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?