Friday, September 25, 2009

Culture & Food

Jeffrey at the Yello Blog experienced a bit of adversity the other day, as his right to discuss pizza was challenged because he is a New Orleanian. His response is here. I was due to comment, but I had too much to say, so I parked it here instead of in his comments section.

My roommate for three years back on Island City was from New Jersey, and boy, did we talk this issue to death.

The northeast coast pizza snobbery comes mainly from the perception of historical Southern eating habits.

Back in the day, Southern pizza was dominated by the fast food chains: Domino's, Pizza Hut, with a sprinkling of local places serving cheese-on-crust, cardboard tasting dough circles and calling it "pizza." Establishments that actually got the pie right were few and far between.

For northern transplants arriving in the Sun Belt, this was maddening. They were leaving a region that viewed pizza the same way New Orleanians view gumbo or roast beef po'boys, or the same way Georgians, Bamans and Carolinians view their barbecue. Their region boasted a culture of strong neighborhood pie joints, with traditional family sauces, some homemade toppings, and a particular crust style. Families would go to the same restaurants for generations, and children would take over the family restaurant from their mamas & papas. (Sound familiar?)

Once the transplants were in the south, the closest thing they could get was often Domino's, or pizza made by someone who learned how to cook pizza at Domino's. You know how when you visit another part of the country, there are all these "Cajun" or "Creole" or "New Orleans" themed restaurants run by someone who came to Mardi Gras once back in the 70's? Yeah. Like that but in reverse.

With a much higher level of integration today, that culture is changing. When I was but a lad, a place called Mama's Pizza opened down the street from my parent's house, run by some folks who knew how pie was supposed to be done. It was the first time I ever experiened crust that didn't taste like cardboard and pepperoni that didn't come from a jiffy store. The dough was luscious, the cheese was gooey and perfectly baked, the sauce was sweet and plentiful, and the toppings were prime stock. It was a culinary moment of clarity for me, one of those moments that let you in on the secret that there is a difference between "sustenance" and "food."

Such a place was too much for the mostly closed minded diners on the Island at that time, though, as they preferred their Domino's. Mama's wasn't able to sustain itself in such a location. I have never forgotten the lesson.

Over the years, there were a few places like that on St. Simons (CJ's/Moondoggy's unique fare and out-of-this-world sauce being a personal favorite), but my former rommate had tried them all over a decade, and hadn't found a pie that reminded him of home. Then, the last time I visited the Island, he demanded we share one of our meals at Sal's Neighborhood Pizzeria for some real, Jersey style pie, and it was spectacular. I have rarely had pizza so delicious. (Small world, Sal's cousin ran the pizza joint my old roommate would frequent while skipping high school.) It was some of the most flavorful pie I've ever shoved in my mouth. There were fans, too. The place was packed and you could not move around inside.

New Orleans is getting that way in that there are options as for what kind of pizza you want. My favorites are Slice, Reginelli's and Angeli, because they all serve a strong slice of pie. Slice has a thinner crust than Reginelli's that I find crispier, and Angeli's sauce is bolder than both of the Uptown joints. I find myself sitting down at all three, based on what neighborhood I'm in and what atmosphere I want. (Disclaimer, I know some of the folks involved in the Slice operation.)

I have yet to find a CJ's/Moondoggy's or Sal's in New Orleans, however. We have yet to get that unique pie that just elevates itself over the pizza landscape, where you can't get in the door during dinner hour. Maybe I just haven't found it around the Crescent City as of yet. But I'm pretty perceptive when it comes to pizzerias, and no one can call me a coward when it comes to cuisine.


1 comment:

mominem said...

Let me first berate your northeastern friends. Pizza is not a northeastern invention.

Neither is the Pizza in the northeast authentic in any sense other than a regional variation, as anyone from Chicago will attest.