Pizza As Religion
When our oldest son turned 8, certain events occurred that turned our family away from the Catholic Church. Unwilling to join another religious community just yet (we needed a break), we purchased the James Bondbox set. All five of us, aged 40 to 4 tingled with excitement on Saturday nights, knowing that Sunday mornings meant a giant breakfast (waffles, bacon, toast, espresso, fruit, eggs, homemade sweet rolls) and James Bond. Still, I began to think about another religion to serve as a placeholder during this fallow spiritual period. I thought about equalizers, commonality, and I tried to articulate to myself those things that truly bring communities together.
We lived and worked at a boarding high school: pizza was everywhere, all the time. It could be eaten hot, cold, simple with cheese and sauce, or fancy with prosciutto and figs. It could be consumed by candlelight with wine or cold as breakfast with a glass of orange juice before a pre-season practice. Rich kids ate it. Poor kids. Old and young, all races, all cultures. Pizza was the equalizer in our upper-class Connecticut community, a community in which we teachers played with the toys but served, rather than participated. One night we all watched Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina: when my son asked what it was about, I fumbled and talked about the chauffeur and his daughter living above the garage adjacent to the estate, then articulated to him what I realized right then: “It’s about us.”
Just down the (beautiful, groomed, safe, sidewalked) road was a pizza place that delivered its pies in classic square white boxes with the logo stamped small on the top in black ink, like a ransom note. It was very Village, very Soho. The pies were delicious, and it was closest to school, so these were the boxes that appeared all over campus in droves.
I began to collect them, keeping the cleaner ones (white pies, margheritas), and discarding the messier ones (pepperoni, three cheese). I began to create work on the boxes using materials left behind by my students after classes, fastening on them pieces of paper and forgotten globs of paint and hot glue, instead of sweeping the scraps into the trash. I used items I could lay my hands on in the claptrap junk drawers of our home: duct tape, thread, rubber bands, chunks of wood, buttons, crayons, matches, twist ties, a couple of checkers, mini-golf pencils, pennies, push pins, string. I loved the equalizing shape of the surface, I loved that these raw materials- the pizza boxes- had been hiding in plain sight, and I loved that through my artistic visions and physical work, I was changing their identity, their purpose.
I began to work on the boxes in groups of three: triptychs. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. My show was taking shape, as I created shrines to pizza as a faith, as a means of communication, of assuaging hunger, of small, harmless deviances that bound people together (hey! let’s skip sit-down and hide out in the dorm and order pizza!). I had the show in my classroom, but I would have liked to have had it in a cozy, brick-walled kitchen: like the beautifully chaotic one in the film Stealing Beauty, or in the restaurant in the film Big Night.
It should be no surprise that pizza has maintained a place of honor, front and center in my family, 10 years later, at a different boarding school. It continues to serve as an equalizer, but now we make it from scratch, personalizing our pies and asking our (delighted) guests to do the same. I make fresh dough using oat flour, flaxseed and olive oil to offset the white flour. I use a good IPA or sometimes a Guinness in the dough to help along the yeast. We cut the dough into pieces with scissors, which, after it has risen and been pinched down and risen and punched again, is strangely satisfying.
My husband is the master; he makes the most beautiful professional-looking pies in the stained toaster oven- with sausage, cheese, sauce, fresh garlic, hot peppers cooked in olive oil, salt pepper and maple syrup, and something green (fresh Italian parsley, fresh rosemary or basil). I usually make an odd-shaped white pie with zucchini or spinach, garlic and mozzarella, and our children tend toward pies whose shapes resemble various continents with simple toppings. My oldest son hogs the garlic. My youngest son will share fried mushrooms with me, as long as they’re not from a can and seared ahead of time. My daughter steals everyone’s uneaten crusts. We press and assemble and cook and talk and sip. When the pies are crispy and hot, we slice them (east coast triangle style or Chicago grid style?) and watch a movie. When the movie ends, some of us are asleep. The others clear the trays and feed the protein scraps to Custer, our German Shepherd. And somehow, when we’ve all made our way tucked into our beds with full bellies and the film to think about, the windows always open for fresh air, no matter what the temperature, we are safe: we are a contented clan not far removed from the family that burrowed under blankets on the orange velvet couch a decade ago when my husband and I could still tuck all three kids into the crooks of our arms and legs, everyone buried under blankets, safe from the summer heat, autumn leaves, rain and snow outside.
Our family has begun to peel away, like snake skins, leaving behind translucence. Our oldest is at college, and next year our daughter will most likely do the same, unless she defers and gaps. As our family shrinks, we hold fast to daily joys. If we’re luckier than hell, it will grow again years from now; swelling and browning and nourishing and simple. On pizza nights the sun sets and we sit together in the darkness, our faces lit by the glow of the screen, munching chunks of hot bread and cheese, together, imperfect, filling bellies and touching shoulders.