pizza and spirituality

I wrote this post in 2011 for Peter Reinhart’s wonderful site, Pizza Quest. This ‘learning experience’ has impacted every positive thing I’ve done since – in business, family, and spiritual life. The joining of pizza and spirituality is a theme we keep exploring. The original post can be viewed here. – Cary

When Peter and his friends launched Pizza Quest, calling it “a journey of self-discovery through pizza,” the idea resonated strongly with my wife Lillian and me. We created as a sort of love story, our love of pizza paralleling our love for each other and our passion for life. The idea of pizza as metaphor was not new to us. Creating balance on a pizza and finding balance in our way of life are regular and rewarding challenges: the scope and scale may be very different, but both call for creativity, flexibility, and faith. And sometimes the metaphor turns out to be a literal reality!

We’ve been students of Shri Anandi Ma and members of Dhyanyoga Centers since 1996, and being involved in a community of seekers has presented us with many opportunities for growth and discovery. But making pizza for our spiritual teacher, our Guru, showed us the unity of our pizza life and spiritual life in some unexpected ways.

We had parked our motor-home in Antioch, California after a long cross-country drive from New York. Antioch is where our teacher lives and, although it was late in the evening, we were invited to visit with Anandi Ma and her husband Dileepji. “We’ve been talking about you,” they said, and they asked us to make pizza for them.

We were still pizza-making novices at that time – I’d taken a class with Peter and with Tony Gemignani; Paulie Gee and his son Derek had taught me to stretch dough at his wonderful pizza joint Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, and Lil and I had made pizza at home a few times, but we did not feel ready for an audience, especially an audience whom we loved and respected as family. No, different from family – you can experiment on your family, but we didn’t want to experiment on our teachers!

We hadn’t brought anything with us: no recipes, no tools, no ingredients. We were surprised, inexperienced, and unprepared. Logic and sensibility called for us to respectfully decline. But I remembered Dileepji saying that ‘spirituality begins where intelligence ends.’

“Sure,” I said, “when would you like it?”?

There was no rush; we had several days to get it together. This was a relief, because we wanted to do a two-day cold ferment and we had a lot of shopping to do.

What would occur to me later is that a true Guru is always a teacher, and everything Anandi Ma has ever done with us or asked us to do, every single thing large or small, has been an opportunity for learning and growth.

I wanted to make pizza our way. I ran out to buy a couple of pizza stones, a couple of peels, flour, canned tomatoes, cheeses, and … then remembered some of the challenges. Our teachers are strict vegetarians – the cheeses we would use could contain no animal rennet. Easy for the mozzarella, and Bel Gioioso makes a vegetarian Parmesan, but there would be no grated Romano cheese. I bought some soy cheese too, for the lactose intolerant, and lots of vegetables.

Our teachers also eat no onions or garlic. Have you ever made a fresh pizza sauce with Hing (asafoetida)? Be careful – it’s powerful. Oh, another thing: in the Indian tradition, there’s no tasting while you’re cooking! Whoo Hoo! Fortunately, one of our friends, an excellent Indian cook with lots of hing experience, helped with the sauce. Lessons one and two: be flexible and accept aid.

I had found a dough recipe on the internet that looked about right, but didn’t realize it was for a same-day dough. Over Lillian’s misgivings, I used WAY too much yeast. Good thing there was enough room in the Guru’s refrigerator for the dough to take over! I would end up punching down and re-balling on the first day after making the dough, then again on pizza day.

After we made our batch of dough, Anandi Ma told us how many people she had invited over for pizza. Fortunately, we had enough flour for a second batch of dough, with a little less (but still too much) yeast.

Pizza Making Day

Pizza day came. Lillian got sick. Literally, she could not help with the preparations or the baking. I put the stones in the oven and started heating them. That’s when I discovered that their electric oven lost a lot of heat every time the oven door was opened. This was going to be interesting…

The dough was unwieldy – one dough ball would stretch a bit and spring back. Another would just pull and pull like bubble gum. I was determined to win, to wrestle the dough into submission. The dough had other ideas.

I also like to make thin crusts, but I was making pizza for Indians and Californians and they wanted lots of toppings. Many pizzas broke under the topping-weight in the oven. Anandi Ma likes a crispy, almost hard, crust. My pizzas are softer, more Neapolitan. And there were a lot of guests and I just wasn’t moving fast enough. My frustration grew and continued to grow until I wanted to quit, give up, to run raging from their house… which was when I surrendered.

I stopped fighting the dough with my ideas and started to – how can I say this? – let the dough tell my hands how it wanted to be stretched. That part got easier immediately. With the grace of my teacher, I tried to be gracious. I smiled through. When I finally got to taste a pizza, after everyone else had eaten, I was pleased that the crust had the flavor I’d hoped for.

I remember that night now as The Magnificent Failure. Oven not hot enough, exploding dough that wouldn’t do what I wanted, pizza that wasn’t familiar to the audience, slow production, you name it. And yet…

Everything my teacher does, she does to teach. That night I learned about expanding my own ideas of pizza to try and embrace the tastes of the audience. I had to face what Chris Bianco had told me: that I would never master this pizzamaking thing, that I was in a relationship with it. I learned more than I’d ever known about ‘grace under pressure,’ that some people wouldn’t like what I’d made, and that I could survive making less-than-perfect pizza.

And while the lessons I learned that night were indeed about pizza, they were even more about service, surrender, and how to live with grace on any given day.