Pizza: American Tradition

Today’s post deals with pizza- what we made at my house growing up versus the versions that generated from combinations of cultures and across borders and boundaries.

When I was a kid, it was the pizza made on a cookie sheet. I do not recommend this unless the cookie sheet has the air layered between metal sheets. Dark metal cookie sheets are not the best for making pizza. From there, the evolution went to round pizza pans, and then large rectangular pans as my family caught wind of Costco and divested its inventory of at least three if not six of the massive rectangular cookie sheet pans.

Crust? Always fresh, and usually I was the one to make it. Shaping was either Mom or me, and then it was a case of “build-your-own” using jarred spaghetti sauce and various toppings Mom par-cooked in advance to speed general cooking. If not that, if the pizza had sausage, then that makes sure that the basic material receives cooking time prior to when it contacts the crust. NEVER make a sausage pizza without the sausage pre-cooked unless it is Chicago-pie style, and then I’m not sure how they get it cooked. But cook sausage!

My family was anti-pepperoni due to household changes following a relative’s bout with cancer, and honestly, when you get used to pizza without it, you don’t need it with it. Carcinogens are not worth it. Flavor is one thing, but fresh ingredients and plenty of them make pepperoni redundant and nearly unnecessary. What was typical on our pizzas? Light onion, green pepper, mushrooms, black olives, and if memory serves correctly, Canadian bacon or for it to go meat-less was fine, too.

I also grew up first with Domino’s and then with Pizza Hut. Neither are bad, but their price points do not relate well to the product when comparing to local places versus chains. Little Caesar’s used to have a different menu strategy. “Hot and Ready” pizza did not come about until the mid-2000’s when the company almost died. Their price point is typical for most pizza now. Cheap, ready to go, and while not exactly nutritious, it fills people up. American comfort food.

When we got older, there was an introduction to a pizza place called “Generous George’s” as they opened a location in my home town after their primary location the next town over. This place did TOPPINGS! The pizza was literally a few inches thick, and that is with a medium to thinner crust, and not a deep dish. It was also large enough that one slice could easily feed a person, period. If you handled a second slice, that was sheer insanity. If you wanted thicker crust, heaven help you. It was fun for its time, but the place went out when the first few years were over and owner’s kids graduated from high school. They stuck to their original location in Alexandria.

I changed time zones and states, and the next place that came to attention was “Pizza Pipeline” a local pizza place in Utah that offered free delivery coupons for the dorms including a $5 pizza with unlimited toppings. They made a monster of me. Favorite combination was shrimp, fresh-cooked tomato, black olives, green peppers, light onion, Canadian bacon, regular bacon, (possibly pineapple) and my word, that thing was incredible.  I was there during its hay-day and it changed hands, changed menus, and no one replaced them successfully when they went under. After they were there, $5 pizza was almost palpable, but it was never actually $5. Not sure if they are still in business.

I almost never ate pizza on the mission in LA, so there was nothing specific for comparison there. I’ve had CPK in other locations, often with fabulous results, but nothing in particular comes to mind from the time spent actually in LA.

Got home and went back and forth with school, and when I had to clean out the house, found Valentino’s. Now knowing what New York pizza is like, this is New York (Manhattan-style) pizza, but made by Armenians in a small place off of the crazy stretch that is the conjunction of Little River Turnpike and Columbia Pike. Getting there wasn’t easy, but neither is DC traffic, period. You have to be an official animal to make it through the area alive and with your brakes lasting for more than two years.

Valentino’s pizza was the place to go when you didn’t want to be home, nothing else made sense, and they played Frank Sinatra just before it was cool again. I will admit that I once came out with a slice where I think that someone accidentally put a cigarette butt on it, and since I was eating in the dark outside because I could, it was a rather unpleasant experience. Other than that, though, a slice was huge, and their BBQ chicken pizza (I think I’m getting that right) was what got me through Fridays when insomnia, grief, numbness, and constant massive calamities otherwise made life simply unbearable.

Moving back to Utah, pizza was chain stuff. I got an internship in New York, and accidentally stumbled upon the first pizzeria in America- Lombardi’s. So, to give the menu a whirl and I have literally never had better pizza before or since. If this is where it came from, my word… no tampering necessary! The pizza had ricotta, basil, mozzarella, and some topping that I normally put on a pizza on my side while the friend who aided in the excursion had what I described on her side. It was literally so good that I remember it six years later. We got there during an unusually slow time, waited 15-45 minutes for a table, and then had the best pizza of my life!

Since I rarely went to Little Italy, especially after Italy won the World Cup the day before during that year, most of the time, I went for whatever was local. I lived in New York during the summer, not the typical springtime internship  period. The heat was enough to kill a person, and probably did. But the pizza… before it gets so hot that all that you can think about is veggies or fruit, the pizza of choice is margherita. Only margherita. Toppings muddy the purety of the sauce, the basil, light cheese. Just enough of everything to keep it all together. I learned more about Italian pizza in one New York summer than I knew existed in all previous experience. Gluttony paved way to purety of substance. When pizza is refreshing, you know that you have glory in your hands and your mouth.

Utah pizza improved from the wasteland that followed the absence of Pizza Pipeline with the Boston-Italian Stallion that came to town, and then there was a pizza place that opened down the way that had pizza-buffet. I never thought that potato on pizza could be good. They proved me wrong. Also liked their buffalo chicken pizza.

A family-friendly but pricier pizza place in town was Brick Oven, and if family came in or there was an event, take them there. Their root beer is good, but drink the apple beer. There is nothing like apple soda (root beer but instead it’s made with apples) on the planet, and it’s one of the things that I miss about that place. Brick Oven is this crazy, semi-intimate place decorated to reflect the locations that used to be there while now the pizza place takes up the whole block. Brick Oven was my second dinner when I first came to town. Ironic or perhaps a closure that it was also one of my last after many years living there.

Moving to another pizza capitol proved changes and rivalries that seemed to date to the Great Fire. While I have had Uno in other places and yes, it was extremely good in those places (biscuit-style crust is literally to die for in Northern Virginia although I’ve never ventured into the tourist landmark), I learned about the trifecta that is Giordano’s, Lou Malnati’s, and Gino’s East. Chicago has deep dish, “pie” style, and non-pie style, non-deep dish.

To the tourist that I still feel that I am, deep dish is the only “real” Chicago pizza. It’s arranged strangely, however. Akin to having soup in a bread bowl, but more constructed, Giordano’s has at least two-inch tall crust, and then it’s toppings inside (including cheese on the bottom) and then sauce on top. It’s good, and it makes for great leftovers.

When I want Gino’s East, or food that I know will be good and takes extremely minimal effort, I go to the grocery store and pick up a personal but hefty pizza at two pounds. After trying it once, I knew that I liked it. I have had the flat pizza in the actual restaurant, and that works, but I can make flat pizza. Not sure how to make the taller stuff without a special pan for it.

Lou Malnati’s is a king of pizza. It is different from Giordano’s, but wow. Have the salad first. You’ll thank me later. From there, butter crust, and the crust is almost a sour-dough effect going on. the top edge, pinched up, lets you know that this (hopefully) never hit the fridge for long before it got to you. In their case, instead of sauce, it’s more like tomato chunks on top. With toppings included, oh my word. That’s a mean pizza. So good it almost hurts going down, and that’s the way I like it.

Perfect example of Chicago right there. Not too classy, not too gritty, just …perfect. It’s almost as if you went to the neighborhood and came back and the suburbs don’t exist but the bricks and the buildings and you know who you are, and nothing else matters. That comes in a bite of this pizza. Or else it did for a historian-writer out with new friends after a life-challenging and changing conference where the conversation was fun and it was simply beautiful. Lou’s is boss. I have their pizza, and I think immediately of the times that I eat it. You can’t get this in the grocery store, but that’s okay. Gino’s takes care of that for me. Giordano’s has your first taste of Chicago. Lou’s follows it up with a power punch and sends you thinking, “Man, I love this town!” Lou’s is about the people. The food just hits in a rainbow-spectacle that makes you want to dance or roll out the door.

A combination pizza made for a small Church group a little while ago included cooked chorizo with a sweeter crust. That was unexpectedly good.

That is where my pizza forays have me now. Windy City, and I’m thinking about making pizza dough and of the items that I have on-hand what would work for a pizza? I have ingredients to make dough without issue. Adding diced tomatoes, basil, …shoot. I am not a regular cheese eater, and that may be my downfall. Note to self- keep some mozzarella on-hand. Even if ricotta is more incredible on a pizza, keep the basics there.

Just like with other aspects of life- you live it, you learn the ways that it works or does not work. I prefer the wood-burning ovens to coal, although coal gives a different flavor. It’s strange to think that I now go for the oven’s effects combined with the freshest stuff that I can find, and simple but clearly good efforts. Grow your own herbs and tomatoes if you can. If there is time, figure out what you want in your sauce. Although spaghetti sauce will work in a pinch, add more herbs to it. There are never enough herbs in those sauces, and spicier makes up for the sugar that otherwise nearly overpowers. Chunky sauces on top, crushed sauces on the bottom. Cheese can become a liquid in these events, but make sure that it is fresh, too. Low fat or part-skim is fine. Anything other than quality does not a good pizza make.


Cooking By Countries: Material Culture of Gastronomic Variety

My ambitions in life are simple. They seem to idealize a 2.5 children married suburban lifestyle that I do not have. I did not intend to write about food. Although perhaps apparent to readers, I am learning that I have unusual thought processes.  That makes me grin. I cook according to organization: what is on hand for cooking turns into dishes from various cultures cross-referenced by what foods traditionally grow in those countries.

When shopping, I choose ingredients that are fresh and on sale. When planning a meal, I think of items in terms of international cuisine. Certain ingredients go better with particular countries, mainly due to their inherent growing climates and conditions. I am a huge “ethnic food” fan and find that my taste buds only balk when faced with items pickled to the point of turning black such as in the case of Korean black pickled eggs. I will try almost anything else. Those eggs leave me with a “shut my eyes and try it” quandary.

I also follow a dietary code where I do not consume alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco products, or harmful (non-prescription) drugs. Yes, this makes cooking interesting when one is a huge foodie. It also makes consumption interesting when there is an entire world’s worth of alcohol and coffee available. I am of legal age in my country and can  partake of all of it, and yet do not. This choice does not make me any better or worse than anyone else. It is simply my choice. Vegetarians or vegans do not upset me so long as the persons practicing this do not act superior to me. In many ways, I follow a similar diet with a heavy vegetable focus. I also love and consume bacon so I am not traditional Hebraic/Jewish kosher, although I adore kosher food. Although not directly part of my prescribed dietary code, I also do not consume cola drinks. This has intra-cultural meanings and ramifications that most people probably would not understand and I am not spelling out here unless asked. It was how I grew up, and I do not hold it against anyone for drinking Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, etc. I simply do not.

Okay, those are my food  ground rules for the reader to understand. I am extremely lucky that I have no known food allergies. Various family members are allergic to shrimp and strawberries. My mother was allergic to tobacco. My sister has a lactose problem inherited from my father’s side of the family. Although I will consume them when needed, I am not in favor of walnuts (bitter things!) and my sister despises green beans. When shopping for only myself, I get to choose anything within the parameters of personal tastes and dietary code. I think that everyone has their own health code, whether received from the pages of Women’s World or Real Simple, or from the Koran, Torah, or from their country’s equivalent of the FDA.

Part of me wants to learn how to cook/consume properly every vegetable in the produce section. While I learned excellent home-cook skills and refine techniques regularly, there are still ingredients that I have not yet tried. I think that the variety of foods in nature is wonderful.

How does this have anything to do with material culture or with family history? It may be surprising how much. Over Thanksgiving, there were food dishes that vanished within a few minutes and others that made leftovers a joyous occasion. When considering my family’s background, I think about what was available to an ancestor, and when. The nutrients ancestors consumed affect us now. There is a reason that medical health history grows as a field within genealogy. Finding out that a multiple-times great-grandfather drank to excess helps me stay resilient in my personal choice not to drink. While many people have no problems with drinking, I value my own family (here and now, and future potential family) too much to mess with something that could trap me and keep me a prisoner in that sense. I do not want to turn on the gene that goes with alcoholism. Other diseases like diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure also run in families and I try to eat in ways that stave off diseases. Every family member dies from causes having direct relationship to how and what they ate besides accidents.

I cannot afford to shop at expensive and ritzy grocery stores often although I love looking around and seeing what is available. I like knowing about resources. For me, that is fun. I take what I learn from reading readily made food labels and figure out how to make something myself utilizing Internet and library recipe resources, cross-referencing known traditional cultural information (cardamom is a really fun spice and goes well with coconut milk, for example) and syncing it with what I have in my fridge or cupboard. It sounds complex. After doing it for a little while, suddenly food is a dance of sense and palates. While I do not consume various products, I do not miss them, either. There are plenty of creative ways of making excellent dishes. Variety is the spice of life!