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The Pizza Discoveries
Food is a magnificent obsession for many of us. This is not just because eating is pleasurable, but also because it gives us an excuse to post social media photos of things that we are about to stuff down our gullets.
The concept of food snobbery is hammered into us beginning at birth. As a kid, I ate Mom’s homemade bread but secretly longed for the Wonder Bread featured in TV commercials. I found it somewhat embarrassing when my school chums saw that my sandwich was constructed of homemade bread and the rullepølse Mom had made from the flanks of one of our Holstein steers.
Our parents eventually purchased some of the coveted prefab food items at the grocery store. My siblings and I had heard about an intriguing substance called “pizza,” so Mom bought one for us. Not an actual pizza, mind you; I mean a kit from which we could assemble a pizza.
The kit, which came in a small cardboard box, contained a packet of pizza crust mix, a can of red sauce, and a small tin of a powder purported to be cheese.
The instructions were straightforward. Mix the flour with some water, spread the resulting dough onto a pizza pan, apply the sauce (which, it was implied, contained meat) and sprinkle on the alleged cheese. Bake it at X for Y minutes and ta-da! A fresh, piping-hot pizza! At least, that’s what the box said.
The trouble began at the beginning. We didn’t have a circular pizza pan like the one shown on the box, so we made do with a cookie sheet. With zero experience regarding pizza dough, my siblings and I were forced to guess how thin it should be stretched. We also neglected to calculate the acreage difference between our rectangular cookie sheet and a round pizza pan.
The sauce was spread, the mystery cheese ingredient was sprinkled, and the whole conglomeration was shoved into the oven.
What we pulled out of the oven was only vaguely similar to the pizza shown on the box. Areas of the crust that had been stretched too thin were burned while some of the thicker parts remained doughy.
But we ate the pizza and declared it delicious. We would have Instagrammed it except for the internet was still decades in the future. From then on, my benchmark for pizza was a bread-like substance that was both charred and raw and was covered by a see-through layer of red sauce and a powdery substance that looked a lot like sawdust.
This changed abruptly when I was 14. In a vain effort to civilize me, my three older sisters took me to a local eatery called Pizza King. Pizza was on the menu, although no mention was made of kings.
Dining at a restaurant was a huge deal back then. Plus, it was my first experience with a nonbox pizza.
The trouble began at the beginning. The pizza that was placed on our table bore little resemblance to the stuff we ate at home. I could see slices of olives and peppers and actual chunks of meat. Its aroma was so sumptuous that I dove right in.
Molten mozzarella, I learned, instantly welds itself to sensitive internal mouth parts. And it continues to burn even after you quench it with a gulp of cold soda.
But the pizza was so delicious that I kept on eating through the pain. I knew that I could never go back to a kit pizza.
These days, dining at a restaurant is as unremarkable as tying one’s shoes. My wife and I recently visited a nice eatery, that is, a non-fast food joint. The menu read like a back-to-the-earth manifesto. It mentioned free-range chicken. Does this mean they conduct rooster roundups? And a big deal was made of their grass-fed beef. Hmm… Last time I checked, grass is pretty much a cow’s favorite food.
Everything old is new again. Nowadays, people pay a premium for the kind of farm-raised beef and homemade bread that I was forced to eat as a youngster. Maybe my childhood wasn’t so bad after all.
When our two sons were teenagers, I decided to try making stovetop mozzarella. I downloaded instructions from the internet, requisitioned a gallon of milk from our milk tank, and obtained a small quantity of rennet.
Much to my surprise, our cheese turned out extremely well. The boys and I celebrated our success by baking a frozen pizza that had been augmented by a heap of farm-fresh mozzarella.
It was utterly delicious! But it took a while for my mouth to recover from the burns.
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.