Pizza, whether deep dish or thin crust, store-bought or delivered, has been my favorite food since I was a kid. Growing up, when my grandparents made the two-hour drive from Grand Rapids to Ann Arbor, they almost always arrived with a steaming, grease-darkened box of Cottage Inn pizza—the local staple—in hand. Pizza was there for me through the birthday parties, summer thunderstorms, and paper plate awards of my youth and the late-night haze of my undergraduate years. Recently, in the midst of wedding planning, I somewhat facetiously suggested we provide a pizza buffet for the reception and that anyone who doesn’t like pizza be uninvited. (This approach, I assure you, is not the way to a mother-in-law’s heart). It’s a dish I find appropriate for every occasion, unpretentious and universal. Pizza, in its consistency, its ability to offer superb taste whether fresh out of the oven or refrigerator, and its widespread geographic accessibility, is a food I’ve treasured just for being there when few other things in my life make sense.
Yet, it wasn’t until a year or two ago my fiancée, Kelsey, and I set out to make our own pizza dough from scratch. At the beginning of 2016, we both started master’s programs—hers in Spanish and mine in creative writing—and our schedules were overloaded while we learned to balance school with our full-time jobs. We spent most of our Saturdays in the library. Sundays were designated for more studying at home, interspersed with cleaning and weekly food preparation. During this time I slowly learned to bake a few types of bread from a cast-iron skillet cookbook. Bread baking became an inconsistent weekend hobby, a means of balancing out long days devoid of much free time. While the dough rested, I could knock out homework, then take a break to knead the fermenting loaf, and return to drafting a paper or reading until the bread in progress demanded more attention. Baking bread is a slow-going process. It takes patience and there is no instant gratification. Sometimes I’d spend hours attempting a new recipe only to arrive at subpar, chewy bread without much flavor. Yet, the pace of this type of cooking helped me return to a more academic lifestyle.
During grad school, I also took a two-year hiatus from distance running. I’ve always exercised regularly, but with work and school I could no longer find time (at least, that was my excuse) to put in the miles. I had completed five marathons and a handful of halves over the course of my early and mid-twenties with mixed results. I figured those days were behind me. To find time in our busy schedules, Kelsey and I transitioned to exercising early in the morning rather than after work. Most days we woke around 4:45 AM to hit the gym or log a short run.
Kelsey finished her degree in summer 2017, but I had three quarters to go at Northwestern University and wouldn’t complete my MFA until the following March. Around Christmas, a friend mentioned she was running a marathon in northern Michigan over Memorial Day weekend, and knowing we were runners too asked if we wanted to run with her. Despite being in the middle of my thesis work, and the Midwestern winter being less than accommodating for training outside, we signed up. Around the same time, Kelsey and I stopped dabbling in making pizza once every few weeks and developed a routine. We designated Fridays for pizza, the perfect way to shake off the mundane stresses of the workweek.
Pizza dough, unlike some other breads, is relatively fast and easy, but not without its challenges. The dough toughens up if you overwork it, so that it becomes gummy or mealy or impossible to spread out over much surface area. Unless you have an oven that can handle high heats, it’s difficult to crisp the crust. Some of our early runs, lackluster in flavor and texture, were solely satisfying in that we’d made the effort to produce a meal.
But in our routine, week after week, the pizza improved. We played with different temperatures and bake times, various portions of sauce to cheese, pre-shredded versus fresh mozzarella, and a slew of toppings, though black olives remain a perennial favorite. Kelsey got in the habit of blending homemade pizza sauce, and now instead of prepackaged cans there’s always a couple mason jars of her product in our fridge. Before we knew it, pizza Fridays became a metronome by which we planned productive weekends. They guaranteed time we spent together without worrying over professional or social obligations. At some point in this cycle, I became obsessed with Topo Chico mineral water and began picking up a bottle at the corner store on my way home, which resulted in passing up the cans of beer I was accustomed to reaching for at the end of the week. Friday nights were a time we dedicated to ourselves and our craft.
While our weekly routine suggests a life of rigid order, I can assure you this wasn’t the case until recently. Even throughout most of grad school I treated Friday night as throwaway time for goofing off and drinking. Before returning to school I didn’t accomplish much during the weekend at all. Training for my early marathons was scattershot at best. I pushed my body through hangovers and nights of little sleep. I jammed long runs into my weekend wherever they fit around parties and social events and sometimes skipped them entirely if they inconvenienced me. This time, with some modicum of being older and wiser, was different. With regular Friday pizza plans in place, I also got in the habit of waking up at 5 or 6 AM on Saturday mornings, sober and well rested, ready for my most rigorous and trying training runs. I layered up, pushed a hat tight over my head, shook on some gloves, and set out along the shoreline path of an ice-littered and tempestuous Lake Michigan before the sun came up. The result was that even my runs exceeding three hours were completed well before lunchtime on Saturday. I could spend the remainder of my weekends relaxing and being productive instead of dreading the grueling run that waited. For the first time in my life, rather than counteracting the incessant damage I was inflicting on my body, I was focused on improving my physical health, and my stress level and work ethic seemed to improve along with it. Fatigued from the morning’s workout, Saturday afternoons offered easy writing time, and suddenly I had discovered a new wave of productivity. All of it led back to setting aside time each week to cook my favorite food.
The marathon has passed, but as much as possible Kelsey and I continue to reserve our Friday nights for making pizza and spending time together after a stretch of long days in separate offices. Though it may sound repetitive and tiresome, and while our friends occasionally mock us for being old, we both find joy in this household pastime. Each pizza marks a weekend commenced on a positive note, a bettering of our culinary endeavors, more time spent together, and perhaps less-stressed and rested versions of ourselves.
Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Longreads, Joyland, Colorado Review, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in fiction at Florida State University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com.