Yes, We Believe That Pizza Is Meh
As expected, some people were furious about pizza’s inclusion on this past weekend’s Meh List, a much-beloved and -maligned part of the One-Page Magazine. Even our own colleagues rethought their opinions of Samantha Henig, fellow Meh Lister, and me. But now that we’ve said it, we’re standing by it. Pizza is meh. This was not a mistake. My own philosophy of the mehness of pizza has been brewing for a long time. Let’s start with a mental exercise.
Picture this: You coach a T-ball team that has just finished its last game of the season. You’re a nice coach, so you decide to treat your team of exhausted 5-year-olds to a celebratory meal. But where? (You’ve already called Balthazar — they’re booked.)
Consider the criteria at work here. What’s a food inoffensive to even the most unsophisticated palates? A food that comes in massive quantities because its ingredients are humble? A food that is easily divided into equal parts, satisfying children’s obsession with fairness? A solution starts to form in your mind.
And then, like so many T-ball coaches before you, you pull into a strip-mall parking lot and find a spot in front of the local Chuck E. Cheese. There, you will feed a massive group of picky children under the hiss and whir of a grotesque animatronic rock band, and it will be fine. Pizza is right at home here in a suburban strip mall because pizza, like a strip mall, is fundamentally meh — good, but rarely great; fine, but seldom bad. As such, it found a home on this weekend’s Meh List, joining the ranks of all that is beneath our regard. And even though pizza’s essential mehness was self-evident to us, the decision was not made hastily. The Meh List is not an outpost for inanity, glibness and trolling.
The Meh List can’t only catalog the pedestrian suckiness of everyday life — it would end up just as boring as everyday life. At its best, the Meh List also serves as a corrective to hype, excitement or outrage over things that are ultimately unimportant. Of late, pizza has become just such a thing. Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio was photographed eating pizza with a knife and fork, leading to a deluge of online caterwauling and New Yahk authenticity posturing — not unlike Jon Stewart’s act from the last time a notable New Yorker (Donald Trump) ventured to eat pizza with utensils near a camera.
The de Blasio incident was like a lagging coda to an earlier overcooked Internet debate on pizza, spurred, somewhat tangentially, by our chief national correspondent, Mark Leibovich. In the opening lines of The Times’s review of Leibovich’s book “This Town,” David M. Shribman lamented the Washington metro area’s complete inability to “produce a single decent slice of pizza.” Hooboy. The rebuttals were swift, and eventually culminated with the Gawker editor Max Read’s “Pizza Belt” theory, which stated, more or less, that your odds of finding decent pizza are better than a coin toss only in a narrow strip of land running from southern New Jersey to central Rhode Island. (Chicagoans were not pleased.)
I grew up in a midsize city in Northern California called San Francisco. Much as in New York, there are businesses there where you can order a slice of pizza from larger, premade pie sitting in a display case. And just as in New York, it usually tastes pretty good. Unlike New York, however, San Francisco doesn’t exactly abound with pies with buffalo chicken and ranch dressing or entire chicken Caesar salads just dumped right on top of them. So I suppose New Yorkers obsessed with the notion that it’s impossible to find edible cheese-bread outside the five boroughs do have a point, provided this is what they’re talking about.
The categorical error New Yorkers make is mistaking ubiquity for superiority, much as certain Californians do with pot. Just because something is everywhere, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all that great. Certainly no one argues that bulletproof Chinese food is the best sort, and yet you’ll find General Tso’s and other forms of sweet, sticky meats in literally every neighborhood of the city. The same goes for halal carts and Boar’s Head Salsalito turkey. You don’t hear New York chauvinists constantly rushing to their defense from slights both real and perceived.
That the Internet’s constant bickering about pizza is so outsize compared to the food’s relative innocuousness made our editorial decision an easy one. So before you get angry, as many already have, just remember: You liked pizza when you were 5, because pizza — like anything a 5-year-old likes (baseball cards, shoe-tying, garbage trucks) — is inherently meh. It’s basically bread with cheese and sauce on it, and maybe some other stuff. It’s like a sandwich with fewer ingredients and less topological complexity. Or maybe nachos, but more contiguous. Go ahead and eat pizza (it usually tastes good!), but it is now, officially, unworthy of being discussed.
Originally published at 6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com on January 27, 2014.