PIZZA WAS created more than 100 years ago by an Italian chef who combined the colors of the Italian flag (red, green and white) in a dish to please the king's consort.
No longer a royal delicacy, pizza is today as common as the penny, as easy to find and just about as cheap. And it is so American that we continue to believe we invented it.
The large, flat cardboard box has replaced the hearth and the television set as the icon around which the American family gathers. If we surveyed Americans, I'm sure we'd find that families are more likely to have a regular pizza night than to go to church on Sunday.
If not for pizza, the frustrated American mother, unwilling to scrape another supper into the sink, would send her children to bed hungry. The fact that there are no dishes to wash is a bonus for her.
Pizza is the hard currency of our relationship with these children. We can trade the promise of a Domino's pizza for their cooperation in everything from housework to homework. (They are more cheered by the sight of the delivery guy's car than they are by their father returning from a business trip.)
Pizza is how we get out of mealtime jams created by their busy lives. Pizza is how we make a shopping trip special when the purchases will not be for them.
Pizza lubricates the social life of adults, too. We can always get together by agreeing to order pizza for the kids; our children will go anywhere as long as we tell them there will be pizza for the kids. You can serve your guests any fancy meal you want because you can always order pizza for the kids. Having a children's birthday party? Order pizza for the kids.
Pizza is our excuse to get together as a family. We think we are having quality time with our children; they think we are eating pizza. Even teens will agree to be seen with their parents in public if the family is going out for pizza. Dinner out with the family isn't ruinously expensive, because you are only having pizza. And you can usually get a beer in a pizza joint.
You can teach your children to cook using pizza. The first "meal" they make in a middle-school home economics class is the classic pizza bagel. This skill, more than staying home without a sitter, makes them feel all grown-up and independent.
Pizza is the one food that is not particularly good out of the microwave, so a child must learn to preheat an oven and to find the middle oven rack to cook a pizza. Doctoring your own pizza with a little more cheese, oregano and pepperoni is the height of gourmet cookery. I don't know if much more in the way of kitchen skill is needed these days.
I could pave my yard and carpet my house in the pizza my family has eaten during the last year alone. Really. Pizza Today magazine says Americans consume more than 100 acres of pizza every day, or 350 slices per second. Now that is fast food.
Frozen pizza is the hottest item in the grocery store -- sales are up 40 percent in the last six years, according to a definitive history of pizza in Smithsonian magazine. But it had better be Tombstone and not one of those shrink-wrapped numbers from the deli department. My children wouldn't eat one of those if they were starving.
Pizza also serves as a universal and very elastic unit of measure. The whining response: "I just had a slice of pizza," can be interpreted to mean "I'm not hungry for whatever it is you are thinking about serving" or "I'm starving. How long does it take to get a meal around here, anyway?" When spoken by an adult, "I just had a slice of pizza" means "I didn't break my diet, I just bent it a bit."
My fellow mothers and I frown and complain that all our children ever want to eat is pizza, but we are not being fair, because if we are honest, that's all we ever want to serve them. And if we believe that tomato sauce is a vegetable, we can do it without remorse. When you serve pizza, you can be sure their bellies are full, and that, along with an occasional multivitamin, will make you feel that you are a good mother.
After all, if that Italian chef a century ago had been asked to create a diet staple for the American family instead of a treat for a queen, he could not have done better than pizza.
Pub Date: 8/17/97