Here’s a column of mine that appeared in the New York Times on August 27, 2014
BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — I HAD everything I needed — the sweet sausage, the grilled shrimp, the three kinds of cheese. The dough had been rising since midafternoon. All my spices were lined up, the sauces in the right bowls. I’d had a long time to prepare. You could say I’d been getting ready to make this pizza for 20 years.
My father left the Catholic Church when he was 12. There’s not much Catholic left in me, except for my fondness for ritual. And so, as my wife and I have approached the date of the departure of our younger son for college, I thought long and hard about the proper way to mark the moment. We’d climb a nearby mountain, I thought, with the symbolic name of Tumbledown. We’d go out for lobsters and steamers. We’d head to the local Shakespeare theater and watch some Oscar Wilde.
But reality interceded. It rained the day we were going to hike Tumbledown; my boys decided they wanted to go out with their friends instead of to the theater; when I’d hoped to go to the lobster pound, my son needed to go shopping, and headed to the Maine Mall instead. And so, what with one thing and another, there wasn’t time for any of the sacraments I’d so carefully imagined.
Instead we ate pizza.
Over the years we’ve weathered the ordinary traumas of family life: friends moving away; the death of grandparents; one boy’s concussion in a sledding accident. As a child, my older son experienced the death of the television conservationist Steve Irwin as if he’d lost a beloved uncle. My younger son hated a teacher in fourth grade so much that there were some mornings when he lay in bed in his pajamas, in tears.
And yet, through it all, as my older son likes to say, “we have always been held together with cheese.”
Friday night was homemade pizza night. Some Fridays, teenagers kept coming through the door until I ran out of dough: lobster with fresh basil on grilled flatbread; andouille sausage with spinach; barbecued chicken with caramelized onions; a four-cheese car wreck of mozzarella, Romano, fontina and Gorgonzola.
I made my family pizzas when the dog died; on the night after the prom; on a day a Maine blizzard left us with snow up to the windowpanes and icicles as long as my arm.
Now, after 20 years, I was down to my last three pies.
My wife and I have long had differing attitudes about our children’s spreading their wings. On the day that the older one first went off to kindergarten, I burst into tears and wailed, “We’re losing him to the world!” My wife smiled from ear to ear and said, “Yeah, I know!”
Now our positions had reversed. I was the one eager for the next phase of our lives, while my wife focused, sadly, on the way our family was about to change.
I put the pizza stone in the oven and heated it to 500. Then I fired up the outdoor grill. The first pie up was Four Kinds of Meat: local sweet sausage, pepperoni, bacon and ham, with a red sauce, mozzarella and shaved Parm. While that one was baking I threw another dough on the grill and let it bubble up, then brushed the crust with olive oil, and sprinkled it with garlic, kosher salt, cracked black pepper and rosemary.
I went back inside and sliced up Four Kinds of Meat with a pizza wheel, threw some fresh basil on top and brought it out on a cutting board. My wife popped open a bottle of prosecco.
As the kids got started with that one, I flipped the crust on the grill, let it brown, then added grilled shrimp basted in olive oil and garlic, and cilantro pesto.
They turned on “The Fellowship of the Ring” while I finished off the last pie (mushrooms and andouille). Bilbo was saying, “I regret to announce this is the end. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell. Goodbye.”
“This is good pizza,” Sean, my younger son, said. My wife nodded. We’d be off to the University of Rochester a few days later, where he intends to study engineering and astrophysics. Zach, his older brother, will start his junior year at Vassar.
“To us,” Zach said, and we all raised our glasses.
We sat there in the hot summer night, the windows open. Bilbo, on-screen, was off on his adventure, singing “The Road Goes Ever On.” I looked at my family, my grown sons, my wife, our two old dogs.
We are held together by a whole lot more than cheese.