You may be surprised to hear this coming from me, but I disagree with George Carlin who said the only good thing that ever came out of religion is the music. I reluctantly admit religion offers several positive things including providing an ethical and moral compass to adherents— should they choose to follow it. It also provides a feeling of belonging and community that are, for the most part, lacking in other aspects of our culture.
Though I don’t participate in any organized religion and would be hard pressed to choose between participating in a religious service and water torture, I understand why mainstream religious rituals and traditions are embraced by so many people. That’s fine for them, but I personally get less out of canned ritual and tradition, religious or otherwise, than I get out of canned pizza sauce. Still, we all need some traditions. Even this iconoclast.
I worship at the church of Pizza. Like most religions, Pizza-ism’s traditions revolve around shared meals and special foods. The sacrament of Holy Communion, or as my Christian buddy in high school called it, “swallow the leader,” is but one mode of achieving a state of grace via the oral route. For us Pizza-ists, that first bite of a piping hot, fragrant pizza is an equally soul cleansing experience.
My wife and her brother were raised in a typical white bread family that considered Spaghettios the epitome of Italian fine dining. To his good fortune, Sandy’s brother married a woman raised in the rich ethnic culinary traditions of her Italian family. When, early in our marriage, we watched Flo roll out thawed frozen bread dough, cover it with canned tomato sauce, garlic slivers and cheese and actually bake her own pizza at home, our eyes were opened and we set upon our pilgrimage toward pizza perfection.
Like Flo, I’d also faced the daunting challenge of inducing my loved one to eat real food. One of Sandy’s many charms was that she had the sweetest breath of anyone I’d ever known. Of course she did. She pretty much subsisted on chocolate and Twinkies. If anything proves love conquers all, it was her willingness to please me by choking down healthy foods. Her college friends watched with amusement during her senior year, the year of our engagement, as she valiantly sampled all sorts of exotic dishes like scrambled eggs, rice, peas and green beans.
After the epiphany of Flo’s pizza we started baking our own. Friday night pizza evolved into a holy tradition. Pizza-ism soon joined the world’s great religions. Like all religions it contains food-centric rituals. These include sharing its sanctified dish at a specific time and place, carefully selecting the appropriate toppings and engaging in the ordained method of preparation. Along with our silly private language and the constant good natured insults we exchange, our weekly pizza services are an affirmation of the deep bond we share as a congregation of two. I confess there were more than a few Sabbaths over the decades when practical considerations interfered with our holy obligation. All mortals are sinners. Let us hope our transgressions will only serve to strengthen our faith.
We started from Flo’s recipe, but having taken up bread making, I soon began to make the dough from scratch and tried many versions of tomato sauce. My favorite became a classic marinara cooked slowly and thickened to intensify the flavors. In recent years I have experimented with a slightly more sophisticated version of Flo’s method using canned whole Italian style tomatoes run through a food mill and spread on the hand-stretched dough along with garlic, salt, pepper, a little sugar and fresh basil. This sauce cooks as the pie bakes.
When I learned the famous Pepe’s Pizza of New Haven had opened a family run shop not too far from us, I viewed a You Tube video and learned that’s how they make their sauce. But they omit garlic. As far a I’m concerned, this drops them down quite a few pegs in the pantheon of Pizza-ism. No garlic on a pizza? Heresy!
Though I often daydreamed about visiting Pepe’s, I never made it there. Now, should I summon up the courage or foolhardiness to brave the Capital Beltway during dinner rush hour, that purported pinnacle of Pizza-ism is within my reach. But why risk life and limb to try it? Did not the pizza gods guide my hand to recreate Pepe’s recipe? Thus did they not reveal unto me what it tastes like? At the risk of being struck down by a bolt of lightening, I admit I like my pre-cooked sauce better. As for the dough, mine might be considered a sacrilege by ultra-orthodox New Haven acolytes. I use half whole wheat and half white flour. Our sect of Pizza-ism maintains we must nourish the body as it houses the soul.
Maybe I’ll have a chance to try Pepe’s some time, maybe not. No matter. The house of the pizza gods has many mansions. Just as there is no one “true” religion, there is no single path toward pizza salvation. We are free to use any recipe we like, but we must never forget that Pizza-ism is founded on the rock of a single inviolate commandment. Thou shalt not purchase nor consume any pizza not made at home from scratch. Yes, even Pepe’s.
I confess I have at times disobeyed that commandment, but, in my defense, it was mostly when heathen friends led me astray or I had indulged in too many pre-dinner cocktails.
Like all great religions, Pizza-ism demands much from its acolytes. It is not for everyone. Our efforts at proselytization have yielded a collection of pagan friends who are more than willing to consume our sacred dish but have no inclination to go to the trouble of preparing it. Even our own daughter, conceived and reared in the orthodoxy of our faith, has abandoned it. Not only does she order out from Domino’s or some other pit of pizza iniquity, but, sometimes when we visit, she foists that accursed pie upon us—and charges it to us to boot. We have implored her to search her soul and to make herself right with the Lord of Pizza, but, despite our fervent thoughts and prayers, she remains but one more condemned soul plodding along the path toward pizza perdition.
We will continue to hold fast to our faith for, one day, we will stand before the Head Chef of that Big Pizzeria in the sky. It is our ardent hope that, at that fateful moment, He will see fit to bestow his Grace upon us despite the certain knowledge that, not only have we partaken of forbidden pizzas, but, to our eternal shame, we even enjoyed them.