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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Clarence White and Making Pizza

I make pizza. Pretty good pizza, it happens. I've ruined my kids, they basically hate delivery pizza because they like mine.

As it happens, from time to time, someone idly requests my recipe, and in that moment I think to myself yeah, I could just send write down or send them... and then the wheels fall off.

It turns out that the way I make pizza, while based on a small handful of very very simple recipes, is infernally complex. The crust is simple, I can tell you the ingredients in a moment, and sketch out the handling of it in a few minutes. None of this would get you a good crust, or at least not crust the way I make it. I have a lifetime of off-and-on breadmaking in me, and a herd of minuscule details inform the way I mix, knead, and stretch out the crust of my pizza.

The sauce is also simple, again I could tell you the ingredients in a moment, the procedure in a minute. But... I put the tomatoes in at just this time, neither before nor later, and again, a lot of details here and there.

Which details are important? I don't even know. I have my ways, and it produces this thing.

I could probably teach you the rudiments, in half an hour, which would allow you to make something which might well be quite unlike mine, and might not be very good. I could teach you in a couple of days, maybe, how to make it my way, to make pizza that's very much like mine.

Better, though, would be to spend a few months teaching you to make bread, and another few months on the general making of sauces and other bits and pieces, and then to tell you about how I make pizza. At this point you'd be equipped to develop your own processes for making, and this is important, your own pizza, which pizza is also excellent.

The genius of Clarence H. White was that he could, apparently, teach people how to make excellent photographs which in almost no important way resembled his own. Ansel Adams was an excellent teacher, by all accounts, and stamped out an almost infinite collection of copycats. Some of those have gone on to develop something of a personal vision, but I have never seen one that, even to this day, does not bear the firm stamp of the teacher in their work. Clarence White's students, um, did not make pictures like he did. The only "tell" such as it is, is that their frames were invariably well designed, which while consistent does not particularly point the finger at White.

This is, of course, the natural way to teach, to explain in detail how one does the thing. The student then apes that, with increasing facility, until they can produce reasonable copies of the teacher's work. At this point, one hopes, the student can fly free. In mathematics, science, engineering, this is maybe a good way to teach. The teacher's way, after all, is demonstrably "right" in some sense, and everything else is likely to be "wrong" (although occasional exceptions arise, they are very rare, and invariably have to struggle mightily to be known.)

In the arts, though, I am less sure. The best teachers here, White among them, seem to fanatically urge students to look anywhere but at the teacher's work. There is a reason budding painters have long been sent to museums to copy what they see there. If you want to write, they say, read, and read widely.

Teach someone how to make breads, and sauces. They can figure pizza out on their own from there.


  1. I like the analogy. I make excellent pizza, too! Or, at least, I did until our kids left home, and I foreswore wheat. My secret was tinned sardines, and putting the dough in the airing cupboard...

    "If I hold up one corner, and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson" (Confucius, Analects). Harsh... Besides, square pizza is just weird.


  2. There's nothing weird about square (rectangular) pizza. It's the only kind I knew growing from eating what my Italian mother made for us from scratch. I was shocked the first time I saw a circular one. How do they fit that in an oven, I wondered? Hey, I was maybe 8 years old. I make my own now, and it's never the same as hers.

  3. I spent seven years making two to three pizzas a week... pizza for dinner,pizza for lunch, Pizza just because. I would like to thank that I make pizza pretty well. I developed a pizza recipe that I called the "drinking glass Pizza", the name which is derived from the quantity of flour used to make the crust,one standard drinking glass full. This makes a fairly small pizza, perfect for lunch or a late-afternoon snack.