A Tray in This Town.
I’ve seen food used as a proxy cultural and class warfare. There’s the typical literal appropriation and repackaging of peasant food, leading to an inevitable ‘cost correction’ in the food’s prices, something that is overtly damaging and dangerous to people’s lives. There’s the weird 1950s-level cultural appropriation, which is how I think Benihana decided it was a good idea to exist in a country without a great track record in cultural nuance. But then there’s also the more slight-y kind, the kind that assumes that we’re all on the same page when we’re really not. It’s the sort of softer, economic appropriation, when it’s assumed that because we are all in the same 15 mile radius that our lives are somehow the same. Although it’s obviously not comparable to the quinoa eaters of Peru being starved because yoga junkies in Denver insist on feeding it to their dog nor is it comparable to the looks of wide-eyed terror that white grandmas give whenever anyone suggests eating out at a Chinese restaurant, but it’s something. And it’s something that annoys the shit out of me.
My most pertinent example is when some shitbags decided it was a good idea to re-brand and reopen a restaurant, trading up from a de facto Pennsylvanian sports cave to a ‘venue’ with a more definitive Pennsylvania theme. Mind you, said restaurant is down the street from two (2) strip clubs, but the owners felt a Main Line air was in order; as such, the new restaurant’s menu now includes both oysters and artisanal ice.
I don’t completely understand the logic of having a state-themed restaurant with a menu including a food source that literally does not exist in the state — unless someone is growing oysters in the Susquehanna, but that’s some Hunger Games-level shit and at that point we’re all fucked. But it’s not the oysters that are ultimately the problem — it’s the logic of ‘artisanal ice.’
I think if you surveyed 10 average Pennsylvanians, at least nine would not even be able to pronounce ‘artisanal.’ I know I can’t, and I’m working on my second masters degree. This is not a slight on the intelligence of Pennsylvanians, but rather a flag-waving word parade regarding our low tolerance for bullshit and our pride in what we actually are. Why in the fuck would you open a restaurant celebrating a decidedly middle-class (the old kind, not the new kind that fairly wealthy people also claim to be), junk food-innovating, sweatpants-wearing state by making FANCY ICE? FANCY FROZEN WATER. UGH.
Our low tolerance for bullshit also transfers to our own local food worlds, not just for DC-type places where people discuss ‘circling back’ over memos while paying fifteen dollars for a grilled cheese. Where I’m from, pizza is a way of life. Not only does it literally support people’s livelihoods by offering an out-sized career opportunity (I swear there is a pizza place every three blocks at home), it supports our souls. Pizza is our gathering place, it is our entertainment, it is our consolation. There are blogs dedicated entirely to reviews and ‘pizza news’ of joints around Northeastern Pennsylvania (whomever made nepapizzareview.com I’m sad that we can’t get married). A friend from home runs a business now shipping a brand of pizza across the country to wistful expats of the area, among other snacks. We’re fucking serious about our pizza.
Pizza is not just pizza. Pizza is reflective of the people and its place and its being. It seems silly that a thing made for eating with your hands and that goes well with inebriating materials can be construed so many varied ways, but it’s true.
Every family has ‘their’ pizza place or places. It is considered sacrilegious to divert from the herd. You can have a ranking, a list of places that are acceptable to go if the one above it on the list is closed or too busy to handle the order (e.g. the wait is more than the time it takes to put your pants on and drive the 5 minutes down the street). You may have ‘fancy’ (read: clean) places with actual furniture that you save for special occasions, but we all have that list. It is our heritage and it is bestowed upon us at birth — we know exactly where each meal is coming from every Friday and don’t you dare fuck with it.
I grew up on Stuccio’s pizza. It’s a place on top of a hill in a sleepy little former coal-mining town. Said town has a commercial corridor that was eons ahead of its time by going ahead and resembling the worst parts of New Orleans after Katrina, but in the 1970s after our own disastrous flood that sent coffins out of the ground and floating down the middle of the streets. I vividly recall our town getting its second stoplight in my elementary school years. The potholes are bigger than basketballs. It was home.
The physical location of Stuccio’s has changed hands since I’ve grown up, which made me immediately suspicious of its quality even though the new owner (I think) is the son or cousin or nephew of the original owner. The shop is a dirty little thing with that authenticity to which many ripoff dive bars in major Eastern Seaboard cities still aspire. There’s an old Coke sign that was clearly above where someone used to smoke indoors; there’s some chairs that look like they belong in a church basement. They’re probably actually from a church basement.
Even though it’s “Joe’s” (::side eye::) now, they serve the same soupy, melty concoction of pizza ingredients that they always have. It comes in a brown box that seems like something that should be used for gifting shitty sweaters from JC Penney instead of carrying pizza. If you pick up a square slice too soon, all the cheese falls off. There is a mysterious sweetness to the sauce, which I’d like to think was accomplished by some patient chef mixing ingredients until it was just right, but I think it’s more likely that someone just dumped a fuckton of sugar into the mix once and it went over fine enough. It burns your gums and tastes like it was shot into your mouth from a hot, sexy pizza cannon. It’s good.
There’s a few other places in the region that me or my family will go to — Teberio’s, Sabatini’s, Pizza Perfect — but it’s all the same notion. These pizzas are home. They are our culture, a culture that exists in an area where a huge renaissance appeared to occur when they put in a Barnes & Noble by the mall and everyone discovered books existed. Pizza to me is occasionally fried on the bottom, suspending the laws of physics, and something that will give you a stomach ache if you’re not used to cooking oils that are older than your grandparents. It’s even more enjoyable if you are served a Yuengling on the side, a bottle given with the same tiny glass seen in every ‘nice’ pizza restaurant back home, to the point where I think there was a discount on them when everyone’s grandma started the place in the 40s. We know our pizza and how to do it right, wood paneling and crumbs on the floor and all.
So, when I live in a town like DC where pizza seems to be at best an afterthought, at worst a giant piece of cardboard you shove down your throat when drunk, or probably even more so at worst a bougie ‘artisanal’ experience, I get frustrated. I feel like this beautiful disc of authenticity is wasted on This Town. People complain about the lack of good pizza here, of course. But are any of them cultural connoisseurs of pizza? Do they remember the first time they had a certain slice (Angelo’s in Wilkes-Barre for me)? Do they still remember the phone number of their favorite place? Have they ever eaten at a pizzeria where they’re denied their choice of topping? Have they ever had pizza that hides its onions under the cheese?!
This despair belies a general despair within me, of course. I lack patience when I feel myself moving away from what I came from — figuratively, as I’m more than happy to literally exist as far away as possible from a winter hellscape that is single-digit temperatures for months of the year. But when pizza is culture for you and you keep eating Jumbo Slice, what does it all really mean? Who are you really if you can’t have the right slice that feels like home? I’m not sure I can be the same person if I keep trading up (or down) for things that aren’t me or of where I came from — pencil skirts, 401(k)s, not cursing when angry at work, having a tacit respect for authority.
Nearly every day is uncomfortable for me in this place. I don’t like how guarded and inauthentic those in power can be. I don’t understand how we can’t just get things done, instead of fucking talking them to death. There’s nothing like fixing a tire or rigging your heater so it lasts through the next cold snap. I don’t feel that same glow when I write a really good white paper. I don’t appreciate a city that sticks its fingers in its ears about its gentrification and its swagger jacking. Why are there not more people forged in the working class here? Why don’t the people making national decisions about poor people’s lives actually know any poor people?
I find comfort in the fact that there is cultural food here — mumbo sauce, the badass barbecue places, the urban corridors of Ethiopian restaurants, the suburbs of Vietnamese mall-sized food shrines. And I’ll enjoy it, but it’s not mine and it never will be. Mine is pizza, and I can’t single-handedly command a cultural uprising of respect of the great pie. I’m frustrated that there is not more pride in pizza’s power here. Just like I’m frustrated that there’s not more people like me, both at and in this place with me.
You can’t project manage a pizza. You probably shouldn’t serve it with a $80 bottle of red wine. You don’t make it an event. Woe is the restaurant that tries to serve it with artisanal fucking ice.
At home, you just make a fucking good pizza and shut the hell up about it. But inside you know what it means and how long the pizza place has been there and how your parents grew up eating there and how important it is to all of us. It means something; it’s ours, even though it’s everywhere. Even in a dying place, pizza is our culture and our way of being.