So, the Big Problem O’ The Day was dough. The weather was hot and humid. The dough had blown and was crawling out of the container. An otherwise delightful pizza was soft and squishy, not the crisp and crunchy product we normally desire, and I was pondering ways to solve this. I was digging into insights from the late, great Tom Lehmann, the industry-famous Dough Doctor.
And then the call came: “I’m afraid I have unfortunate news…” This call was pizza-related, but bigger than just dough.
Mark was a long-lost buddy from my misspent youth. He was a big, laughing and gregarious goofball of a guy who’d rowed for the crew team in college. We’d last seen each other in Florida decades ago when we were sailing bums. But a couple of years ago, he’d resurfaced. And last summer, we’d had to opportunity to reconnect in New Hampshire.
It was what you’d expect. Catching up. Recounting life. We discussed a range of topics, from our past "careers" as sailing bums, to which tubeless mountain bike tires are always leaking, to authors, to our crazy ex-wives, to an old car of mine he once fixed for me and which I later sold to him for 50 bucks and he drove until it died horribly. Some months after that, he was ceremonious in presenting me with all that remained of the car: the gearshift knob. He’d been saving it for months for just such an event.
During this time in New Hampshire, he also kept trying to give me fabulous bottles from his wine collection. Seems “sophisticated” adulthood brings a shift away from frosty cold malt beverages and a toward other tipples from the fruit of the vine.
While we were talking one morning, he said he'd just made some fresh pita bread and did I want some. I said, If you’re making pita, have you thought about making pizza? It’s not too far a leap, ya know…
I gave him some pizza tips. The next thing I knew, the text messages were coming. Attached were photos of glorious pizzas fresh from his own oven. They were even presented in cardboard pizza boxes. (Apparently, one can purchase them from a certain big-box office supply store.)
Mark was waxing poetic about how deceptively simple it was to make an actual fantastic pizza using stone or steel in a home oven. He had begun investigating hacking old, abandoned consumer ovens as high-heat pizza machines. (Deep geeks of pizza have long spoken of disabling the cleaning lock on an old oven, turning on the “clean” setting, and baking pizza at 900 degrees. This is hazardous, but they deem it a worthy risk. Do not try this at home. Mark was not ready to try and neither am I.)
We were looking forward to getting together for a summit during the Free The Pizza Summer Tour 2022. We were going to rendezvous for a New England Pizza Frenzy. We’d discussed it back in March, and it would be coming to fruition in July.
But come June, he’d stopped answering my text messages--which, frankly, was no surprise. He would often overlook or forget text messages and take days or even weeks to respond. And he would travel to places where answering messages might be challenging.
Then came the phone call. “I’m afraid I have unfortunate news…”
As I understand it, it was the result of an ongoing medical condition. It was not a mountain-biking accident or something gone wrong in some boat rigging episode or (god forbid) an unexpected pizza disaster. No, it was a mere dumb, tragic health issue that just took Mark too soon.
The good news is we’d gotten to reconnect. We’d spoken several times over recent years about everything ranging from popcorn entrepreneurism to flying ultralights. And most recently, we’d discussed pizza at length. It’s by far one of the simplest and seemingly most joyful little things that one can do, and it was causing waves of happiness to spread through his world. His full-body embrace of something so simple was somehow unsurprising. In retrospect, it was the same way he embraced so many things.
One of my last communications with Mark was the ongoing discussion of hellaciously-hot home appliances. He was considering firing up his antique, 1911 cookstove to engage it as a blistering-hot pizza baking machine. (The oven looks like it weighs about half a ton. The last time I saw it, it was in his basement.)
He also said that barring gainful employment, he would be in New England for our anticipated pizza madness. (It seems the prospect of a gig screening refugees along the Polish border was not at the top of his list of potential new jobs to be taking.)
Well, I’m now in New England as I write this. Mark is not. I'm afraid he's the subject of unfortunate news.
In our last text exchange, he asked a question: “Is it proof of a higher being when people eat our pies and exclaim, ‘Oh, my God!’?”
I don’t know the answer. But so little is certain in life. At least there’s the joy of pizza. And I hope he got to take it with him.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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