Something's eating me, folks.
At the risk of offending almost every teenager in the greater Baltimore area (and many of the adults as well), I now offer up for public consumption a critique of the one food item most likely to show up at birthday parties, to be delivered to office drones working late, or to be requested by high school students stranded on desert islands everywhere.
Yes, I am here to beat up on pizza. And in so doing, I solemnly promise not to make any cheesy jokes. (Any more cheesy jokes.)
Just to be clear: Pizza is one of my favorite foods - especially the homemade kind my wife makes with whole wheat crust and fresh vegetable toppings, but even the hot, greasy stuff from the takeout joint down the street.
No, dear reader, my purpose today is not to question pizza as a food, but rather as a phenomenon. There is a big difference.
When I took my first bite of pizza, at age 3 or 4, I was praised by the adults present for my adventurous eating habits. As I grew up in New York City (where the first U.S. pizzeria is believed to have been founded by Gennaro Lombardi in Little Italy in 1905), it rarely found its way into my home but became a favorite indulgence when hanging out with friends and on special occasions.
Note the use of the phrase "special occasions." For the first 25 or 30 years of my life, that is what pizza represented. "Special" because it was a treat, a fun, festive food that almost everyone likes. "Occasions" because of the above reasons and also the fact that - whole wheat crust and fresh vegetables notwithstanding - the average greasy slice is, let's face it, not particularly good for you.
And herein lies the meat, the very pepperoni and sausage, if you will, of my objections to the position that pizza has established in our society. It has become boring, blah - dullsville. And somehow, this has happened at a time when both the varieties of pizza and the number of things one can legitimately place on top of it have expanded exponentially.
The issue is a cultural one. Food is one of the great pleasures of life, and the diversity of cuisines available to us as Americans is something to celebrate. Continually defaulting to pizza limits our imagination when it comes to what we eat, and especially to what we serve our children. (When was the last time someone brought Thai or Ethiopian food to a kid's birthday party? Sure, they might not like it at first, but then again, they might. Unless we try it, we won't know.)
Pizza is the lowest common denominator of foods, and it is everywhere. If your neighborhood has but one restaurant, it is likely a pizza place. "Everyone" likes it, and as a result, "everyone" has to eat it - over and over and over again.
How did this happen? How did something that used to represent fun and festivity and special times become so ... ordinary?
All I can speak to is my own experience. Until a few years ago, ordering pizza was still a relative rarity in my household. Then, several things happened together that changed that state of affairs. My son was on a soccer team that practiced on Wednesday afternoons, leaving little time for cooking. Around the same time, we discovered a ridiculously good deal at a local takeout place: three medium pizzas with one topping apiece for $15.
At least during soccer season, Wednesday night became takeout pizza night in our household; what was once rare became routine. This was also around when our teenage daughter discovered both a pizza joint and a video store within walking distance of our house and began holding pizza and movie parties with her friends at our house most weekends.
But the true ubiquity of pizza in our lives was brought home to me when it became apparent that my 12-year-old son (who lists "eating pizza" among his interests on Facebook) had recently partaken on no fewer than seven out of eight days. The accounting:
•Wednesday: ordered in for family dinner
•Thursday: provided as a celebratory snack after his performance at a theater festival
•Friday: given away free for lunch at the school cafeteria (there was a surplus, apparently)
•Saturday: holiday party at friends' house
•Sunday: NO PIZZA (I know, it would make a better story if there weren't a day without pizza, but I cannot tell a lie.)
•Monday: served for breakfast (!) at school
•Tuesday: served for breakfast, again
•Wednesday: dinner to celebrate last gathering of an after-school class (And no, we did not also have pizza at home that Wednesday.)
See what I mean?
Well, I have to wrap things up here. I'm writing this on my daughter's birthday, and she's waiting for me to get home so we can take her out for dinner.
Guess what we're having.