Who needs a profound New Year’s message, when the weather is so bad? It’s snowing again here in the Land of Enchantment. Some people envision New Mexico as being a desert region like Phoenix, with blistering temperatures in the summer and little to no chance of freezes in the winter. New Mexico is high desert; we are at risk of freezes and snow up through Easter. However, we are still unequipped to deal with extensive snow because storms blow over, and then the sun returns and melts it all away. Sometimes we wake to snow and ice and bask in sixty degree sunshine by noon. Also, we go through drought cycles, which means we might have several winters in a row without good snowfalls. This year, we’ve had multiple bouts of snow, and it’s only January 1. I have so many beautiful and crazy memories of snow extending through March here, which would have rarely happened in my childhood Pac NW…but I’ll refrain from rambling about snow and shift to the topic, childhood pizza, Oregon style.
I’m cozied up on the last (adult) vacation day of the holidays, eating leftover New Year’s Eve pizza with my hot black coffee. Pizza is a rare treat in a gluten-free household because gluten-free crust is a. difficult to make and b. expensive to buy. I remember the days when pizza was easier, though, and so was life. Maybe not easier. Simpler. I remember when life was simpler because going out to a restaurant was a rare event, and celiac wasn’t a condition I thought about.
It wasn’t just the condition of my conservative, potato-eating Anglo-Irish upbringing that was simpler: the Oregon 80s pizza parlour itself was. This is starting to remind me of Diner Coffee From Bygone Days*, albeit entirely lacking the coffee. Perhaps it was a regional quirk that Italian pizzerias in the 80s didn’t serve coffee or espresso, despite espresso’s place in Italian cuisine. After all, the coffee fad had not yet intermixed with the Oregon natives. Life was simpler, remember? Instead, pizzerias served beer. Good, bad, indifferent — I can’t say. I was a child. I drank pop because my mom ordered it by the pitcher.
More specifically, she ordered root beer to offset the spicy Italian food (Anglo-Irish, remember?). The pitchers were made of the same hard, opaque plastic the cups were made of — cafeteria style tableware. But the pizzerias themselves didn’t resemble cafeterias. They were more like taverns, in that the lighting was low, and the tables large dark planks you could imagine a Hobbit dancing on. If there were curtains on the small windows, they were checked…one concession to a “diner” experience rather than a tavern.
In those days, of course, smoking was allowed in restaurants, and there would always be men smoking in the section with pool tables if there was one, or the new and amazing video game rooms. I’m not talking about abominable places like Peter Piper’s pizza, though. We never entered those dreary yet loud dens that served cardboard pizza. The 80s pizzeria was a restaurant first; the games were secondary and not required.
But what really got me thinking about these cozy places was the simple toppings on my New Year’s Eve pizza, in a time when people are inclined toward five or so toppings, and exotic ones, at that. Green chile. Artichokes. Spinach. Chicken (shudder). Sundried tomatoes. Feta. And that’s not to mention ghastly choices like taco or barbecue pizzas. I suppose the 80s pizzerias had more extensive menus — spaghetti, perhaps? — but there were three standard pizzas and nobody I knew ordered outside these standards: sausage and peppers; pepperoni and olives; the Hawaiian, aka Canadian bacon and pineapple. Plain cheese with no toppings was for abnormal people. And three toppings was clearly an excess one did not display in polite society.
Now that wheat isn’t part of my life and pizza toppings have become the gourmet stuff of microwbreweries (Yes, even in Oregon. Maybe even especially in Oregon.), I find myself drawn to the stoic ideal of food from my youth. Nature or nurture? Hard to say, but that leftover pizza with its simple taste of peppers and sausage was better than all the gourmet re-creations put together. The celiac crust is a little…tough to fit into an aesthetic. But an aesthetic isn’t precisely stoic, anyway.
Neither is melancholia, and yet that’s what I have as the gray day here in NM doesn’t liven itself with blue skies at noon. The gray transports me further into my childhood pizza parlour. They were meant to have dark interiors, but even if they weren’t, they did because gray skies were ubiquitous in Oregon. Push aside those checked curtains in your mind, and you will see rain streaking the glass. So raise your pitcher high! That’s all you can do, really.
Happy New Year!
*I wrote many coffee memoirs on this blog back in about 2013. They are unedited and probably badly need editing. Someday, it might even compile them into a book.