Traveling The Mississippi Delta, the zen of the pizza oven, and all the mistakes you’re not making—but should be.
This is going to be a weird little post. The story isn’t exactly a story. The narrative thread isn’t exactly contiguous. And the place it goes isn’t anything either of us is anticipating.
We’ve been driving through the Mississippi Delta, land of cotton and hot tamales. (Didn’t know the hot tamale is a Mississippi invention, didja? That’s a whole other story about ethnic food reinvention...)
We've made it into the hill country, and the town here is Sardis, population between 1,700 and 2,000, depending upon whom you believe.
I’m talking to a nationally recognized pizzaiolo about ovens—or rather, how it’s not about the oven, but about understanding pizza.
He says, “We kept making mistakes until we made the right one. Pizza is an imperfect science and the beauty of it is in the imperfection.”
This gentleman speaking to me is Damian “Dutch” Van Oostendorp.
By geography alone, he’s an unlikely medal-winning pizzaiolo. And if he occasionally sounds like he’s speaking in Zen koans for pizza, well...maybe he is.
I’m going to apologize in advance.
Dutch is an interesting guy.
I should’ve rolled tape and I didn’t.
So you’re going to get sketchy details here.
Perhaps some other day, I’ll have an opportunity to interview him proper like.
Dutch is also a smart guy. Used to be a golf pro. Merely scratch the surface of his golf background, and it seems he embraces the inner game of golf, where simple mechanics combined with a zen mind are the ingredients for success. (Yes, I’m making an inference here. He could tell me I’m totally wrong. But I'm a betting man.)
As for embracing those pizza mistakes and the imperfection of the form?
That’s the process Dutch went through when learning to make pizza for himself at home.
His story, at least the beginning, isn’t so unusual. I’ve lived a version of it, as have others.
Moving from New York to Mississippi left Dutch and his wife Rebecca with a hole in their lives the shape of a pizza in a land where the “Best Pizza In The County” list is always topped by Domino’s.
Dutch made a lot of pizza. He made a lot of mistakes. And like any of us who keep at it long enough, he found The Way to pizza. He just kept at it with greater intensity until it became a fulltime job with a pizzeria to feed.
If you watch the endless discussions of wood-fired pizza ovens in social media, there’s an aspect so obviously left out, the omission is glaring. (At least I think so.)
But not when you’re talking to Dutch. He’s the one who brings up: “The primal feeling of wood fire.”
To me, it seems clear that man is attracted to fire. And I’m convinced (having owned a 1,200-pound wood oven and witnessed people’s reactions to it—even when it was dark) that the mere idea of cooking with open flame speaks to a basic human need.
See also: so many backyard grills.
But most Pizza-Social oven heads are never going to get to enjoy a particular aspect of Dutch’s own oven.
As Dutch puts it, “There’s an intimacy to using the oven when you’ve made it yourself.”
Yes, this man made his own wood-fired pizza oven.
And that intimacy takes on a metaphorical relationship I’ve never heard anyone talk about.
“This oven is like an employee. It’s part of the staff.”
Dutch explains that the oven has its own characteristics, it behaves its own way, and you have to learn its idiosyncrasies.
He has a friend who installs big ovens, and explains that no two ovens behave the same way—not even two identical models from the same manufacturer.
(I admit, after baking pizza in dozens of home ovens across the country, even there I’ve noticed the same thing. And the first pizza from a strange oven is always an exercise in learning how the oven behaves.)
Sometimes, people complain that their wood ovens aren’t getting hot enough.
Dutch talks about the idea out there that if your oven’s not hot enough, it’s because your fire isn’t big enough.
How big should that fire be?
“Big enough to scare you.”
Wow. But I get it. I’ve made that fire. And I’m not sure what scared me more—the fire itself, or baking a pizza with that fire. The oven, fired with big, split, dry logs of oak and cherry, reached 900 degrees.
A fire that hot and what it does to a pizza are not exactly under your control. (I said that, not Dutch. But he might concur.)
We also spoke about dough.
Dutch told a story about consulting on dough for a guy in a restaurant in Chicago. Dutch went up there to talk to the guy. And when it came time to make dough, the guy said “Uh-oh, we can’t make dough. My mixer is broken.”
It sounds like Dutch maintained the appropriate degree of incredulity. He had to persuade the guy they could make dough by hand.
Which they did. And the guy from Chicago was surprised. He’d never done that before, and he had no idea how dough was supposed to feel.
Dutch describes how dough should feel in a way I’ve never heard. I just say, “Supple.” And we all know what part of the female anatomy is often described as supple but is never named in describing pizza dough.
But Dutch makes it concrete. He says that the dough should be, “Like a baby’s bottom.”
Never thought of that one. And it makes sense.
But let’s not overshadow the importance of the process here: If you don’t know how good pizza dough feels, you don’t really know your process.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about the oven.
But it is about understanding the oven you’re using—whether it’s a home oven, an Ooni, or a wood-fired beast you’ve built from scratch.
It also isn’t about the dough.
It’s not even about the fire or the fear.
It’s about making mistakes and understanding how pizza works.
There’s a saying that “Pizza dough doesn’t lie.”
Pizza dough will tell you what it needs. Pizza dough will tell you when you’re making a mistake. Pizza dough will even tell you when it has become a pizza.
But you have to go into it with eyes open, fearless.
Making mistakes is inevitable. And sometimes, those mistakes provide exactly what you needed to know to bake a better pizza.
It’s how you learn to own the process.
Oh, and by the way, it's worth noting: that "Best Pizza In The County" list where Domino's is always #1? That's not true anymore. Now, the #1 pizza in the county is Tribecca Allie's Café.
Dutch also made me the single best Pizza Margherita I've ever had--including in Naples.
Here's to making mistakes.
For more information on Dutch, his wife Becca, and their pizza joint in Sardis, go to www.TriBeccaAllieCafe.com
Want to become pizza famous among your friends? Check out Free The Pizza—A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have.
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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