History on a Plate

Lately I’ve been thinking about my ninth grade history class. What I recall most vividly was that at the time I had almost no interest in world history. Like a lot of kids that age, I wasn’t looking much at the past, and I really couldn’t understand what all that old stuff had to do with my life. You see, by the age of 15 I had already spent several years in front of an oven and was pretty sure that I was destined to be a pizza guy.
As it turns out my lack of interest in world history had nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with context. If I truly understood that what I was learning was actually the history of pizza, I would have definitely aced the class and saved my parents and my teacher a lot of aggravation.

What it took me several decades to figure out is that every time we eat a slice of pizza we are holding the history of western civilization in our hands. More importantly, every time we make a pizza, we are connecting directly to a string of world changing events going back thousands of years. It is that connection that we must reflect upon and honor if we are to perpetuate our art.

So, let’s take a look at the object of our mutual obsession, the famous Pizza Margherita. While creationist myths can sometimes take on a life of their own, it’s safe to say that the cheese and tomato pizza did not just spring fully-formed from the talented hands of Raffaelo Esposito.
We begin with the most ethereal of all pizza components, the dough. Mix a batch of dough and you are replicating the staple food source that, along with the cultivation of wheat, allowed ancient Egyptians to evolve from nomadic hunter gatherers to builders of great cities. While the Egyptians may not have visited southern Italy the Greeks definitely did, and they brought with them the bread-baking techniques they had acquired when ambitious young Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and put his own people in place as the last Pharaohs.

Next we have that most Italian of fruit/vegetables, the tomato. By now we all know that the tomato is strictly a new world product brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. So how did the tomato end up becoming the ubiquitous symbol of southern Italian cooking? Well, in the maze of European politics that has always included war, betrayal, intermarriage, and Church sponsored intrigue, 15th century Naples was actually ruled by the Spanish who introduced the novel “pomadoro” to Campania where it still thrives on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. In fact the first cookbook to include tomato recipes was published in Naples in the 1600’s.

And now for the mozzarella -- and by that we mean mozzarella d’buffala, the incomparable cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo, an animal that originates in Southeast Asia and definitely didn’t walk to Italy by itself. Depending on your world view, the water buffalo was either brought to the Mezzogiorno by Crusaders returning from their invasion of the Holy Land or by Arab aggressors who had invaded Sicily. Either way, to the good fortune of pizza eaters everywhere, mozzarella d’buffala is a direct result of the clash of religious ideologies that exists to this very day.
Ideally we take these delicious ingredients and place them in a wood burning oven that is identical to the many ovens found in the iconic ruins of Pompeii. These beautifully preserved ovens, with their domed chambers and stone masonry could have only been created by the Romans, inventors of both the arch and concrete.

Now finish that wonderfully blistered pizza with some basil, an herb that originated in India and made its way to the West with traders as a seasoning, a medicine and a religious component.

And there it is: a food that combines conquest, exploration, trade, religious upheaval, colonization, and political ambition. So what part of this is Italian? The fact is that it was only on the Italian peninsula that all of those elements could come together to combine with that most Italian of all characteristics, creativity, to form the Pizza Margherita -- history on a plate.

 

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