods with all of these elements, but at Eataly, they have taken the concept and brought it into one place, under one roof.  The space feels like a remodeled old rail station, or warehouse.  It's clean, bright, and has high enough ceilings to make it feel open, but not too cavernous. I could even say I found it cozy at the same time.  The city is like that as well.  It's gigantic, but you find coziness in the smaller parts, the nooks and crannies - the neighborhoods.  Eataly's design also lends to a sense of discovery as you wander through the space, turning corners, and uncovering what else there is to find.  

I have one lament though.  As a visitor swinging through NY, you can't take advantage of a big part of the experience, which is access to so many amazing - quality ingredients to take home and cook with!  But, you can browse, sit, eat, taste, sample and drink within this great public gathering space.  I don't think you can even appreciate what Eataly is until you've had the chance to experience it all, eating in but also taking the food/ingredients to go.  It is a great place to visit, but perhaps a greater lifestyle type of place.  I read one review saying how someone was frustrated eating in what was essentially a public market.  This was exactly the aspect that I loved so much about it.  I was there alone, but I felt part of the shared experience. 

We all know it's one of life's gifts to sit in a quiet little restaurant with a candle on the table and enjoy the ambiance along with some great food.  There's definitely a time for that.  And, there's a time for Eataly -- a time to celebrate a gathering of ingredients, foods, artisans, and friends in a very open and sharing way.  You can't help but be excited in here.  I would love to rent an apartment in the city sometime just to be able to swing by here to pick up some of these amazing ingredients to take home and make a meal with.  In all likelihood, that may well result in a taste or two of some fine wine or other small plates along the way.

So, what did I eat in there?  Well, this is Pizza Quest, right?  So, I had to try the pizza, of course!  I really wanted to have some fish, but, well you know with the Pizza Quest thing, I didn't feel there was much of a choice.  I could have played off the whole fish taco thing, but I figured the best place for my Eataly journey to end that day would be the pizzeria "La Pizza".  But, as you can see from the photos of the fish store, that's a place I'll definitely be back to explore when I can do it justice.

I had the Messesse Pizza.  It had a nice fresh tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, spicy salumi, and a little fresh basil to top it off.  Their pizza, as they advise you, is made very thin and is meant to be eaten with a fork from the middle outward to the crust - a traditional Napoletana style pizza. The pizza was balanced, bright and delicious.  The crust was very thin in the middle and had a nice chew to it out near the cornicione.  I was very happy!  I will be back. 

I live in California.  I realize that my Eataly Quest may take some time to complete.  And, I realize that it may be much like my dream of our Pizza Quest in NYC - a never ending journey - which is great because that is what life is all about and I think it's exactly what Mario and the gang were striving for.

 
Sssshhhhhhh....It's a Secret
John Arena

Lately I’ve been thinking about New Orleans. The Crescent City has a huge Sicilian heritage yet it has never been known as a great pizza city. We will explore why at a later date because right now let’s think about something New Orleans is famous for and how it relates to pizza -- music.

Back in the early 1900’s there was a legendary jazz musician named Freddie Keppard. People who heard Freddie play claimed he was the best cornetist in history, yet today most people have never heard of him, and here’s why: Freddie Keppard was always afraid that some young musician would steal his secrets. He became so paranoid that he would play with his hands covered by a handkerchief so rivals wouldn’t see what he was doing. He went so far as to refuse to record his music fearing that it would reveal too much to his competitors. The result is that Freddie Keppard is now just a footnote in musical history, his talents reduced to nothing more than legend and speculation. On the other hand just about everyone knows of Louis Armstrong, another New Orleans jazz great who generously shared his talent with the world, mentoring scores of musicians, sharing his gifts and becoming one of the most beloved figures in musical history.

We have all heard tales of legendary pizza makers who seem to have some mystical ability. In the history of pizza there have been a small number of pizza alchemists who are able to take the most basic ingredients and turn them into something greater than the sum of its par -- a perfect pizza. Like all mythology, the implication is that these people possess some secret technique or ingredient, or perhaps a piece of equipment, some holy grail of knowledge shared by only a select few. The veil of secrecy goes back to pre-Roman days, when guilds and societies were formed to insure job security. In ancient Roman times bread baking was considered so crucial that if you were born in to a baking family you were required by law to continue that trade. My Dad once told me that 80 year old Italian bakers in New York in the 1930’s would jealously guard their recipe books from their co-workers fearing that some youngster would steal a secret and force them into retirement. I remember pizzaiolo’s removing the temperature knobs from ovens to hide their chosen baking temperature from “pizza spies”. To this day I know pizza makers who carefully shred the labels from tomato cans before discarding them. The folly of this is that most of these folks are baking at the same temperature, using the same tomatoes, and generally following the same procedures. At the very least they have more in common than they can imagine and they would realize that if they ever bothered to speak with one another.

Besides the fact that all of this secrecy has created a culture of distrust among professional pizza makers there is another problem. Every once in a while someone does come up with a true insight or improvement. My feeling is that if we don’t generously share knowledge something very important could be lost. Look at it this way: who has brought more lasting joy to the world, Freddie Keppard or Louis Armstrong?

 
The Best Way to Improve Your Skills? Teach!
John Arena

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about the student teacher relationship. For the past few weeks I have been training a friend who wants to open an authentic New York style pizzeria in Seoul.

James Yu is not your average pizza guy. A native of South Korea, he graduated from Auburn with a degree in Chemical Engineering and worked in the US for several years. Along the way James fell in love with crispy thin crust New York style pizza. Did I say James loves pizza? That’s not quite accurate. James is absolutely obsessed with pizza. James is so dedicated that after attending Tony Gemignani’s great pizza school in San Francisco he came back to the US to spend time with me in Las Vegas. He has attended Pizza Expo and thrown in Scott Wiener’s New York City pizza tour for good measure. I have had an opportunity to guide thousands of aspiring pizza makers over the years, but none have come close to matching his uncompromising, analytical approach to the subject. Perhaps because of his background, James always wants to know “why” and it is the answer to that unrelenting question that can lead to growth for both the student and the teacher.

The truth is after nearly 3 weeks of 16 hour days and literally hundreds of “whys” from James I think I emerged as a better pizza maker.

Use a California vine ripened tomato- “Why?”

Extend dough from the middle out towards the cornicione-“Why?”

62% Water in your dough formula- “Why?”

Never turn your gas oven off- “Why?”

Longer fermentation results in more flavor depth- “Why?”

On September 7th I celebrated my 44th year of making pizza. I may be slowing down but I still make a few hundred pies every day out of sheer joy in the process. But here is the thing: no matter how much you love something, over time repetition can become mechanical. You stop thinking about the “whys”. In many cases “old school” pizza makers learned by rote and could work their entire careers without knowing or considering why they did things the way that they did. That may be OK if you are happy with the result and have no desire to improve.

My guess is that if you follow this site you are the type of pizza maker that is never satisfied, no matter how great your pizza may be. Like James, you have a pizza ideal in your head and the quest toward mythological perfection may be just as important to you as the end result.

So, how do you keep everything fresh and continue to challenge yourself over years or even decades of pizza making? Teach. Whether you are a professional pizzaiolo or a dedicated amateur share what you know. No matter what your level of expertise is, there is someone out there who would like to be able to do what you do and can benefit from your experience.

Ultimately you will gain the satisfaction of sharing your passion and I guarantee you will also improve your own skills. James and I developed 16 different dough formulas using 4 different types of flour during his visit. He finally settled on one that he was happy with but every one was a success in that it gave me new insight into my own methods.

Certainly many of the techniques and recipes we worked on simply reinforced my existing beliefs, but in some cases I was surprised by the success of things that James wanted to try. If truth be told I have also found by objective research that a few of the widely accepted “truisms” of our craft don’t really create the result that we think (sorry fellow New Yorkers, All Trumps is not the only flour that can produce a crispy pizza) So… teach, share, pass it on. The result will be good for the student, the teacher and our craft.

 

 
A Notion of Sacramental Bread
Michael Hanson

Note from Peter: We welcome Michael Hanson back with another thought provoking and, maybe even, controversial guest column. I am very curious to hear what you think of his ideas; whether you understand his vision and if you agree or disagree with his world view. This is an open forum and we encourage dialogue with all of our readers. It's okay to voice your opinion as long as it's done in a respectful way; nothing touches a nerve quite like commentaries that refer to God and the sacred. Now, here's Michael:

 

“The Bread in your hand
Is the Body of the Cosmos”

Thich Nhat Hahn

Many times recently I have been asked to explain my idea of Sacred Baking in more detail. Many of you may have read my previous article about my life journey and my idea of baking an honest, holy or sacred loaf. Here I want to explain my practice in more depth and welcome your thoughts. I have moved beyond “artisan baking” for two reasons. First, the term artisan, as many people have noted, has been stolen by the mass retail marketing experts; most “food porn” perverts the language to such an extent that factory made food now often gets called “artisanal.” Second, my personal journey has brought me to a new place of understanding and connecting with the Divine, that which is bigger than ourselves.

Our ancestors had a direct and deep connection to the earth and the fruits of the earth: tilling, planting and harvesting in cycles to feed themselves. Around these tasks built up ceremonies, rituals , songs and dances which, in our culture have all but disappeared, the remnants of which exist in ancient folk customs, many of which were expropriated by the religious orthodoxy and institutions and transformed into “religious” ceremonies; that most fundamental to Christians being the Eucharistic bread proffered in the form of a blessed sacrament.

In existing older societies and cultures around the world there still exist ceremonies, songs, and dances in which the people honor and give thanks to the earth for its abundance. In the Christian west we have given over this role to the church. I believe that there is a need and desire to reconnect with the ancient ways of being, of living. In a small way, home bread making is filling this need. I believe that we can re-sacralise our lives through bread; by baking in a holy way we can create sacred bread.

As a third generation master baker and bread oven builder I have a deep understanding of bread and baking, and the important role of the village baker/bakery in the creating and sustaining of the village. One cannot have a village/community without a baker and an oven. Home is where the hearth is, and a sacred hearth can bake communion bread for the community without the need for priests and their process of transubstantiation.

As a ceremonialist I understand the importance of personal and communal ritual in thanksgiving for the food we eat. Grace is a state of being, of communion with the Holy, as well as a prayer said before a meal. Bread is perhaps the foundation of “modern” civilization, the staff of life, and for over seven thousand years societies have found ways to honor and give thanks for grain, whether it be wheat, maize, barley rice etc etc. Their connection to and respect of the earth allowed them to bake in a sacred way. My intention is to do the same.

If one is to bake sacred bread I feel one has to combine the ancient wisdom of ritual with artisanship. When baking I feel a deep connection with the earth and my ancestors; additionally one has to source raw materials in a respectful way, honoring and thanking everything and everyone who has contributed to the wood, clay, water and wheat. This develops a way of baking with intention that enables the Divine to manifest through one’s hands and heart, and hence one can bake a sacred loaf. In short, honoring creates empathy which in turn creates sacred bread.

I feel my life’s work is to re-sacralise the bread we eat, the bread we bake, and through this the life we live. There are many thousands of home bakers who in their own way are feeding this process. I want to help them move beyond their desire to become artisan bakers to become Sacred bakers. I see bread as a “ferment” for change, internally and universally. I would love to know how you feel; do you bake sacred bread? Or does this belong only in the “priestly realm”?

 

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