The perfect pizza has been a lifelong quest. Across the world and closer to home, I’ve visited the acclaimed chefs and prowled the back alley dives for just one bite of the perfect pie. I’m not talking about your typical red sauce-laden, mozzarella-coated, pepperoni-dotted New York pizza or even your deep-dish, lasagna-like Chicago version. No, my search is for an artisan-made pizza with a balance of flavors, textures, and creativity that sings to me in a hallelujah chorus that is downright irresistible. This is that pizza. And I found it in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
I know what you’re thinking: Bay St. Louis, that little coastal enclave that was all but wiped off the Mississippi Gulf Coast map by Hurricane Katrina in 2005? Yes, that’s the one. It’s back, and in some ways, even better than before. And if the duck, arugula, and brie pizza special at 200 North Beach restaurant was any indication, it’s back on the Southern culinary map as well. But, there’s a bigger story here than just pizza; it’s a story worth telling, worth reading, worth remembering.
Rox and I drove down Third Street looking for our respite for the weekend. As I drove up to the Webb schoolhouse, I was impressed by how striking it is, but in a simple way. I’ve seen schools that dazzle in architectural splendor or even in monolithic size, but this structure grabbed me by its design elegance–its sense of purpose. It must have appeared equally grand to the school children that crossed its threshold in 1913.
As we walked up the concrete steps that stretched up to the first landing of the historical landmark, I took in the structure further. And then I noticed the ramshackle boat overgrown with weeds anchored in the front yard. A boat? I ascended further to the cypress-floored veranda and looked out to the massive trees flanking either side of the building. The muscular limbs embraced the structure in their outstretched care as they had for the past century. I reasoned that the trees—live oaks, at that—were planted at the same time the structure was built, for the shade they would one day provide the children. And to shelter from the storm that would inevitably visit this four-room schoolhouse in the community of Bay St. Louis.
Rox and I, along with our dog Molly, arrived a little ahead of time; the owner had left the door unlocked just as she had said. Ellis Anderson is the proprietor of this house of learning turned boarding house. The entire second floor of the structure was lovingly restored into a residence on one side and a one-bedroom rental on the other. What was once home to both third and fourth-grade classrooms would be our home for a weekend stay. With a months-long book tour promoting the launch of our new cookbook ending, this was a welcome breather from the hectic schedule we had endured. And in this elementary retreat, we were indeed focused on the three “Rs”: relax, regroup, and recharge.
On first glance, it is the eastern-facing wall of windows that is most impressive about the Webb school. Bright and airy, with sunlight streaming through each opening, it is a photographer’s dream. Ellis’ shelves of books flanked the dining nook, and it only took a quick look to realize that this was a writer’s collection. And it didn’t take long for me to find the book penned by our host, Under Surge, Under Siege: The Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina. This was her story of survival, this community’s story of revival, and the story of this house.
After Roxanne had gone to bed that evening, I pulled the book from the shelf and turned the pages of her story. I learned that Ellis had indeed spent the night of Katrina–the worst storm to ever hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast—in this house. Her harrowing story of enduring the brunt of 125 mph winds coupled with a 30-foot storm surge was recounted in a series of eerily familiar stories to the inhabitants of that small town–stories of life, death, and the rebirth of a community. I couldn’t stop reading until I found out why a 16-foot boat was planted permanently in the front yard of the house—over a quarter mile from the shoreline. It was a memorial to that harrowing night; to the brave souls that perished, and to those that survived clinging to it as it appeared out of nowhere floating straight down the flooded street to the rescue. I fell asleep on the sofa that night as I finished reading.
And I awoke. I was watched over by angels. At first, I thought it was a dream, but it wasn’t. It was spiritual. All along the wall of the schoolhouse, moonlight cascaded through six long transom windows backlighting the white gauze curtains that swung gently in the Gulf breeze. It was a majestic sight. All in a row, they guarded the house upright and attentive along the breach. With the long dowel rod running through the notched brackets all across the span of the room, it created a wooden cross at every opening. This was a divine watch–guardians at the gates. Like those before me—children of long ago, and those of the storm—I felt safe, secure.
We enjoyed our stay, and we rediscovered a community that has drawn together to recreate a born-again Bay St. Louis that has greater meaning for those that call it home. It has been rebuilt in a way that preserves the past, commemorates its history, and looks to the future with bold resolve. Time has a way of washing away old memories and cleaning out the refuse of life, and for the people of Bay St. Louis, every new day is savored and devoured.
And that perfect pizza? Every bite was pure perfection; the bold flavors of roasted duck with the peppery punch of arugula mingled delicately with the mellowness of soft brie and figs, all set atop a crispy crust with just the right crunch. It was heavenly. Just like my weekend in the little town that survived.
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 (13.8-ounce) package refrigerated pizza crust dough, such as Pillsbury
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
- 2 tablespoons whole fig preserves, chopped
- 1 cup duck breast meat, cut into ½-inch slices
- 1 cup firmly packed arugula leaves or spring mix greens
- 8 ounces brie cheese, sliced into ¼-inch-thick planks
- Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
- Lightly sprinkle the surface of the counter with flour. Coat a rolling pin lightly with flour.
- Remove the pizza dough and roll out on the counter. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour. With the rolling pin, begin rolling out the dough into a large (10-inch) thin circle. Move the dough to a round baking tray or a pizza stone. With a sharp knife, cut away any excess dough and discard.
- Spoon on the olive oil to lightly coat the crust and dot the fig preserves around. Place the slices of duck around the crust and layer in the arugula leaves. Place the chunks of cheese around the crust. Sprinkle lightly with salt and a grind of coarse black pepper.
- Move the pizza to the upper rack of the hot oven. Let bake just until the crust browns, the cheese melts, and the ingredients come together, 10 to 15 minutes. (Watch carefully as oven temperatures will vary the time it takes for baking.) Drizzle a little extra olive oil, and grind more coarse pepper. Slice with a pizza cutter into 8 servings.
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