There’s a lot of blood, sweat, and guts between dreams and success. - Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant
The first time I ever had a fresh walnut, it was crushed under the tire of an aging range rover in the driveway of one of my mentors.
The squirrels had been working hard to steal the harvest that year, and dozens had dropped. Those nuts that landed on pavement were slowly ground into paste as cars pulled in and out over the course of the day. Black walnuts actually grow inside a small inedible fruit, which gets slimy as the nuts mature. When cars drove over them, some of them would be trapped, and the fruit and shell would be separated and crushed by the tire, revealing the nut meat inside.
The black walnut tree, juglans nigra, is unique because it has a defense mechanism that gives it an ecological advantage over other plants. The leaves, fruit and roots produce a natural herbicide called juglone that prevent saplings from growing in it’s general area. Like lone pine trees, it can often be found in a clearing created by its own leaf litter. The trees take very good care of themselves, and produce abundant valuable yields. The shells provide 70% of the fuel value of coal, and the black, squishy fruit is well known as a dye and ink ingredient. The shells, being exceptionally hard, are used in grinding processes. The nut meat itself is a delicious and hearty food, far more difficult to harvest commercially than the walnuts you find in the supermarket, but much tastier than the commercial offerings. Smoky, rich, deep flavors - not the bland bitter things you’re used to on top of a brownie.
These delicious, wild, smoky walnuts are part of a savory taste adventure. Close your eyes, if it helps, and imagine how amazing they’d be on a pizza. Dream about adding those delicious wild walnuts to a common pepperoni pizza. You’d elevate the art of pizza a hundred fold. The nuts would add a sense of crunch, bitter and sweet that would simply revolutionize the nature of America’s favorite pie.
You just had this thought, out of the blue. This brilliant flash of insight, an amazing taste combination that your mind stumbled upon while you were unfocused at work, and now you simply can’t get it out of your head. All day long, you obsess, your little smile carrying you through the day, because you have a brilliant idea, and no one knows!
As soon as you can break away, you go to your favorite pizza shop, whose proprietor is happy for your excitement, but just doesn’t have time to experiment. You explain to them how this will change the nature of pizza forever, and when they prove un-convincible, you leave, angry. You’ll never set foot in there again, never will you eat pizza made from such a small-minded person. How could they not understand the opportunity you brought?
You sit in your car, wondering if this is the end of your dream. After contemplation, you think “No, I am a doer. I get things done. I will get this pizza made.” You don’t know a lot about pizza, but you know a trip to the local gourmet grocery would turn up some useful information. You know you need flour, so you head to that section and begin reading labels about gluten content, moisture percentages, and what separates whole from white wheat. You look at cheeses, asiago and mozzarella, dry and aged and fresh and whole and skim. You load your wicker basket with young and cured salamis and prosciutto and hard salami - the very best available. You make notes of the regions of origin. You choose only the very best looking and deliciously ripe organic tomatoes, still on the vine. You spent 10 minutes learning the differences between dry yeast and quick-rise and the special cake yeast at the back of the refrigerated section, and you strike up a conversation with the baker about sourdough starters. He clues you in to water hardness and mineralization reactions in crust, how unglazed quarry tiles from Home Depot can provide you with a surface just like a brick oven. You learn how to maintain moisture content within the oven with a hand sprayer and a schedule. All in all, you spend 35 minutes between wikipedia and cooking.com on your phone, reading about varieties of walnuts - and end with selecting in-the-shell beechnuts that just arrived from Canada You had no idea there was so much to learn about how nuts go through the Maillard reaction, caramelization during high heat, driven by the fat content, how some turn buttery and others crunchy based on sugar and moisture content.
You leave the store knowing as much about pizza as you can imagine anyone else alive knowing. It was a brilliant move, and it’s going to help your dream succeed. The world will be changed forever - they won’t even know what hit them.
Your first 20 pizzas are a failure. Youtube alone can’t prepare you for the feel required to develop good windowpane gluten. Hand tossing in a small kitchen is far more difficult than you expected. It’s HOT, constantly baking with your oven set on broil, with a little piece of tin foil keeping the door slightly open, forcing the thermostat to pull even more BTUs out of the oven than the manufacturer intended. Too much sugar - too crispy! Too little salt - bland! The tomatoes you picked out were worthless for a sauce, you return to the shop for proper canned San Marzanos, and while they make a delicious sauce, it’s too mellow and you need to tune it with pepper and chili to get the bite you expect. The local fresh basil tastes nothing like you expect it to when cooked down, and you switch to dry. The extra virgin olive oil is for salad dressing - its flavor is too weak for baking.
Slowly, you put in the hours and you you begin to tune your pizza. You start to become a pizza master. Finishing with a torch to give the perfect crunch to the walnuts without overcooking the dough - genius! You reach the perfect mixture of walnuts, organic heartnuts and beechnuts you cracked yourself with a hammer in the driveway, sifting each to remove the errant pieces of shell.
Two months later, somewhere between pizzas 100 and 120, after 30 trips to the store for ingredients, burn cream and bandages, you’ve dialed it all in. You have nailed The Walnut Pie.
At some point, this became all-encompassing. It went from an interest to a calling. You realize you’re so good at it, you might just do this forever. You’re going to revolutionize pizza, and run a little artisan place by the waterfront. People will line up for hours to get a slice, because there’s only space for one or two diners and those are booked months in advance.
You, my friend, have found your passion.
The only problem is that your friends keep saying it’s ‘weird.’ They say the pizzas are great. But they wish you’d stop putting nuts on them.
Do what you love. That’s important. But doing what other people love is part of success, too. If you often find yourself making walnut pizzas, feel free to share your nutty stories with me; there are lots of us with the same problem.
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