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Pizza: The Ultimate Communal Food

Published:
April 8, 2024
April 8, 2024
Read this reflective about the practice of social eating that surrounds Mike's love of pizza. For him, no pie is complete without sharing it.

A reflective narrative by Mike Jordan Laskey.

We all have those foods that, with one bite, elicit a memory. Whether we associate them with childhood or a particularly memorable event, it’s amazing how food can transport us. For Mike, that food is pizza. Not only is it tied to the feeling of home, but it’s also deeply tied to community for him. Here’s why Mike believes pizza is good for the soul.

When our family moved from New Jersey to the Washington, DC, area five years ago, the hardest non-person thing to leave behind was the pizza. 

Besides six years in the Midwest for school, I had lived my entire life in the Pizza Belt — the region of reliably delicious pies that stretches from Philadelphia up I-95 through New Jersey, New York City, and Connecticut. And even those previous six years in pizza exile were time-bound: I knew I’d be moving back to the Belt when I graduated. Our move to Maryland, though, came with no expiration date. When we arrived, I feared I might never have regular access to good pizza ever again.

A year after our move, having voluntarily eaten more Papa John’s than my younger pizza-snob self would have believed, a fellow New Jersey expat in our neighborhood recommended a place. He said it was ok — recognizable, at least. Soon after, I phoned in an order. The pie came. I carried a slice onto our back deck and took a bite. It wasn’t transcendent, but it was definitely New York style: foldable with the right type of chew and not-too-sweet sauce. This joint would probably survive in New Jersey, but it wouldn’t be the best in town. Nevertheless, the beginnings of a tear welled in the back of my eyes. I choked up a bit, though not enough to keep me from wolfing down a few slices. I never actually cried. But I almost cried.

How could a slightly better-than-average New York slice almost move me to tears? First of all, it was a relief. I had found something in Maryland that would suffice. 

Second, I think all my feelings about pizza are related to what is called the “Proustian memory,” named for the French author Marcel Proust. Early in his seven-volume novel “Remembrance of Things Past,” the narrator eats a madeleine cake dunked in tea, which triggers a long-forgotten childhood memory of eating the same type of cake, plus other memories surrounding that one. The senses, most often smell and taste, can ignite a memory, even a long-forgotten one.

My bite of pizza on the deck didn’t trigger a specific memory, but it conjured a warm feeling of home in my new state of residence. Pizza is analogous to home for me, even though my family does not have a drop of Italian blood on either side. I can close my eyes and imagine childhood Fridays, which were always pizza nights. There must have been 700, 800 of these nights in total; we rarely skipped a Friday. I can hear my mom or dad coming in from the garage after a week of work carrying two boxes, the smell floating into the living room, me turning off the TV and bouncing into the kitchen. Those meals were sacred, like church on Sundays, marking time and standing apart from the rest of the week. It was less about the pizza itself than what the pies represented: our family together, united in a short break from the churn of school and work. It was spiritual nourishment as much as physical nourishment.

As I grew up, pizza has been there for some of the most consequential moments of my life. Summers during college, I worked at a Catholic kids camp centered on community service and social justice. My experiences there helped me realize my calling to work in ministry. And so many of the life-changing conversations I had those summers with my mentors, processing my experiences and asking big questions, happened over pizza — crammed into a booth at the old DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies in Trenton, New Jersey, which was in a converted row house and didn’t even have a restroom. Or we were at Conte’s in Princeton or Pete and Elda’s down the shore, pizza pilgrimage sites where the fellowship and joy were turned up a notch or two by the shared experience of near-divine deliciousness. I’ve certainly had good conversations over non-pizza meals, but I would argue that no food is as communal as pizza. The idea of ordering or making a pizza to share is baked into its essence. There’s a reason it’s so popular for team dinners or sleepover parties or group work projects. It’s filling, tasty, convenient, crowd-pleasing, and portable.

The communal nature of pizza is the reason I don’t love those popular pizza reviews by Barstool founder Dave Portnoy. He has good pizza taste and has shone a spotlight on so many great independent shops. But his reviews most often feature him outside pizza parlors, eating by himself, and talking to the camera. Pizza alone misses the point. The combination of mozzarella, tomato sauce, and bread is an obvious winner in a vacuum. But if you’re not sharing pizza with someone else, the best thing about it is lost.

Creators:
Mike Jordan Laskey
Published:
April 8, 2024
April 8, 2024
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