A nation is bound together by many things, but perhaps most of all by its common culture. And a key part of culture is cuisine. Food has always been something that binds human beings together as families, communities, and nations.
So, then, what is the quintessentially American food? Most would say the hamburger, I suppose, and I sympathize with them. Others say the hot dog, and I can understand that too. But for my sake, I have to say: pizza.
“Crazy!” you might reply, “Pizza is hardly American, it wasn’t even invented here!” True enough, but it was—I argue—perfected here. And more than just being perfected in America, it was perfected in true American style: not as a single “perfect type” but as a whole host of totally different types! You don’t really have “American pizza”, you have a host of American pizzas:
- New York Style, with the giant floppy slice, as presented by Lombardi’s (the original American pizzeria)
- California Style, with its odd ingredients and small servings, as presented by California Pizza Kitchen
- Detroit Style, square, deep-dish, baked crispy on the outside, as presented by Detroit standby Buddy’s Pizza.
- St. Louis Style, ultra-thin, with a blend of cheeses, sweet sauce, and plenty of oregano, as presented by Imo’s Pizza.
And of course, leaving the best for last, the pie de resistance (as it were):
- Chicago Style, pan, deep-dish, or stuffed, layered with toppings, cheese, and tomatoes, and baked to perfection, as presented by Pizzeria Uno (the inventor), Gino’s East, Edwardo’s, Giordano’s and so many, many more. (A heart-attack on a plate, perhaps, but that would be the Chicago equivalent of a martyr’s death.)
Many Americans, perusing the list above, will probably pick one or two examples, exalt them, and damn the rest. In my case, as with pets and women, so with pizza: quality is king and excellence comes in many forms: I’ve liked examples of every type I’ve tried (and also found atrociously bad examples of each). But whether you view just one kind as the One True Pizza, or are a shameless pizza whore like myself, you can’t deny that they’re all American classics.
Now, if America was Europe, each of these regional favorites would stay confined to its tiny niche and pride itself on its unchanging tradition. But, thank God, this ain’t Europe. So you can get New York style pizza in Melbourne Beach, Florida, and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. You can get Chicago style pizza sent by Express Mail all over the place. And you can get the better or worse knock-offs of nearly every style from the major chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Sure, some of these suck, but that’s fine, they’ll die. And others claim to be “X-style” while really being innovations. That’s fine too, because if the innovations are worth a damn, they deserve to kick butt and take over. And if they aren’t, then they too will simply fade away.
This is America, where innovation and success beat slavish tradition and protectionism any day! And so I claim pizza as the most American of foods, because it embodies the American Dream:
- it came from a foreign land to make its way in the New World
- it was forced to adapt to new challenges and cultures but still kept hold of its roots
- it followed the lure of a quick buck to many crazy ventures and bizarre schemes, most of which went down in flames…
- …but some latched on to greatness, endured, prospered, and dominated entire cities and regions…
- …only to spawn off a new generation of upstarts devoted to surpass their parents
And so, as with America, so with American Pizza: there are many American pizzas, and they are a fractious, competitive, quarrelsome bunch who don’t always get along, but they are all, truly, American.