#22: The uncertainty of poultry

How to handle not knowing what the birds at the back of the freezer are—plus a consideration of Great (and also merely good) pizza and what pizza teaches us about uncertainty and innovation.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing.

Finally! Politicians, mainstream media, and electorates are beginning to take coronavirus threat seriously and act on it. Would have been better sooner, but better late than never. In the UK, there are early indications that restrictions on mobility and gatherings might have been applied (barely) in time.

Here in London, we’ve been on so-called lockdown for 8 days. It is quite benign for those of us not on the healthcare frontlines: infrequent grocery shopping and daily outdoor exercise are both permitted.

For most of that time, the skies have been blue and cloudless—for some, the frustrations of being stuck indoors after a grey winter will be overwhelming. However, being largely homebound by social and practical decree has had some unexpected and positive side effects.

In the age of Zoom, I now see people every week that I would normally only see once a year. Many people seem to be cooking a lot—I get multiple daily doses of food photography from around the world (on WhatsApp). Instagram has declined in relevance, replaced by Twitter (my current default source for intelligent analysis of coronavirus impact). Some people are reporting massive spikes in productivity, turning paper revisions around and submitting new papers at a frankly alarming rate.

I, on the other hand, have de-iced the freezer and discovered a pair of small birds that I can neither identify nor remember buying. Here’s one of them:

What should one do when one is uncertain about poultry?

The problem is not knowing what they are, because this means not knowing how they will respond to heat.

Being able to cook well is in large part about understanding the properties which allow a given material to be good for particular uses, and which often make it less good or bad for other uses—the material’s affordances.

If you don’t know what something is, it’s hard to know how to cook it properly: there’s no way to figure out what its affordances are.

I have long had a minor interest in pizza that, under lockdown, has bloomed into a potentially life-threatening obsession.

There is edible pizza everywhere, and there’s even pretty decent pizza most places (even in London)—but truly Great pizza is nearly impossible to find. So far, and this is of course purely my personal opinion, Ops in Brooklyn and Hail Mary in Los Angeles are top of the heap even in context of modern Japanese pizza. Neither Ops nor Hail Mary makes a classic Neapolitan style pizza, and neither uses the officially approved, highly refined, flavor-free, 00 flours that have taken over the premium pizza world.

Below, you see a profusely alliumed pizza from Ops, and a marinara from Hail Mary. On a good day, the textures of these pizzas will be unlike most others you’ve had and they’ll make you want to return as often as possible.

If you live near Bushwick or Atwater Village, you’re in luck—both are still cooking pizzas and you can stop in to get one to go. It will not have escaped your notice that both are at least an ocean away from me at the moment.

Making Great pizza is hard because it requires real and deep knowledge of

  • How different flours (made from different wheats) behave when made into doughs at different levels of hydration and with different fermentation regimes—so you can blend the flour and mix the dough to achieve the desired texture and flavor given the constraints of available fermentation space and time.

  • How to physically manipulate the shaping and final opening up of different textured dough balls—so you can make pizzas that have consistent thinness in the center (for a quick, crisp cook) while preserving delicious aeration in the rim (crisp, yet tender, yet with an appealing chewiness).

  • Where to source good ingredients—so you can create dough, sauces, and toppings that have actual flavor.

  • How the texture and moisture content of toppings and sauces individually and in combination affect how they cook—so you can design pizzas that cook well and eat easily. (Instead of pizzas where every bite causes poorly attached, imperfectly cooked toppings with discordant textures to fall off the slice and onto the plate or into your lap. We’ve all been there.)

  • How the oven floor and chamber temperature interacts with cooking time and movement of the pizza within the oven—so you can cook the pizza such that the base becomes crisp and well-colored, just as the rim sets and scorches slightly and the toppings and the sauce cook to the desired level.

Each item on this list represents a mini-constellation of affordances that a pizzamaker must understand in detail to make Great pizza. Flour, dough, tomatoes, cheese are all materials; the choices available for each are many in number, and each behaves in slightly different ways. The list is not even near complete.

But nothing on the list is inherently hard to understand.

Developing detailed understandings of material affordances is what cooks, both at home and in the professional kitchen, have done for centuries. As Jane Grigson says, “for good food, one needs to understand that a Cox’s Orange Pippin in a pie will give you a quite different result from a Bramley.”

One silver lining of the lockdown is having ample time to explore the affordances of various flours, doughs, and sauces.

What you see below is a relatively quickly fermented pizza dough made from YQ and Paragon flours, sauced with crushed canned peeled tomatoes from La Russolillo, and topped with wild garlic and sour cream. It was baked in a crummy home oven on a preheated steel very close to the top heating element. Though not Great, it was good enough that it’s getting harder to resist making pizza every day.

What this means is significantly above-average pizza is available to all who are willing to put some time and effort into finding decent materials and figuring out how to use them.

This is fortunate because most pizza restaurants don’t seem to care enough to invest the time and effort into learning what materials are available to them and what their affordances are. This may be why there are so many average or competent pizzas out there. Many of them will be made with well-understood, reliable flours, sauces, and topping ingredients. Working in established ways with well-understood materials is a way to circumvent the experimentation and failure involved in trying to learn new ways to work with new materials.

But it rarely, if ever, produces Great pizza.

The work that teaches a cook about a material’s affordances is not only about access to transcendence. More practically, it also provides opportunities for innovation. New dishes become possible when a previously unknown affordance for a known ingredient is discovered, or when the affordances of ingredients that have never been used before are discovered.

Great pizzamakers can take pizza where it hasn’t been before because they’ve invested time and effort in R&D—in searching for more and different affordances for flours, doughs, sauces, toppings, and ovens.

Real innovation results from discovering new affordances. This is true not just in cooking but in the context of any innovation effort at all—whether it is learning how to do something new with an existing programming language (or reagent, or power tool, or narrative form) or developing a new programming language (or reagent, or power tool, or narrative form).

It is also true about designing innovative organizations and managing people in innovative ways. (On this topic, much more to come in a certain book that I really hope will be available for purchase soon.)

If I knew what these two birds are, I’d be able to look up their affordances and figure out how to cook them real well. (In other words, I could look online for a plausible recipe.) Instead, under conditions of poultry uncertainty, I’ve canvassed (remotely, of course) my international panel of Cooking Experts. The current wisdom based on their currently frozen appearance is that what I have might be a brace of partridge, possibly best roasted quick and high.

I’ll report back.

On the cusp of something new that’s just coming into view.


If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.