Log in

reading tiger

A Grump About Pizza and Art

Call it good pizza or bad pizza, but not "not pizza."

Call it good art or bad art, but not "not art."

And then support your argument.

People who have known me for a long time know that I have a story about the "art/not art" version of this discussion. It involved meeting my future and soon to be former father-in-law for the very first time. We spent the day walking through the Art Institute of Chicago, including the student exhibitions, and then retiring to dinner at a fancy teppanyaki restaurant, where Father Figure, once a fairly serious artist himself who gave it all up to be a big biomedical executive instead, asked the dinner conversation question, "what is art?" as a backdoor way of defining the stuff he saw and didn't like at the student exhibition out of existence.

No fool I, I dropped out of the conversation almost immediately and chatted with his wife instead. I was Judged for this later, but whatever.

Certain kinds of people *love* the "x/not x" argument. It's an argument about classification and definition. It feels pleasingly abstract and objective. Intellectual. Smart. I saw these all the time in smart-kid circles. I kinda have permanent eyeroll as a result.

"Good/bad" is harder because it involves judgment. People try to avoid this argument with the "it's all taste" dodge. Not true. "I like/I don't like" is about taste. "Good/bad" is about quality. Alas, many people are very bad at distinguishing these concepts, so they fall back on the easier "x/not x" paradigm instead.

"x/not x" is also a really handy cover for rank snobbery. Come up with an arbitrary definition that fits your favorite thing to a T, and everything else is second-rate automatically! It's lazy, but satisfying. Like a good slice of cheap pizza.

Yes, we're back to pizza. Yes, we're heading exactly where you think we're heading, but we're not covering the usual territory. Plus we'll take a fun historical swerve at the end if you're willing to hang in there that long.

Because my family is from Chicago and I went to school there and also lived there for, eh, half a decade, I often find myself recruited for the "Chicago pizza is/is not Real Pizza" discussion, Hometown Pride Edition.

The small problem with this is that I didn't even know there was a deep-dish style of pizza that the rest of the world called "Chicago style pizza" until I went to college in Chicago. This is despite the fact that every time we visited Chicago when I was a child -- and we visited a lot, living only four hours away -- on our first day we ate White Castles for lunch and pizza for dinner. It was a ritual.

Only, see, we ate the square-cut thin-crust pizza with no rim that is apparently known as "St. Louis Pizza" to taxonomists. To me, though, that was "Chicago pizza," because it was the pizza we ate in Chicago and, at the time, could be found nowhere else I had ever been. (Still haven't been to St. Louis.)

So I am not the best partisan for the Chicago Pizza Wars. I like deep-dish pizza, but you don't have to. I like lots of other kinds of pizza, too. You can even argue that many renditions of Chicago pizza are soggy, overly heavy with cheese, and generally nasty. I won't even tease you about orange grease-stained napkins in response. I will, however, get my guff up if you say it's "not pizza." Especially if you're from New York. Yeah, Chicagoans have a chip on their shoulder about their pizza the size of the stockyards. Yeah, it's related to how they got the nickname "Second City" and the inferiority complex that accompanies it. It's not particularly sporting to keep knocking it off, though. (It took me forever to figure out that "New York style pizza" is called "pizza" where I come from, which is not Chicago. You guys won the culture wars on this one. Go rest on your laurels already.) But worse, much worse, at least in my eyes, is that it's lazy. Yeah, the iconic pizza (see above re: "New York style") has a rim, a thin crust, cheese on the top and tomato sauce underneath. Yeah, Chicago pizza has the sauce on top and looks weird. Yeah, I have friends and loved ones who think that pizza without sauce isn't pizza either, and so I call it "savory flatbread" when I cook it at home and they eat it up, yum. So whatever.

One last note: the pizza/not pizza debate also brings to mind a moment from high school, where my high school newspaper published reviews of all the major pizza joints in town. Including Bell's Greek Pizza. Can you guess what they said? "This is not really pizza" and went on to say it didn't have the iconic pizza look and that's why. I was best friends with Pete Bell, the elder son of the owner, at the time of publication. I can still see the metaphorical steam coming out of his ears. "It's *Greek* pizza," he insisted, red-faced. You could tell that this was a discussion he'd had to endure too often already, probably every other weekend from behind the counter with drunken college students, at a guess. Well, it sold well enough, and Bell's Greek Pizza is still in business, so I guess he and his family got the last laugh.


There are things which it's easy to say "that's not pizza about," but people don't usually bother saying it about them. This computer is not pizza, and neither is a bowl of yogurt with berries.

I can see saying "that's not pizza!" in an aggrieved tone if I was promised pizza and then handed a cheeseburger or a green salad. But very few people would say "here's your pizza" as they gave me a burger, let alone expected me to believe it: some might say "sure, we'll go for pizza" and then take me to a place that served only burgers and french fries, because that's what they really wanted and they thought it would be easier to hand me the fait accompli of the burger joint.

But it's easier to define pizza than to define art, of course. (Pizza is a food, involving any of a variety of things baked on a crust. Neither cheese nor tomato is essential, though usually at least one will be there in some form.)
I actually find art relatively easy to define, and pizza harder, though "flatbread with savory toppings" will do.

My general working definition: Art is the deliberate arrangement of material primarily but not exclusively for aesthetic purposes.

Thank you for this post. I have been guilty of the pizza/not pizza, (though I also raise my hackles at art/not art) and it is incredibly useful to hear this parsed out. Pizza 101, so to speak. I hereby vow to stop asserting my NY style culture-war privilege regarding pizza, and also to more critically examine where I have been falling victim to the seductive x/not x paradigm rather than engaging in the more vigorous qualitative analysis.

I immediately thought of lahmacun.
Mmm, lahmacun.

Wikipedia has it right as far as I can tell: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_pizza

(well, hello, "Gyro meat pizza served at a Greek-immigrant restaurant in the Midwestern U.S." -- that could well be a Bell's pizza.)

Edited at 2014-04-15 05:31 pm (UTC)
I would like to see your definition of art. I've never tried to define it, though I have tried to define music.

There's a tribal aspect when a food like pizza is involved. If you're italian-American and grew up in NYC, your native pizza is thin-crust, has tomato sauce and mozzarella, and optional additional toppings of a fairly limited sort (mushrooms, onions, peppers, pepperoni, sausage). What's meant by "it's not pizza!" is "it is not the classica pizza of my people and my childhood."

I need to give more consideration as to whether this is a form of snobbery.
If people would say "this is not the pizza I grew up with," instead -- or act like "the pizza I grew up with" is the only pizza simply because one grew up with it -- that would be a tiny but lovely improvement upon the world.

I do not see how "the pizza I grew up with is the only pizza worthy of the name" is *not* essentially snobbery.

(I posted my working definition of art in response to redbird, above. Similarly, my working definition of music is sounds arranged in a pattern. Also, I think too much.)
I would distinguish between "it is not the classical pizza of my people and my childhood" and "the pizza I grew up with is the only pizza worthy of that name." I would ask people what they mean by "it's not pizza." I can imagine reactions to [some food] that are surprise or disappointment but not snobbery.
Lumpers vs. splitters. I'm the latter and enjoy debating it, but understand others don't.

By the way have you seen this? http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/17/pregnant-butch-nine-long-months-spent-in-drag/
I miss the hell out of that thin-crust, square-cut pizza. I had no idea that was "St. Louis-style."

I didn't know Chicago-style pizza was "supposed" to be deep dish until I moved from Chicago to Oakland at age 10 and had Zachary's for the first time. Man, was I disappointed.

Edited at 2014-04-17 09:45 pm (UTC)
It's possible that the only people in the universe who call it St. Louis-style pizza are people from St. Louis and people who classify pizza styles as a hobby. Still, it kinda makes sense, since the thin-crust style seems to be a south/west side thing.