By Richard E. Peck
It happened on a Sunday night in the USMC barracks at the Naval Air Station, Jacksonville. Three other PFCs swung by my bunk to ask if I wanted to go with them “for pizza.”
“Sure,” I said. Only problem? I had no idea what ”pizza” was. It was as unfamiliar as sushi or loco moco.
Today, menus have gone international. My father once rejected the idea of tasting a taco. He said, “You think anyone in Wisconsin wants a Mexican sandwich?”
A New York friend asked a Cleveland deli owner for a bagel. “You mean those tough-bread doughnuts?”
Today you can buy chop suey — an imitation-Chinese, American creation — anywhere from Toledo to Hong Kong. Salmon in Kansas. Grits in Seattle. Lilikoi Pie in Dallas. Possum in Alabama (skip that one). And the universal nutrient, sold everywhere worldwide today, pole to pole, on land and sea, is (ta-dah!) pizza.
Kids who live on the stuff won’t believe me, but I’d never heard of pizza until that night in Jacksonville. It was still ethnic, hidden in closed Italian neighborhoods scattered across America.
But, no point in spending a Sunday night in the empty barracks, so I went along. I was 18. My first pizza — whatever that was.
Try to remember your innocence before you first tasted exotic foods. Maybe it was goulash, or sushi, or ouzo, or “blackened” fish, the con that Chef Paul perpetrated on gullible New Orleans visitors in order to peddle the dish he accidentally burned. Remember believing in the tooth fairy? Or assuming that to be an American Idol you had to be able to carry a tune? It was a simpler time.
We went to Pasquale’s — none of us able to pronounce the name of the place. The other three were all 19, more sophisticated than I.
“How d’you want yours?” one of them asked.
Trouble right off the bat. “Just regular.”
“You want anchovies, or not?”
“Sure,” I said. Anchovies. Now we were two words into a foreign language maze. Pizza wasn’t confusing enough. What were anchovies?
We sat at a checked tablecloth covering a wobbly table with one short leg. The wicker-wrapped bottle on the table held the unlit stub of a candle. The other three ordered beer. I said, “Coke.” The waitress said “Uh-huh” and brought us four Cokes.
Eventually she brought in a huge tin tray carrying the pizza. Clear your mind. You’ve seen pizza too often to understand my bewilderment that Sunday night. But try.
The mystery the waitress plopped down in front of me was round, and flat, and runny, mostly red, probably raw, and looked like it had been dropped and run over by a truck. A tray of curdled tomato soup. Nobody in his right mind would eat that thing!
Then the light came on. Pizza must be Italian for snipe hunt! If I bit into it, the three others would start laughing. Maybe I could use a straw and drink some. I waited to take a cue from them, but nobody cracked a smile.
The pizza sat there, four of them on the table. Still red. Still runny. A bubbling swamp of cheese dotted with fish-bits.
And then, you’d never guess: the other three, ignoring the knives and forks and the watching crowd . . . picked up a wedge of pizza in both hands and bit off the point!
It’s true! They ate with their hands!
Okay. So did I. It was soupy and hot and sloppy and spicy. It dripped and drizzled. Tomato sauce burned my chin. Cheese slid off into my lap, still tied to the crust by long, swaying strings of mozzarella — another foreign word!
If my dad thought Mexican sandwiches were strange, I couldn’t wait to tell him about pizza. Italian pancakes smeared with cheese and ketchup!
- Richard E. Peck is a part-time Kaua‘i resident and a retired president of three universities. He has written numerous books, plays, columns and TV shows, and his work can be seen at www.richardepeck.com.