Flat breads

Oven and work area for pita baking at  the Lebanese restaurant "Al Andalus" in Mexico City. This partially open gas-fired oven cooked along at a steady 310 degrees C.

Oven and work area for pita baking at the Lebanese restaurant El Al Andaluz in Mexico City. This partially open gas-fired oven cooks along at a steady 310 degrees C.

A food almost everyone likes

Everyone has their own favorite form of flat bread. My family favored what we called possessively “Syrian” bread, often referred to as “pita”. My earliest food memories are of my mother hanging cloth bags on door knobs, making labneh (strained yogurt), and of her filling the house with smoke in vain attempts to make pita.

Pita was difficult because it likes being baked in a hot oven with special ventilation. The hotter the better, and her small porcelain 1940s kitchen oven just wasn’t up to the task.

About fifteen years latter, in the mid-Sixties, my family moved to Connecticut, and there I got addicted to the American form of yeasted flat bread: pizza. We lived in a suburb outside of New Haven (Wallingford) where Italian and Polish immigrants prided themselves with small take-out restaurants serving excellent pizzas.

Coal-fired pizza oven and prep area. Note the long pizza peels. The oven was built recessed far into the wall, where it could run efficiently (and very hot).    I took the photo about 1982, when the restaurant ("Frank Pepe's") had a local following, but not the fame it has now.

Coal-fired pizza oven and prep area. Note the long pizza peels. The oven was built recessed far into the wall, where it could run efficiently (and very hot). I took the photo about 1982, when the restaurant (Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, Connecticut) had a local following, but not the fame it has now.

When I moved back to Vermont in 1968, the food pickings were slim. For instance, I liked parsley. If you didn’t grow your own it was not an easy retail buy. One grocery store carried small bunches that were kept in a wooden crate tucked in the back of a walk-in cooler. It was hit and miss, though, about what you were actually getting. Sometimes the crate had been sitting there for a few weeks and the bunches were slimy. I liked parsley in pretty much everything non-dairy. In the end the clerk gave me authority to go into the back to the cooler alone.

I had grown up eating parsley so I considered it a base-line ingredient. It didn’t matter that my diet was mostly home-made vege-burgers (really, a version of falafel), orange juice, and “Tiger’s Milk” (a powder food supplement that probably was based on soya). The parsley helped make the vege-burgers palatable to me, along with onion. It was not a strict gourmet diet.

A personal favorite, this white pizza was inspired by Frank Pepe's clam pie. I have added parsley and garlic, with just a tiny bit of soft farm cheese to keep the tastes simple.

A personal favorite, this white pizza was inspired by Frank Pepe’s clam pie. I still bake with underpowered ventilation and often sounding fire-detectors. In this pizza I have used parsley (of course!), fresh garlic, a small amount of farm cheese along with the clams. When I last had Pepe’s version it was clams and mozzarella helped along with olive oil and it was delicious.

But there were other problems. It was the early seventies, I was living away from and town, and I wanted pizza where there wasn’t any.

Possessing library skills but lacking as a young male cook, I researched how to make a pizza crust. The recipe that I first found was in a hippie recipe book (Diet for a Small Planet) and it called for the main ingredient to be corn meal. I knew to use a hot oven but the corn meal tended to get crisp and create billowing smoke clouds. I was up against the same restraints my mother had been. Nothing that I made really approached being edible.

Beth and I have often fantasized about taking off together to travel through the United States, photographing and writing a book about pizzas and the people making them. It seemed like such a rich topic. The book has never happened but we are always happy to discover a new place serving a good pizza pie, or a new way to make my own.