Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ode To A Pizza

Here, just before being finished, is last night's dinner.

As some of you know, I've had a very odd ailment for the past few months. It was a bad winter for colds, and I caught a few. Things were pretty good after I got back from Texas in early April, though, but -- oh, no! -- one last one came and went. Except it didn't. Not entirely.

I often lose my sense of smell when I'm sick, which isn't surprising. What's odd is that, back when I smoked, I never caught an odd thing: the day before any respiratory ailment struck, cigarettes would taste really good. Then the next day I couldn't taste a thing. But since I've stopped, I don't get the warning. It doesn't do any good, anyway: when you have a cold, you have a cold.

Except when you don't. After the logy body, the stomach stuff, the occasional ear problem left, I still had a runny nose. And I was blowing my nose constantly; it never seemed to empty. And my sense of taste was gone. "Sinusitis," someone said. "An infection in your sinuses." I looked it up. There was a diagram of the sinuses. Only one of my nostrils was affected and I could see right where it was.

I lived with it for months. It was a drag.

Sometimes you fantasize: what if I lost one of my senses? But taste is never the one you fantasize. I have some experience with this: my father was profoundly deaf for a lot of my childhood due to tympanic sclerosis, a condition whereby his eardrum's membrane thickened. He wore a hearing aid, first a thing that was the dimensions of a pack of king-sized cigarettes which had tubes, and then, with the miracle of the transistor, a smaller one, and, finally, one that could be stuck in the earpiece of his glasses, and custom-fitted plugs in his ears. But my sister and I learned to talk loudly at the dinner table if we wanted him to hear us. And it couldn't have been comfortable wearing those plugs all the time.

Once I started writing about music, I began to wonder if this problem were hereditary (it's not), and then I went to see the Who and wondered if I was inducing something similar (I was, but I don't think there's much damage).

Then there are the fantasies about blindness. I really don't know how I'd cope with that, but chances are I won't have to. Of course, those are just chances: I have a friend who lives in a motorized wheelchair when she's not in bed, and she is a reminder that you're one fall, one accident, away from joining her, even if her condition was caused by a disease. There are a lot of people in chairs here in Montpellier, and I notice things like curb-cuts and steps. Chances are that, except when my friend and her husband come to visit next month, this is all knowledge I won't need. But you never know.

But taste! What a blow! And, although I had a great-aunt whose taste blew out after a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, it had never occurred to me that, after the cold left, I might not have my taste back. It had always come back before. And what more proof that there was a black cloud over my head: I move to France taste-buds stop working!

So here I was, going to the market, buying this amazing food, taking it home, and cooking it and feeling very, very lucky if the slightest hint of flavor snuck through, as it sometimes did. At noon, everything was fine: I could taste sandwiches, or fruit, or the wonderful concoctions the Lebanese guy downstairs makes. But sometime in the afternoon, the sensations would fade. I had a basil plant in the kitchen a lot of the time to use as a diagnositc aid: I'd walk past and pinch it, then smell my finger. I could almost articulate a percentage of remaining sensation out of that smell. By dinner-time, it would be gone.

This wasn't a terrible problem with my cooking, oddly enough. When you're trying to learn stuff, there's technique as well as flavor to consider. When I made that first ratatouille, I knew it wasn't very good because the bitterness of the burned eggplant came through. And pizza, the great discovery, the cheapest food on earth (seriously: you can make one for under two euros and most of that cost is the mozzarella cheese!), has many obstacles before you get to competence. I am not a natural baker because I don't consume sweets. Cakes, cookies, things like that, have never been of interest to me as a cook. I got slightly interested in bread, but then I moved to Germany, and what's the point of competing with that? In France, the bread is totally different, but equally stupid to try to equal: I can go down to the corner and come back with a €1.20 sourdough baguette with big holes in the crumb and a crackling crust that I could never duplicate in a million years. (Part of that, of course, is the oven they use, which mists water on the cooking bread, a facility that home stoves just don't have -- or want).

Pizza, though, is a bread with airs, and also a cornerstone of my childhood, thanks to the Albanese family in Eastchester, NY. Whatever else they were involved with, their pizzeria, which donated meals generously to the Cub Scouts and various church groups, was an outstanding Italian-American restaurant to grow up with. Imagine my surprise when I moved to Ohio to go to college and discovered what passed for the stuff out there: crackery crust, a "sauce" that was like diluted pizza, and...they cut it into squares! Aiee! Fortunately, after moving to California, after suffering with the kind of over-cheesy, fat-crusted mass American pizza for a while, I discovered the glories of Tommaso's, and the hospitality of the Crotti family. Better than Albanese's? Nope: different. Then my sister and brother-in-law moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a part of the world where pizza -- dozens of styles -- is a cornerstone of the local cuisine, thanks to its becoming a staple of bars where miners put out of work by the coal mine fires went to drink their unemployment checks in the '20s. The church there became Arcaro & Genell, home of white pizza with broccoli, and, eventually, a lot more. In search of a pizza stone to do my own experimentation, I went to a restaurant supply store in the area that was exclusively devoted to pizza and got a peel and a stone about an inch thick. It died just before I left Berlin, just shattered, and the current half-incher I brought back from Texas this spring just barely does the job, but I was now on a mission.

My bible for pizza information has been The Pizza Book, a legendarily out-of-print compilation of recipes by a woman named Evelyne Slomon, whose advice I have taken very seriously, and from whose observations I have learned a lot. On the cover is a pizza studded with cherry tomatoes, decorated with whole basil leaves. When I moved here, that was approximately my goal. In the winter, sure, I made up a ketchup-consistency tomato sauce to attempt the kind of sauce Albanese's and the other New York places do (still perfecting that one), and I'd put some salame or something in there, but when spring and the fresh vegetables arrived, I was going to go for this new style. And I did, and I blogged it.

But I didn't taste it. I knew it was undersalted, and someone suggested I add anchovies, and I did. I wanted oil in there, and was reminded to put it on after it came out of the oven. I did that, too. I wrestled with the crust: often it was too wet, sometimes a hole would appear after I stretched it out. A lot of the time it was soggy in the middle, which was due to both too thin dough and sometimes not drying the fresh mozzarella enough. Also crowding the middle: pizza physics, folks. When the crust rises around the edge, it pushes stuff towards the center. If you don't have much there when you put it in the oven, it won't sog while it cooks. Somehow this seems counterintuitive.

And I wanted to taste it. Every week I'd hit the market and wonder what I'd bought. Sometimes I had some of it for lunch, and it was good. But dinner...I wanted to cook a good meal, relax with some good wine...I wanted my taste back. The frustration is almost impossible to communicate.

I was given a recommendation for an oto-naso-laryngologist, whose office just happens to be a few blocks up the hill from me by the Halles Castellanes. A week ago Monday I made an appointment and went to see him. He was just back from New York, and speaks English with a bizarre accent: East Coast, but...where? The answer is nowhere. I know other Europeans who are good with languages who have this same facility. A woman I know has a fine Tuscan accent which makes Tuscans wonder where she grew up. She grew up in Berlin.

The doctor took a look with some scary metal tools. He checked my throat. He took a thin fibre with a light in it and pushed it into my nose and watched on a screen. So did I. "That's the back of your eye there," he noted as the thing snaked its way through my skull. And there it was: a big, angry-looking, blown up blob of flesh. "A polyp," he said. "When it inflates -- it inflates and deflates during the course of the day -- it pinches the nerve that controls taste. When it deflates, it lets up on it, which is why you're okay at noon. Let's go in the next room and I'll write a prescription for some drugs. You'll taste again in 48 hours. And come back next week."

He was right and he was wrong. Most of the week taste faded at night, as usual. One night, I'd had a pre-dinner fade, but at 11, got an urgent e-mail which needed answering. As I was typing, I felt the veil lift: I could taste the fading remnants of my dinner. I could taste the glass of wine I'd been drinking. I stood up and took another hit of the wine. It was good! And, perversely, the next day I faded at about 2 in the afternoon.

Monday I went back. We took the amazing voyage up my nose again, and it looked better, if not fixed. "Look, you had this for a long time before you came in, so it's going to take a while to get it under control, but you can see it's much better than last time. I'm going to give you a new drug regime for this week, and then I want you to take another one for a month. Come back in mid-September for another checkup." I'm showing up at the pharmacy so much that any day I expect them to start calling me tu.

Monday I was still faded, but last night I knew something had changed. I was back from the market with a bunch of tomatoes, and there was a zucchini which needed attention. A sample packet of "fruity" olive oil caught my eye -- someone had handed them out at the market a few weeks ago, which, given the number of local producers who show there, I thought was a nice touch of chutzpah. I needed another diagnostic basil plant. Tomato and zucchini pizza!

I ran into Gerry and Shoko at the supermarket and talked for a while, but I was nervously fingering my basil plant and sniffing. Yup, still there. I went to buy coffee, and the clerk disappeared instead of ringing me up. Spending this much time in the air conditioning was scaring me. Outside, with the coffee, I fingered the plant again. Still good. I went home and did the dishes. I could smell the dish detergent. Methodically, I made the dough and set it to rise and spent the next hour trying to stay out of the kitchen. It was time to start assembling the toppings. I rinsed the two anchovies and split them and the smell of nutty fish rose to my nostrils. Anchovies have never smelled so good! I chopped some garlic. It was garlicky. This was going to hold until I had a pie!

I took the dough out of the fridge (it's much better if it's cold: thanks, Evelyne!) The layers went on. I was worried that the zucchini would ooze water, but Evelyne didn't seem to think so, and she's the pizza goddess. The coeur de boeuf tomato was just big enough. A quick dusting with oregano and into the oven. I whipped together the caesar dressing, hoping it wouldn't be out of balance from my not having been able to taste what I made for so long. (This is another journey, into mayonnaises, which I'll document when it's further along). Sitting in the living room/office, typing an e-mail to the Hungry In Berlin crew, I could smell the pizza. I hastily ended my note and sent it. The crust had a perfect color. A bit of the mozzarella was browned. I'd arrived just in time. (See the picture at the top).

I did the finishing, strewing it with a bit of chiffonaded basil, some Parmesan, and, lastly, some of the olive oil freebie. That was to test if my nose would pick that bit up, because that's where that ingredient does its work.

It didn't stay looking that good for long. As I cut it with the pizza wheel, I noted that the crust was firm all the way through. I could pick up a slice without it folding under. The first taste was magnificent. A bit of cheese, a bit of anchovy, the smell of the basil and the olive oil... The zucchini were a total revelation: baking made their flavor more intense, and they formed a green-tasting foil to the tomatoes (which weren't acid enough, so I'll use a different variety next time).

I was in a state of trance. I reached for the bottle of wine (2008 Domaine de Limbardie rosé, big fat black cherry nose consistent with its darker-than-usual color, goes to berries, but not up to the floral stuff, on the tongue, a perfect vegetable-pizza rosé, and an utter luck-out on my part) and poured a glass.

And as I ate the pizza, slowly, mindfully, I vowed that if I possibly could, I'd remember what I'd been through every time I sat down to eat, and that I would never take my sense of taste and smell for granted ever again.

Ain't gonna happen, probably, but it's something to live up to. I've still got half a week and another month of drugs, and there may well be some slippages. But it's 2pm, and not only has writing this made me ravenous, but I'm already looking forward to dinner.

Whatever that will be.


  1. Glad to hear the nose is back! Reading your story in the a.m. made me hungry for pizza, guess I know what I'll make this PM. I'm looking forward to the mayo saga.

  2. all right! that doctor sounds like a great find.

  3. A great find, indeed. So glad the source of the problem was located and that you're getting some relief!

    -- peoples

  4. Related to one of your earlier posts:

  5. Thanks, Inez: you've just helped me with my forthcoming eggplant parmigiana pizza, another Evelyne Sloman gem. Off tomorrow to the market!

  6. Ed,
    I bought some eggplant at the farmer's market and you've inspired me to make some pizza with it...have to wing it, I don't have that Sloman book.


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