My brother Ben has a gift. I bet so many people know him and don’t even know he has this gift. But every single person in his family is well aware of it because it makes our lives even richer. We have an absurdly large and boisterous family. Ben is more of a laid back, quiet personality. But he has a knack for bringing us all together around food…slow food…delicious food…food in which the preparation itself creates a social event for family and friends. It’s pretty remarkable.
Ten years ago, inspired by a New York Times article and guided by a stack of books, Ben set out on the endeavor to build his pizza oven. Armed with a handful of family members, all uneducated in the art of pizza oven making (myself included), he got to work. After hours of work, endless cuss words and lots of sweat, the result is amazing and has withstood a decade of the Wisconsin elements and countless baking sessions.
While it only takes 90 seconds for the pizza to cook once it hits the brick in the oven, the entire process is the epitome of slow. At the Ricter farm, it begins with the garden: tomatoes, onions, spinach, garlic (of course), basil, oregano, and so much more, all planted and watered, weeded and harvested. The tomatoes are canned to be used for sauce. The garlic is cured and the herbs are dried. The dough can be made with a basic pizza dough recipe or a sourdough starter, either way it is prepared the day before and allowed to rise slowly overnight. On the day of the pizza making, the fire in the oven is started in the morning, many hours before the oven is ready. The firebrick requires significant time to reach the intensely hot temperatures needed to cook the pizzas in 90 seconds. Meanwhile, the dough and sauce are being prepared, and the vegetables are being picked (if it’s the right season) and sliced. When the oven is finally ready, the fire is pushed to the back of the oven, and the front of the oven is swept clean. The dough is rolled out by hand and the pizzas are topped. It took a bit of practice, but we eventually learned that less is indeed so much more in terms of pizza toppings. The pizzas are carried out, across the lawn to the outdoor oven. They are carefully placed on the brick and 90 seconds later, well, you have an amazingly delicious pizza. You know where the ingredients came from. You know how it was made. You know who made it. You helped make it. You may have even helped to make the oven it was cooked in. And all of this makes it taste even better.
Beyond creating an amazing meal, the pizza oven creates an amazing experience. We have had 1 year olds and 90 year olds partake in the process. It's a slow style of cooking, so we have time to connect. We smile. We laugh. We share stories. We have baked pizzas in the sweltering August heat and in the depths of the freezing Wisconsin winters. We have baked pizzas for our immediate family and for the entire neighborhood. No matter what, every single time, the pizza oven has created a sense of connection, creation and complete enjoyment as we all come together to cook with fire in an old fashioned way, preparing a delicious meal for ourselves.
Pizza is delicious. Pizza prepared the right way is extraordinary. Pizza prepared slowly, with intention and enjoyment in Ben’s pizza oven is divine.
Good job Ben. And thanks.