Sat 20 Nov 2010
Pizza Hut in Beirut, 2009; photograph by Daniel Martin Varisco
Being Italian by family name, and Sicilian at that, I feel qualified to talk about pizza. Whether or not pizza really was invented in Italy, Italian Americans have made pizza parlors the strip mall contender with Chinese takeouts. Pizza was not invented once, any more than the wheel. Once you start baking flat bread, and that goes back millennia, all you need is a few of the right kinds of droppings and the rest is culinary evolution. In the current global economy food has been ethnicized and consumer friended around the world. The Pizza Hut, with humble beginnings a half century ago in Kansas (yes Kansas!), now boasts franchises throughout the Middle East. There is even a website in Arabic. Of course, real Italians (those with the requisite last names) go to local parlors rather than give in to the fast food giant.
But this commentary is not really about pizza; it’s about what we choose to eat rather than what we actually eat. Choosing Pizza Hut in Beirut is branding yourself, even if you convince yourself it tastes good. Most of us have probably consumed hundreds of pizzas, at least those who are into their teenage years and beyond, but how many really stand out? I personally like thin crust, which goes against my Sicilian roots, but then my pure Sicilian grandfather spent a lot of time running around lower Manhattan from his base on Elizabeth Street. There is one pizza that stands out above all others in my memory. The year was 1971 and I was in Jerusalem for an archeological dig at the Armenian Gardens. One day, walking through the Old City of Jerusalem I stopped at one of those delightful culinary holes in the wall and ordered a pizza. It was goat cheese and the crispest crust anyone could imagine. I can still taste this one after so many decades. But is it the memory of the taste or the context that freezes the moment in my mind? I have no idea where this place was and doubt the humble Arab chef is still at work in the same place, so there is no way to search for the long lost paradise pizza of my youth.
When I was visiting Beirut a year ago, I snapped a picture of a local Pizza Hut. I am not sure if this was out of nostalgia for that long lost pizza of the past or because I always find imported American fast food to be distasteful. I remember taking a photograph of a Pizza Hut near an old palace (now a museum) in Aden, and also one that is diagonal to the huge new mosque built by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa. I may have sampled the latter, but I have no memory left on my taste buds. My disdain was fueled in part by memory of a KFC in Sanaa way back in the late 1970s; it was more expensive and not nearly as good as the rotisserie chickens at every baladi restaurant along the main drag.
Sociologists write about the McDonaldsization of serving food, branding our appetites in such a way that taste no longer matters. Now around the world constant advertising can set off our burger alarm, biggie size us up and fast food talk us out of any traditional edible complex. But my taste buds remind me that the strip mall tease of a pizza place and a Chinese take-out is not very satisfying. If you are the kind of person who only eats to live, then I am forced to conclude you are rather ill-bread and I pita you.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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