Meandering Thoughts on Pizza Toppings

Once upon a time, there was pizza, and it came with toppings on it, usually only one or two at a time, of types that were easily removed by children who didn’t like them, ever. You could get pepperoni, onion, mushroom, sausage, meatball, garlic, peppers, black olives, and clams. (If you’re not from New Haven, you’re going, “Clams?” Just shut up and keep reading, okay? I said clams and I meant clams. By the way, it’s not so easy to remove clams from clam pizza, so if your child won’t eat clam pizza, get them a little plain cheese pie; more clam pizza for you that way.) People would say, “I’ll have a small mushroom and pepperoni pie, double mushrooms, please” if they wanted to feel they were eating healthy. In New Haven, you also had to specify if you wanted red sauce on your pie, and say if you wanted cheese, too, because these things are not a given. This isn’t Domino’s, for god’s sake.

Then time went on. More vegetables became standard pizza items, you saw spinach and broccoli pizzas. I remember in the late 1980s my mother and I would go to Est Est Est and order a white pie with spinach and garlic and feel pretty pleased with ourselves, because we were eating pizza, which isn’t serious food, but we were also getting health vegetables, because of all that spinach.
You could get pizzas with chicken on them; then buffalo chicken. In New Haven, the potato pizza was born, and kept an open secret for an astonishingly long time. Somewhere along the way, some smart aleck began to put pineapple and bacon on pizza, and I’m not going to discuss that any further. Basically, things started to get weird. The weird seemed to be focused regionally. For example, I’m told that there are places where people routinely eat their pizza with a side of ranch dressing, which has to be a 1980s development, because, well, ranch dressing?

I don’t understand this, and I’m not going to dwell on it.

Then we hit a new age of hipster pizzas — all basically borne from the first era of weird pizzas, like the California pizzas Wolfgang Puck got famous for doing in the 1980s. This is pretty much where we are now, and it’s a mixed blessing. Sure, you can find smoked salmon and caviar pizzas. But there are pizzas out there that are, let’s just be honest, far too ongepotchket for their own good. They often involved vegetables that were not handled properly in the first place, and hence arrive at your table somehow burnt and hideously undercooked at the same time. The Holy Trinity of pizzerias in New Haven don’t get too involved with this kind of thing, but other places are straining for novel combinations of things to put on their pies, and while the combinations are often tasty — they strike me as morally dubious.

There, I said it. There is morally dubious pizza out there.

I don’t mean simply bad pizza, which is certainly a thing that people eat. I mean, pizzas that are made with no basic respect for the form. At some level, is a pizza just a flat disc of bread you can put anything on and bake in a hot oven? Yes, and no. I mean, it is; but there are certain things that just don’t seem very pizza-y to me, no matter how good they taste. A prime example of this, an item sold at a local pizzeria I don’t go to because I find their pies so salty they hurt to eat, is a pie loaded with barbecued pulled pork, roasted corn kernels, cheddar cheese, and mashed potato. I’m sure it’s delicious. But why is it on a pizza? I mean, wouldn’t it be better on a hard roll? This is morally dubious pizza. Or pizza with tofu and vegan cheese on it. No no no. This is not pizza, this is a sad excuse for food.

Occasionally we are faced with a novelty pizza topping that seems so obvious that I will say to my family, “Why have we never done this?” I’m no stranger to putting somewhat unusual things on pizza. Zucchini or yellow squash pizzas are totally standard fare here, and have been for as long as I can remember (I started making zucchini pizzas when I lived alone, because I could make a pizza and eat some for dinner and bring some to work for lunch; it was easy to eat, not too messy, and delicious even at room temperature). We have been known to cut up slices of leftover meatloaf into small chunks and put them on pizza (what’s the difference between meatballs and meatloaf? Just the shape, really). I have put meatloaf and leftover mashed potatoes on pizza. We have drained cans of chick peas and made pizzas with chick peas, black olives, and garlic. It’s true that not everyone liked the pea shoot pizza I made some years back, but I still think it was a good idea and I would make it again. I make pizzas with leftover roasted Brussels sprouts on them, shredded quickly with a knife so that they can be scattered more evenly across the pie. I like to think I’m gently inventive with pizza toppings, in other words, but it had never once occurred to me to put cauliflower on a pizza. But why not? I don’t know; but the thought never came to me until a couple years ago, because of a pizzeria that opened a few blocks away from us.

This small pizza place had been a pizzeria for as long as we’ve lived in the neighborhood — the kind of joint you can go to get a cheap Greek pizza for ten bucks, and if someone wanted a meatball sub, they could get that, and, sure, what the hell, you could get an order of fries, too. Then the Greek pizza place closed, and new owners came in. They cleaned up the joint, installed a serious pizza oven, and now it’s seriously not a Greek pizzeria anymore. Now it’s the kind of place that has ongepotchket hipster pizza, and ten bucks will get you pretty much nothing. Bring your credit card. They’ve got some ridiculous-sounding things on the menu (which isn’t limited to pizza — there are also some small plate type things, and sandwiches), but they also have some damned fine pizzas. The first time we went, with low expectations, but hopeful and hungry, we got a small pepperoni, a small Brussels sprout/balsamic vinegar, and a small cauliflower. And you know what? They were all great. My husband doesn’t even particularly like cauliflower, and I think he ate three pieces of that pizza. “How come we never make this at home?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s good!” They fry their cauliflower before they put it on the pizza, but I couldn’t think of a good reason why I couldn’t just parboil the vegetable and drain it before putting it on a pizza. It’s delicious, it’s filling, and it’s probably more healthful than meatloaf… though, come to think of it, a meatloaf and cauliflower pizza could be a very good thing indeed. Since then, I’ve parboiled cauliflowers and made excellent pizzas with it. I’ve also put leftover creamed cauliflower on pizza. Once you start mucking around with pizza toppings…. it’s a slippery slope.

Then there was the pizza we ate in Northampton, Massachusetts. We are fond of Pinocchio’s, on Main Street, which makes excellent pizza — thicker crust than New Haven pizza, but tasty — and seems to specialize in making up these weird combinations for the fun of it. I imagine that the staff enjoys getting slightly baked and then sitting around with notepads dreaming up weird pizza topping combinations. There was a barbecued chicken, gorgonzola, and spinach pie the last time we were there. It was good, for a bite or two, but I can’t imagine wanting to eat an entire slice of it. The one that really slayed me, though, I had to order, because I just thought it was so ridiculous: it was a tortellini pizza. And you know what? It was wonderful. Again, we all had a bite and said to each other, “so, is there a reason why we never make this at home?”

Pizzas I have made at home that people pay lots of money for in fancy restaurants: pizza with fig jam, goat cheese, red onion, and olives; pizza with mushrooms, capers, and caramelized onions; spinach and olive; pizza with honey, pistachios, goat cheese, red onion, and sliced fresh figs; pizza with spinach and goat cheese; pizzas with honey-whipped goat cheese and pistachios. For years, when getting pizza out, we made a point of getting an eggplant pizza if it was available, because eggplant pizza is one of the best things in the world (especially if you get it with double onions and some garlic), but I’d never made it myself because I have a deep-seated and reasonable fear of cooking eggplant. Well, guess what. Recently, it dawned on me that if I roasted the fuck out of eggplant slices before making a pizza, I could do it. I’m not someone who’s good with eggplant, but even I can slice an eggplant and put slices of it on a tray and put it in a hot oven and let it cook for twenty minutes. As long as the eggplant winds up mushy-soft, you can totally put those slices onto pizza dough and make yourself an excellent, excellent pie. Last month my husband made eggplant parmigiana, which is a real pain in the ass to make, and there was a little bit leftover. Not a lot — not enough to make a meal of — but after looking at it sitting forlornly in the fridge for three days it dawned on me that the solution to the leftover eggplant parmigiana problem is to use it as a pizza topping. Good lord was that delicious. I need him to make it again so I can make the pizza again.

I suffer from real and tangible guilt and embarrassment at making some of these pizzas. A pizza with barbecued chicken on it is stupid. It just is. On the other hand, in the name of using up leftovers, I don’t regard it as stupid, I regard it as clever and frugal. I think it’s all about context. I wouldn’t go out of my way to order a whole barbecued chicken pizza, but I’ll definitely make one if it means we’re having a decent meal and I’m cleaning out the fridge at the same time. I am at heart a purist. But I’m also pragmatic. Making a pizza at home is often a matter of opening the fridge and going, “What can I use?” The morally dubious pie — the pizza decked out with leftover creamed spinach, olives, red onion, and duck bacon — is morally dubious, indeed. But it’s also really fucking good to eat. Most importantly, the greater good is served. Which is to say, Dinner is served, and we are all fed, and go to bed happy.

And, bonus, it’s easy to pack leftover pizza in the kid’s lunch for school the next day. Nothing morally dubious about that.




Acquired Tastes: or, On Acquiring Tastes

This Old Hausfrau grew up in the Northeast, specifically, in southern Connecticut, and this means many things in many ways, but probably not what the average American who might get lost and land here might think.

I did not grow up eating WASP home cooking, as it had evolved to be by the 1970s; there were no tuna noodle casseroles or Jell-O salads or desserts in my upbringing, unless they were served to me at school. I am the child of New Yorkers, who came to Connecticut in the 1960s, and I grew up in a college town. Hence, as my brother once observed, we were weaned on won ton soup (there were at least three decent and two excellent Chinese restaurants within a five block radius of our apartment building). I thought bagels and bialys and knishes were normal; I never once regarded Italian food as “ethnic” food —  I really don’t understand it when people have a hard time twirling spaghetti; and while I knew there were people who ate lobsters and clams and oysters, I grew up eating none of these things, because my parents, while perhaps not particularly observant of the laws of Kashrut, never served these things at home or urged us to consider eating them when out in the world. I cannot prove it but I believe that the only way I ever ate clams, until I was in my 20s, was by having them on white clam pizzas from Sally’s or Pepe’s in Wooster Square. (And if you don’t know about white clam pizza, I urge you to do a Google search, and that’s all I’m saying about that right now.)

One other thing that was entirely foreign to me was okra. To say I grew up in an okra-free household is a vast understatement. I imagine if you’d asked my mother, “Can we have okra for dinner tonight?” she’d have responded by asking, “What’s okra?” and then pressing her hand to your forehead and asking if you felt okay. It was not served in any restaurant I can remember going to in my youth, it was not served in the homes of any of my friends. As I grew up and began to read cookbooks I grasped that many people regarded okra as a normal thing, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20s and a place called Jaylyn’s Fried Chicken opened on Park Street in New Haven that I understood what this was all about.

Jaylyn’s had two booths you could sit at; it was really a takeout place. They had excellent fried chicken, but the reason I went there (and I went there often) was that they had the best sides in town. It was kind of embarrassing to order food there because I didn’t really want the chicken. What I wanted was biscuits and macaroni and cheese (which was not Kraft, but some seriously good stuff of the béchamel school) and greens and FRIED OKRA. They would sell you a Chinese takeout box of fried okra; you could get a small carton for two dollars and a big carton for $3.50 and believe me I always got the big carton, after realizing that the small carton was simply not sufficient.

Jaylyn’s closed, and I’ve never found another place nearby where I could get fried okra. I can now occasionally find good okra dishes on the menus in Indian restaurants, but it hasn’t yet reached the tables of the fancier joints in town. No pizza place has decided to put okra on their pies (which is understandable) and the gastropub type places haven’t decided to add fried okra to their lists of appetizers, on the theory that if people will eat fried pickles, by God, they’ll surely eat fried okra.

And frozen okra, I learned the hard way, is pretty vile.

So I have been leading a largely okra-free existence for the last fifteen years or so. The occasional treat, when I can get it. But not much okra. The Gourmensch doesn’t like it, so I don’t cook it at home. But a few months ago, on a shelf of jarred specialty items at the local Italian grocery store, among the jars of giardiniera and pickled onions and pickled eggplant, I noticed a fat, obviously not-from-Italy, jar of pickled okra. I automatically reached for it and brought it home. I had this idea: wouldn’t it be great to use these as a garnish in mixed drinks?

But not everyone agreed with me. And so the jar languished in the cabinet, until the inevitable day when I finally decided, “Damnit, I’m just going to eat these things on their own, for the sheer pleasure of it.” And I offered one to my daughter, who takes after her father, and loves most pickled things.

“Yuck,” she said, turning her head.

“Dude, you can’t be serious,” I said. “These things are great.”

“No!” she said. “Can I have some crackers?”

Months went by. Once in a while, when I was really hungry but didn’t want to eat something substantial because it was too close to dinner, I would take the jar out of the fridge and eat maybe two or three pieces of pickled okra, thinking of Julia Child. Apparently, when she was starved between meals, she would eat a dill pickle or two to stave off the hunger pangs. It does seem to work — you don’t eat a lot of pickle, but just a little will keep you going.

The jar’s contents dwindled. I was down to the last six okra pods a few days ago when I pulled out the jar; I was cooking dinner and needed to eat something lest I start eating large hunks of cheese intended for the macaroni and cheese I was preparing. My daughter was sitting nearby and saw me pull out a pickle and bite into it. She heard the crunch. “What’re you eating?” she asked.

“Okra,” I said. “Pickled okra.” I took another bite. “These are so good, it’s ridiculous.”

“Yuck,” she said.

“No way. You do NOT know what you’re talking about,” I said, biting into another piece. “Plus,” I added, “they’re cute. Look!” I showed her how when you bite into it, it looks like a little bitty wagon wheel inside.

“What is it like?” she asked me.

“It’s sharp and a little bit crunchy, but not crispy like a potato chip; and then the seeds kind of crunch in your teeth,” I said. “Do you want to try a little bite?”

She nodded, but slowly. I held out a pod and she took a tiny bite. She looked unconvinced. But then she asked for a second bite. I let her have one, and then I popped the rest of the pod into my mouth. I saw her look longingly at the jar.

“Do you want a whole one for yourself?” I asked. She nodded. I pulled one out and gave it to her, and then I noticed at the bottom of the jar was one very small, baby okra pod that had somehow fallen to lay flat across the bottom, instead of standing upright like the rest of the okra.

“And I tell you what,” I said. “You can have the last one, that little baby at the bottom.” She smiled at that. I fished it out for her and she gobbled up the okra pods.

The jar was finished. She looked at it and asked, “Will you buy more?”

I said I would. “In the meantime,” I said, “what if we sliced up a cucumber and put it in the jar to soak in the okra pickle brine?”

She thought this was an excellent idea, and we’ve been eating those cucumber slices up. Now the cucumber slices are gone, and today she announced to me, as I sliced another cucumber, that at Thanksgiving, we ARE, ABSOLUTELY, going to have pickled okra and pickled cucumber slices on the table.

Fair warning. Now, if only we can get the Gourmensch on board.


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