Tradition--Really?

Lately I’ve been thinking about Roger Bannister. No, Bannister is not the latest hot shot artisan pizza maker. For those of you too young to remember, Roger Bannister was a British track & field athlete who on May 6, 1954 became the first person to run a sub 4 minute mile. Roger, who was later knighted for his efforts, broke what was considered by the general public to be an unbreakable barrier. What is interesting is that, to serious athletes of the day, shattering the 4 minute obstacle was considered not impossible but inevitable. The fact is they were correct, and the current US High School record stands at a full 6 seconds faster than Sir Roger Bannister’s World Record achievement of just 57 years ago!

So what has this got to do with pizza? Well, last week I came across an article in a pizza trade publication about a certain well established pizza chain that proudly stated that their pizza has not changed in over 50 years. In truth many pizza makers make similar claims about “Old World Traditions” and “Time Honored Family Recipes,” and the like. The widely held belief is that the old ways, old ingredients and old methods are always superior to the new. Well folks, here is something to think about: in virtually every objectively measurable endeavor mankind improves over time. We run faster, jump higher, live longer more active lives, build more efficient engines and yes, we know more about baking than our ancestors did. The debate is only made possible because taste and memory are subjective. It may not sound romantic but, in my opinion, this is the Golden Age of Pizza, and the future is even brighter. I’ve been a pizza maker for almost 44 years and I am positive that today’s amateur pizza makers know more about their hobby than most professionals did when I was getting started. My dad was a bread baker in New York in the 1930’s and he marvels at the variety and quality of the breads that are being produced by artisan bakers in Manhattan and around the country today. No slave to nostalgia, my father taught me to simply look at the facts. The variety of ingredients, equipment improvement, and the free exchange of ideas and knowledge has led to astonishing results in places such as Jim Leahy’s Sullivan St. Bakery, and Co, his amazing Chelsea pizzeria.

So, let’s demystify the “good old days” once and for all. Do you really think that the celebrated “00” flour that you are buying resembles what Raffaelo Esposito was using when he allegedly invented the Pizza Margherita? For starters, modern  Italian flour is a combination of wheat from all over the world including North America and is milled with equipment and technology that simply didn’t exist until very recently. If you’re a New York style pizza fan and adherent of the New York "Holy Water" myth (see my last Guest Column on debunking myths) have you considered that New York City tap water in no way resembles what came out of the tenement faucets in 1905 when Lombardi’s opened its doors?  You say you love vine ripened tomatoes? So do I, and I know that today those tomatoes are picked, rushed to the plant, and canned faster and under much better conditions than in days past. In fact even the cans are better today, coated so they do not impart a tinny aftertaste to the rich sweet flavor of the tomatoes.


What about the methods themselves? Sorry folks, and with all due respect to Grandma, today’s long cool fermentation produces more complex flavors and better texture than covering dough with a blanket and putting it under the bed for 3 hours. And no, blessing the bread by carving a cross (or any other symbol) into the top of the dough will not insure that it will rise properly.


Regarding the chain pizzeria I mentioned earlier: "unchanged" in 50 years? Even if that were possible is it desirable to do something for half of a century and not learn anything new? Those folks who started their company in suburban Texas in 1958 may not have changed but I can guarantee that their customers have. Today’s pizza consumers and pizza makers are more adventurous, more knowledgeable, and have deeper experience than any generation that came before. The way I see it, our job as pizza makers is not to preserve the ashes of tradition but to break through the old barriers and push our craft to new heights.

Note from Peter: John raises a very important and controversial point here. We would love to hear what you think about the relationship of tradition vs. innovation.  Is "tradition" a misused or misunderstood term, or is it a way to protect against unnecessary tampering and the diminishing of quality? Where do you stand on this issue? Feel free to start a comment thread. I'll get it started right here: I think what John is pointing out, my takeaway, is how we have no real conception anymore of what "tradition" actually means, and how marketing departments have co-opted the term just as they have "artisan" and "craft." Of course, that's their job--to sell products--but it's our job to stay awake and reclaim the true meaning and value of things. But that's just me--what do you think?

 

Comments 

 
#1 Chuck 2011-05-20 19:14
Excellent points. I agree that good old days weren't always as good as people would like to think. I also agree that most things are better than they have been in the past. I personally like not having to think about polio or clean water and having my truck start every morning. Still we have to be careful not to lose the things that were right and good. Sometimes "innovation" can mean shortcuts and inferior results I think. Take soda for instance, many of them being sold today are not as good as they were 30 years ago. Find a bottle of the "old-school" stuff and it tastes much better and you are satisfied with far less (I am at least). I think it is a balance. New should not be feared but it should be tried and accepted if it is good and rejected if it is not.
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#2 Jon in Albany 2011-05-20 19:51
I agree with the notion that nothing can remain exactly the same over time. But not considering mass produced pizza, I do believe there is some merit to "tradition" if it is being used to express consistency.

For me, there was a family pizza joint that opened up when I was a kid. Growing up, I went with my family, I went with friends, I went whenever possible. Came home from college, got to have the pizza I grew up with. Moved away and came home to visit, had it again. Brought home a wife, got to share it with her. Had kids, got to bring them too. Maybe it is pure nostalgia, but for about 25 years, not much changed there. Additionally, keeping a consistent product over time will require adaptation because as you say, the ingredients are evolving.

So while I agree that change can be good (even amazingly good), sometimes it's nice to go home again.
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#3 Martyn Williams 2011-05-20 21:09
I agree with this idea presented here to some degree. I also think the memories of the good old days (and goodness only knows how people can how remember how things tasted back then.... I certainly can't) is somewhat tied up with the romanticism of taking care to ensure that it is cooked properly and using the best ingredients, which in my view leads into the resurgence of slow cooked meals.
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#4 Brad English 2011-05-21 09:10
John,
You've brought up a hot topic here! I think this is a great subject that challenges all of our perceptions of how we seek out quality and connection in our lives. Since we're talking about food here mainly and not technology, the tie to nostalgic times gone by are deep. Few of us wish we could listen to a radio the size of a television (prior to flat screens that is) for our in home entertainment. But, when you think back about those times, we can easily become nostalgic for many things, such as the perception that life was more pure or simple. I'm sure the lack of 500 channels of HD television tended to bring the family together more often - gathering together and sharing the experience of listening to the ONE radio drama that evening.

This is a great discussion and an important struggle. I think everything new is greatly improved by respecting and building on the past and in certain cases striving to celebrate it. Interesting. Great post!
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#5 ss 2011-05-21 11:27
I am guessing that everyone has their own notions here - not just opinions but about what "traditional" methods are. E.g., is something hand-made if you use an electric mixer :-)

For me, I am at a point where the thought of eating at a large chain or franchise concept doesn't have any appeal to me (not out of principle, just pure interest). I like owner operated restaurants that show creativity, innovation, and passion - and fresh, personally prepped foods.

I suppose that extrapolating that broader, I like simple, fresh and homemade (not necessarily hand-made) foods - add some innovation (including technological), creativity and passion, and you seem to have a potentially winning combo.
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#6 TJ 2011-05-23 09:18
ss,

Wow you just nailed it. Thanks for putting many of my thoughts and feelings into words!

TJ
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#7 Rob DiNapoli 2011-05-30 13:49
Serve your needs first, customers are next and never forget what got you to where you are.
Thanks John. Your columns are a treasure!
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#8 Rolland Spadacene 2011-06-20 12:47
I agree the old barriers should be broken and the craft taken to new heights. The pizza business has already been taken to new heights. And is still expanding like a tsunami. Even though I do not care for pizzas made by chain restaurants, such as Dominos, Pizza Hut, etc., I do crave local pizzas at local restaurants. I find creativity highly competitive. I make my own pizzas too, at least 50% of the time. I'm always experimenting. One thing I never change is the freshness of my ingredients. Sauces are always made from scratch. Someday, I do hope to have published a pizza recipe book as well as to have opened a pizza restaurant. Or have a pizza cart parked somewhere in downtown Pittsburgh. There can never be too much competition for pizzas. You are limited to your imagination.
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#9 Jeff Davis 2012-07-18 21:29
Much of the pizza creation process and final product is interpretive. However, I would shrivel and die if I thought that my pizza couldn't be improved upon. It's a wonderful thing to be able to progress and improve on what you have. If that means replacing a good tradition with a better innovation then so be it. The pizza world can only evolve to new heights if we have open minds. Peter Reinharts spreading of cold fermentation is a great example of this concept.
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