I’ve just finished the first day of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) convention, which is way fun. We toured Mark Twain’s house, and in the evening Dan Barker played piano and sang songs (including a love song he wrote for the two evening speakers, who are married to each other), Dan and Annie Laurie Gaylor gave a report on the year’s activities of the FFRF, and then Steve Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein talked about their new books.
I have photos and more to say on this, but first things first: comestibles. On Thursday I gave a science talk at Wesleyan University, and, when I accepted their invitation, I requested that I be taken to eat at one of the famous pizza joints that dot Connecticut. My host, Fred Cohan, fortuitously chose what is perhaps the best: Pepe’s Pizza on Wooster Street in New Haven.
This place, opened by Frank Pepe in the 1920’s, is a legend. Here’s the founder (later pictures show an increasing corpulence, no doubt due to consumption of his own product):
According to Michael Stern, the doyen of indigenous American cuisine:
Crust is what makes a Pepe’s pizza outstanding. It is Neapolitan style — thin but not brittle, with a real bready flavor. Cooked at high temperature on the brick floor of the ancient oven, it is dark around its burnished gold edge, and there is a good chew to every bite. The pizza men aren’t too fussy about scraping the oven floor, so it is likely the pizza’s underside will be speckled with burnt grains of semolina and maybe even blotched by an oil spill where another pizza leaked, all of which give the mottled oval a kind of reckless sex appeal that no tidy pie could ever match.
Here’s the oven, which consists of an open brick chamber with an adjacent chamber which contains a pile of fiercely glowing coals:
And the fuel:
Frank Pepe, New Haven pizza’s Zeus, started very simply, selling pies that were nothing more than tomato with a few pinches of anchovy. To this day, Pepe’s premier pizza is made without mozzarella. It is called a white clam pie, and it is nothing but crust strewn with freshly-shucked littleneck clams, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and a dash of grated cheese. Without a mozzarella mantle, the dough develops wicked resilience, its mottled surface frosted gold. Mozzarella with onion (but no tomatoes, and perhaps a bit of garlic added) is another long-time favorite, as are the more traditional configurations with tomato sauce, cheese, pepperoni, and sausage. Broccoli and spinach are more recent additions to the kitchen’s repertoire; they are well suited to a white pie with mozzarella and garlic. But if you are coming to Pepe’s for the first time, try the white clam pie. It’s roadfood heaven.
Ever since I read about Pepe’s a few decades ago, I wanted to go there and try their white clam pie. I was anxious before our visit, because sometimes they run out of fresh clams, and they won’t use canned ones. But we were in luck: fresh clams were on tap, and we got our pie. And what a gorgeous thing it was, too:
This may well have been the best pizza I’ve ever had. The crust was as Stern describes it: chewy, substantial, and with some crispy bits. And, oh, the topping was lovely. You might think that a pizza with cheese, clams, oregano, olive oil, and garlic sounds weird, but it was fantastic.
Here’s my host, Fred Cohan, downing a slice (Fred works on the evolution of bacterial diversity). We made short work of what was a very large pie:
De rigueur for washing down the pie is a local favorite, birch beer: a soft drink made from birch bark. Birch beer is to clam pizza as Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray tonic is to a pastrami sandwich:
The other person at our meal was Barry Chernoff, a prolific freshwater ecologist who specializes in fish ecology and runs a large environmental program at Wesleyan. He also plays guitar in a rock band and rides his pride and joy, a 2002 Honda Goldwing GL 1800 motorcycle. This is an 1800 cc motorcycle; there are cars with engines smaller than that! Here’s Barry on his monster bike:
Now before some health-food miscreant tells me that I’m eating all rong, let me say that I regard seminar trips as “free food zones,” in which I can indulge in a little not-really-healthy food. I don’t eat like this all the time!
That said, here was breakfast next day at O’Rourke’s, a famous diner in Middletown, where Wesleyan is located:
Desayuno: A guacamole/jalapeno omelet with chili, black beans, hashed browns, and toasted Irish soda bread. The breakfast menu is about ten pages long, with a whole page devoted solely to versions of Eggs Benedict:
Finally, dinner the night before last was at a local Oaxacan place in Middletown, Iguanas Ranas Taqueria. I had a monstrous burrito filled with tender chicken and caramelized onions. It was delightful, especially when washed down with Dogfish 60-minute Ale:
I’ll have more to say about godlessness (with photos) in a subsequent post. Right now I’m letting the toxins work their way out of my system.