In the early 1900’s there was a legendary jazz musician named Freddie Keppard. Most people never heard of him and here’s why: Freddie Keppard was always afraid that some young musician would steal his secrets. He was so paranoid he would play his horn with a handkerchief over his hands so rivals couldn’t see what he was doing. He went so far as to refuse to record his music, fearing that it would reveal too much to his competitors. The result is that Freddie Keppard is a footnote to musical history and almost no one remembers him. On the other hand everyone knows Louis Armstrong, another New Orleans jazz great, who generously shared his talent with the world, mentoring scores of musicians and becoming one of the most beloved figures in musical history.
We have all heard tales of the legendary pizza makers that seem to have some mystical ability. In the history of pizza there has been a small number of pizza alchemists who are able to take the most basic ingredients and turn them into something that is greater than the some of its parts… a perfect pizza. . Like all mythology. the implication is that somewhere there is a secret technique, or ingredient, or piece of equipment , some hidden knowledge that only a handful of people posses, a sort of map to the holy grail of pizza. this idea and the veil of secrecy goes back to the pre-Roman days, when guilds and secret societies were created to insure job security. In ancient Roman times bread baking was considered so crucial that if you were born into a baking family you were required by law to continue in that trade.
My Dad has told me that old Italian bakers in New York in the 1930’s would jealously guard their recipe books from their co-workers fearing well into their 80’s that some youngster would steal a secret and force them into retirement. I remember pizzaiolo’s removing the temperature knobs from ovens to “hide” their chosen baking temperature from “pizza spies”. To this day I know pizza makers who carefullly shred the labels from their sauce cans before discarding them. The folly of this is that most of the folks are baking at the same temperatures, using the same tomatoes and generally following the same procedures. At the very least, they have way more in common than they can imagine, and they would realize that if they ever bothered to speak to one another.
Besides the fact that all of this secrecy has created a culture of distrust among pizza makers there is another problem. Every once in a while someone does come up with a true insight or improvement. My feeling is that if we don’t share knowledge something very important could be lost. Who has brought more lasting joy to the world, Freddie or Louis?