Sunday night was pizza night in our family. We started, in the early 1960s, with Chef Boyardee Pizza kits. The picture on the box showed a generous pizza with a cracker-thin crust, just the right amount of tomato sauce, and plenty of stretchy cheese. The reality was less inspiring – especially the powdery cheese-like-food product that came out of a can and tasted like vomit. But if you used only half of the overly salty sauce and added your own cheese, they weren’t too bad. We didn’t know you could put exotic things like sausage and olives on pizza. Mushrooms were a no go. Dad didn’t eat fungus. I think we did, sometimes, go wild and add hamburger. I vaguely remember slices of hot dogs, but I’m hoping that was just a nightmare.
So, my first visit to the Capri Pizzeria in Athens Georgia was the Big Bang of my pizza universe. The pies came on huge, battered old pizza pans – the size of trash can lids. And the crusts were life changing. They were crisp but chewy; and under the toppings, you’d find a lunar landscape of bubbles and craters.
Capri made their Italian sausage. It was a revelation. It had fennel seeds in it! FENNEL SEEDS! And the pizza was topped with real mozzarella and slightly smoky Provolone that made those long, stretchy strings that you see in the movies. We didn’t dine out much, and I can’t say my Dad was a great pizza fan. Fortunately, my mother and her best friend, Denise, loved the Capri’s roast beef sandwiches and went there often for lunch. Sometimes, if I was out of school, I tagged along. I cannot vouch for the quality of the sandwiches because: Why would you go to the Capri and NOT EAT PIZZA???!!! I don’t remember that the Capri sold pizza by the slice. But it must have, because I always had pizza. And I couldn’t possibly have eaten one of those massive pies by my scrawny lonesome. Then, again. . . .
Sadly, the Capri closed around 1980 or so. This catastrophe ushered in what I now know were to be my years of pizza exodus – wandering the pizza desert in search of manna (which, I’m pretty sure, the Old Testament describes as “as delicious as the perfect pizza crust). A Food Truck owner, Bob Petrillose, had invented the Poor Man’s (later French bread) Pizza in Ithica, New York in the 1960s. He licensed the idea to Stouffer’s, which introduced its frozen French Bread pizza to the American market in 1974. I don’t know precisely when Mom cottoned on to French bread pizza, but she was definitely an early adopter. But they weren’t cheap – and Mom was – so she explored various other options for putting tomato sauce and melted cheese on bread: frozen bagels (which qualify neither as bagels, nor as pizza crust), English muffins (Thomas’s are passable, if you are trapped on a desert island; otherwise, don’t bother), Bisquick and Pillsbury crescent roll dough (no comment).
My first exposure to Tombstone frozen pizza came during my trips to visit my family in Eagle River, Wisconsin, where Sunday night is also pizza night. My Auntie Anita has always been a culinary trailblazer in our family. My mother got her very first pizza recipe in, like, 1958, from Anita. Tombstone pizza was invented in Wisconsin, you see, so it was a patriotic duty. And because it was invented in Wisconsin, it was all about the cheese. Before it was mass-marketed across the US (after the original family company sold out to Kraft), it was only available in Wisconsin. If you ordered a pizza at a tavern or bar pretty much anywhere in Northern Wisconsin, what you got was a Tombstone. It was marketed as the next best thing to homemade:
And in the pre-Kraft days, it sort of was.
Auntie always kept a dozen or so Tombstones in her freezer, ready for an impromptu “pizza doctoring” party. A proper pizza doctoring party – and, yes, you can do this at home – involves some key ingredients:
- Coolers loaded with several suitcases of beer, preferably Old Style and Miller Light (or your local equivalent, cheap, quaffing beer), Diet Pepsi and A&W Root Beer for the kids. In later years, family beer preferences shifted to Icehouse and Budweiser Light (which, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t beer, but one humours ones relatives). Now that we are all grown-ups, we have also ventured into craft brews, such as Leinenkugel’s. And WINE!!
- Gin, vermouth (sweet and dry), brandy, Spanish olives (unless Auntie had some of her dilled green beans), and maraschino cherries so the grown-ups can make martinis and manhattans.
- Several pounds of grated pizza cheese (Did I say Tombstones were all about the cheese? Well, not enough cheese for us!)
- Peperoni, sliced mushrooms, ripe black olives, crumbled pre-cooked hamburger or sausage meat (because even had the Tombstones had enough cheese, they never had enough other stuff; and everyone wanted different other stuff.)
- Dill pickle spears
- Potato chips
- Lots of Aunties, Uncles, Cousins, Cousins-in-law, and other assorted hangers-on
- An oven
- Scissors (to cut the pizza; we never had anything as flash as a pizza wheel)
- Oh, and lots and lots of Tombstones.
Do I really need to tell you what to do next? OK:
- Open a beer, or
- If you were born before 1945, wait for Earl and Chuck to mix the martinis and brandy manhattans
- Open a Tombstone, add additional toppings as desired, but at the bare minimum lots and lots of extra cheese,
- Open another beer,
- Bake the Tombstone according to package directions, or until your toppings are nice an bubbly
- Listen while Cousin Randy tells hysterical bear hunting stories
- Let the Tombstone cool briefly, then cut into slices with the sewing shears,
- Grab another beer
- Eat with pickle spears and chippies until you can’t move.
Dill pickles? Potato chips? Yes. Tombstones need dill pickles and potato chips. There is debate in our family as to who established this rule. The smart money is on my Mom. Maybe the Eagle River clan has been goofing me all these years, and when I’m not around, they leave out the pickles.
This week’s slice: Dill Pickle and Potato Chip Pizza
The inspiration for this pizza is two-fold. First, a few years ago, my Auntie J gave me a raclette grill for Christmas. Simon and I enjoyed raclette, which is an excellent excuse to eat potatoes, pickles, sweet onions, and lots and lots of melted cheese. I had to rehome the raclette grill when we moved because, as I did all my other electric appliances. So I felt a pang of homesickness when I discovered that the Stinky Cheese Man at the farmers’ market had raclette cheese. Why not, I asked myself, put the raclette ingredients on a pizza? Genius!
Second, genuinely sour, dilly, kosher dill pickles (the only pickles really worth eating) are rarer than hens’ teeth in New Zealand. The closest approximation to the flavor of dilly pickles is French cornichon, or gherkins, which are available here. But they are tiny, difficult to pick up, and generally ill-suited to the role of side dish pickles. They do, however, look pretty adorable on a pizza, and complement sweet onions (or in this case, leeks) and new potatoes that all cuddle up under a layer of nutty raclette cheese. And with the potatoes, there is no need for chips on the side!
500g (1 lb.) smallish new potatoes(about the size of a chicken egg), red or gold
1 large or two small leeks,
12 or so sour gherkins or cornichons
120g (1/4 lb.) raclette cheese (or any mild swiss cheese)
225g (1/2 lb.) grated mozzarella
olive oil, salt, and pepper
Crust for a 30cm (12 inch) pizza
Preheat your oven to 220C or 425F
- Thinly slice the potatoes and soak them for 30 minutes or so in ice water. If you slice them very thin (3mm or 1/8 in.), they will be potato-chippier; if you slice them a little thicker, (4.5mm or 3/16 in.) they are more like the boiled potatoes common in raclatte spreads. I like them both ways, depending on my mood.
- Drain the spuds and dry them as best you can (I give mine a ride in the salad spinner), drizzle a little olive oil on a foil-lined baking sheet, and spread the slices out in a single layer (or as close as you can manage, they’ll shrink a bit) and smoosh them around in the oil a bit, and sprinkle them with salt.
- Roast the potatoes for about 20 minutes. Turn them over (or just stir them around) about halfway through. When you take the potatoes out of the oven, nicely brown and crispy, turn the oven up to 260C or 500F.
- Slice the leeks, white and light green parts, crosswise, very thin. Alternatively, you can cut them lengthwise into thin shreds. Sauté them in a Tbs. of olive oil, sprinked with a bit of salt, until they are tender but not browned.
- Top your pizza (I always start with a slightly prebaked crust):
- start with the grated mozzarella (I use mozzarella for the base because raclette cheese is pretty $$$, and your run of the mill mozzarella won’t compete – try not to use “pizza cheese”, which usually includes some provolone, fontina, and parmesan, which might distract from the nutty, Swiss cheesy flavor of the raclette).
- Then add the sautéed leeks in an even layer
- Then arrange your roasted potato chips artistically on top of the leeks.
- Dot the pizza with gherkins. If they are very tiny, you can use them whole. I cut the bigger ones in half.
- Finally, spread the raclette cheese over the whole thing, because it is the star.
- If your crust is prebaked, bake the pizza for about 8 minutes. If you are starting with a raw crust, then you’ll want to leave the gherkins and raclette off for the first few minutes, and add them when you have about 7 or 8 minutes to go.