MY FEELINGS TASTE LIKE: Smoke, Fire And Grilled Pizzas
Have I mentioned my weird tendency to set myself on fire?
Accidentally. Accidentally set myself on fire.
But like -- a lot.
We all have fates and mine seems to be intertwined with fire. I can’t quite remember how it all began, because it's not like I was Drew Barrymore in "Firestarter" (a movie I wasn't even allowed to see) or one of those people who liked to set their toys on fire.
Maybe it was the grill. Growing up in Arizona, everyone grills year round to spare yourself having to heat up your kitchen. I’m sure someone in Arizona invented the deep fried turkey as a way to avoid the oven. At an early age, we were taught how to use ours, and by 12 or 13, I became fascinated with lampworking, which is working with glass on top of a tabletop flame.
You take Moretti colored glass rods, and -- using a propane and oxygen torch -- melt it onto a glass mandrel that you twirl, shaping it with lead tools. One of the country's premiere flameworkers lived and taught in the same bumblefuck neighborhood as I did, and after one cheap class, I found my first artcrush.
From my garage setup, with the recommended steady beat of the Spanish music in the background, I began pulling lattichino and foiling beads and pulling colored stringers. At the time it was just serving my beading habit, but as time went on, it was much more about glass as I began experimenting with pyrex tubes and blowing on top of the torch.
By high school, I’d become a bit polyamorous with clay. Unlike glass, in ceramics you were able to manipulate the clay directly with your hands -- you imbue yourself into the piece. The tips of your fingers are paintbrushes, the shapes your hands make are forming tools. Learning to throw is not as much about the clay as it is about learning to center yourself so you can center the clay on the wheel. It was an artistic manifestation of my person.
When I sat at the wheel, nothing else in the world, including high school, existed. As I worked my way up from small amounts of clay to 10lbs, 15lbs and finally, 25lbs of clay on the wheel, tackling some demon that I felt only beaten by wrestling always bigger bits of clay into cylindrical obedience, my teacher gave me a 2x4 to help me center. I would turn the wheel and methodically beat it into shape with the wood, like a bat. The man understood more than he let onto.
Even on our little public school patio, we’d construct giant raku fires in metal trash cans, where you set a giant pile of woodchips on fire, place a piece in it and cover it with the ash. Raku firing has this amazing, specific smell I could recognize anywhere in the world. It's delicious.
I’ve mentioned before how I accidentally set my head aflame at my brother's Bar Mitzvah. So that happened.
By college, I was fire’s bitch. The kiln room at college held 17 kilns, some bigger than NYC apartments. Firing a gas kiln meant staying in the studio for almost 24 hours straight, watching the temperature, adjusting the gas, oxygen and draft as you go. For reduction glazes, you force the kiln to go into a period where it smokes heavily, not dissimilar to smoking meat on your grill. You peek through the spyholes to watch if the cones are falling to understand the temperature.
At the right temp, you could see it without any problem, but at red hot, it's impossible without blowing into the kiln or wearing glasses, which were not always within reach. Blowing into a red-hot kiln means red-hot air comes right back at you. This is how I lost my eyebrows.
I would occasionally drag my lampworking torches to the workroom, turn out the lights, blast music and work in the dark. I learned how to work with molten glass, doing large lost wax castings for vases and plates. I worked in the foundry doing metal pours. Welding gave me a high.
Cotton clothes (they don’t burn like synthetics) because a staple of my closet and my Doc Martens bore telltale meltmarks on the soles. While standing at the pyrometer one afternoon, mindlessly counting the seconds as the temperature climbed, I noticed people running towards me. I haphazardly waved them off, concentrating, until one of them yelled, “YOU ARE ON FIRE” and grabbed my LL Bean marshmallow coat off me. The entire back was gone. I’d been standing too close to a spyhole.
Two years out of college, my parents' home burned to the ground. Someone had been working on the roof with some tar and a torch and the only things that made it out were my parents and the dogs (though the smallest, too accustomed to my brother's pot-smoking, almost didn’t; the asshole kept going towards the smoke).
I’d just boxed up my ex’s stuff while waiting for shipping instructions since he’d gone back to Boston and placed it all in my parents' garage for safekeeping since my apartment was so small.
As I sat with my parents at a Denny’s, late that evening, all of us covered in smoke and shell shocked, I began laughing softly, then harder, until I couldn’t breathe anymore, everyone staring at me until I managed to gasp out, “Hey, Dad, did Scott’s stuff make it into the shed yet?” At which point my father, who had never been able to stand Scott, started to laugh so hard he started crying. “Nope. I’ll get right on that.”
When you work with any kind of flame, you wear silly-looking didyium glasses, which block out all the glare from the fire except for the blue flame. It helps to see what you’re doing, but it also protects your eyes.
But not enough, because a lifetime of exposure to infrared will give you cataracts. I know. I got 'em early and it brought my lampworking to an early demise.
Occasionally I’ll see people in shops with setups and desperately want to sit down at the torchhead and show them how to get good shoulders on their beads, or hold the glass appropriately so it doesn’t burn, but I don’t. I can’t weld anymore, I haven’t been at a gloryhole in years, and being in a foundry makes me sad.
For years after college, I kept a ceramics studio on my back porch in Arizona -- I wired up a TV, installed a clay sink, a huge L&L kiln and a chemical library for glazes. At a massive worktable, one made for the ages, I’d sit and futz with handbuilt pieces, making gifts for people and occasionally toying with the idea of a show or grad school.
But instead, I slowly became more and more busy and stopped spending time outside in the studio. A cross-country move was the final reason to liquidate, and I went years without any time near the kilns.
After Katrina, I spent time in Louisiana at a staging ground for rescued animals. When I got there, it was just a bunch of people living in tents, managing on their own. We were trying to figure out how to organize meals for everyone without a kitchen. Someone suggested a grill but was shot down because, how much can you really make on an uncontrolled fire?
I realized I’d finally found my purpose there and smiled as I said, “I got this”. And that’s how we started making meals for 100+ volunteers: chili, lasagna, pasta, gumbo, even a three layer cake -- by controlling the flame.
Last week, I started throwing again. It's just a small class, at a nearby arts center, and few people are under the age of 60. But there’s open studio most days, and I can spend a few hours at a wheel, tuning out the world, and putting the doodles and sketches I’ve been squirreling away for years to use.
There’s so much to make, so much to work out, so much to just throw up out of my body and get into some other form out there that I’m overwhelmed with what to make next. So I sit at the wheel and just throw until I’m covered head to toe in clay and exhausted.
On the patio are 8 kilns. I can’t wait.
Flame Grilled Pizza
I could tell you how to make pizza dough, but that would imply that I make pizza dough or know how to make pizza dough. I just buy the stuff at my local pizza joint, which also sells a gluten free crust.
First, give your grill a really good scrub. A serious scrub with one of those steel brushes to get everything off it. Then give it a good rub with cooking oil. Turn it on and get it as hot as it’ll go. Every 3 minutes or so, give it another coat of oil using a silicone brush. You’re building up a layer here to help release the pizza. When you've got 8, 9, 10 layers, you're good to go.
Meanwhile, assemble some toppings. I like a basic blend of good mozzarella, fontina and parmesan for my base. Here’s a hint: if you freeze the cheese it’ll shred perfectly.
For my tomato sauce, I defrost some of mine from earlier in the year, but if you’re going commercial, I recommend the most basic: Pomi, which Trader Joe’s carries. It's very simple and in that way, perfect.
To make the pizza itself, you’re going to need to get your dough into crust form. There are two ways: you can roll it out or toss it. I draw upon my relationship with centripetal force and the wheel to toss it. Also, I was a baton twirler. Also, I am too lazy to roll it out.
It's not tough, it's about confidence. You use your fingers and palms to get it into a large disk, and then toss it straight up. The force upon the dough will cause it to stretch. Then you do it again. You get irregular shapes, but that’s OK. As long as you catch it, you’ll have great crusts. Unless you toss it onto your string lights accidentally. Which I’ve done.
Now, you’re going to gently drape the dough onto your hot grill and leave the lid open. The bottom of your crust is going to cook in a few minutes. Like a pancake, you’ll be able to tell when the edges show signs of toasting. At that point, use a spatula and your fingers to carefully flip it. Now, you can add your sauce and cheese. You could literally put anything your heart desires on your pizza, I’ll just give you a few of my favorites.
Simple Tomato, Basil and Mozz
You can’t beat a classic. Sauce the crust with less tomato sauce than you think, and use your ladle to spread out the thin layer almost to the edges. Place a few whole basil leaves on the pizza spaced out. Now layer on some thin slices of buffalo mozzarella. After 2 min, lower the head to medium, and lower the lid to melt the mozz.
Roasted Garlic, Purple Potato, Fontina and Egg
There’s a restaurant called The Parlor that introduced me to potato pizza and I’ve never looked back. It only sounds weird, it is actually AMAZING. Once I started using purple potatoes, it became eyecandy, too. I use a mandolin to slice the raw potato paper thin. I add the garlic in a tin foil pack to the grill as soon as it goes on, so the roasted garlic is ready when I need it.
Layer the potato slices on thinly in a big circle. I place some roasted garlic all around, throw on some fontina, and lower the temp to medium and then lower the lid for a minute to cook the potato. Then I crack an egg into the center. Lower the lid and let the egg cook. You want the white to set up, but for the yellow to be gooey. When you serve, slice into the egg and let it run.
Feta, peppers, sausage and onion
Add your tomato sauce, and then sliced sausage spaced evenly around. I precook mine in a skillet on the stovetop. I toss thinly sliced green peppers and red onion and then sprinkle feta on top, and then lower heat and lid to cook it through.
All the pizzas slide off more easily than you’d think. The dough cooks itself off the grill. I serve and let the table grab what they want. When you have a bunch of people over, it's fun because people can gang up to create pizzas tailored to them. And once you have dough and cheese and sausage, it's really hard to make something that isn’t delicious.
Just remember -- watch the fire.