I found this tale in the archives of my computer. This was written last Thanksgiving, but never posted. A year later, pizza memories still warm my heart.
The Midwest has a bad rap for bland, meat-heavy cuisine. Unfairly so. After all, Chicago is the hometown of deep dish pizza, and the whole state of Illinois follows suit. A lot has changed in the six years since I moved away to the avocado-covered lanes of California. Now, back for a visit, I experience culinary joys that make me proud to claim my gastronomical Midwestern roots.
On the first day of my short visit, I return to my Alma Mater, University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign. That’s also where I met my husband. The two of us, along with my mom and step-dad (also an alum), went back for memory’s sake. Our tour consists of a walk around the campus Quad, noting the ageless beauty of the trees and stately buildings. The crisp fall air and honey-colored leaves look just as they did six years ago. My husband and I are returned to a time when marriage was a phantom notion reserved for the likes of old folks like our parents.
We are thankful for another unchanged landmark from our past, which still stands majestically as we approach: Jupiter, our favorite pub.
The impressive brick structure rises from the pavement with a brotherly air. Its glass storefront blinks whimsically with lights that read “Leinenkugel” and “Sierra Nevada,” calling us into the warmth. The long stretch of wooden bar and high stools beckons, as from days of yore. The step up to the counter, one swift leap, is rhythmic to my body as I order the usual: a large pizza with pesto sauce, ½ smoked salmon, and four pints of cold quenching ale.
The pizzas arrive like discs from heaven, glistening from melted cheese atop silver pans the size of a sidewalk square. That familiar pizza aroma immediately tickles our senses: warmth, home, tomato sauce, sticky, sweet and chewy. I grab a tiny square, and smother it in soft flakes of red heat and shaved, salty parmesan. The warmth meets the tip of my nose as the piece flies from plate to teeth. As my bite sinks into layers of gooey cheese, moist spinach, tangy feta and mouth-watering sun-dried tomatoes, the crust parts sharply and splits—crisp, light, and crusty. The flavors dance around my mouth as I chew, one by one moving across my tongue to reintroduce themselves, delicate and rich at the same time. I crave another. And another. And another.
Nowhere on earth do they make such wonderful pizza. Rich in flavors, filling your senses like a blanket wrapped around your shoulders on a brisk night curled up in bed reading. Nothing is more comforting, beckoning the feelings of love and friendship. Pizza is the food I associate most with good company. Growing up, pizza night meant a special occasion like a birthday, an A on a report card, or friends in town visiting.
As we eat, my husband and I reminisce our courting days eight years earlier, where many a date were spent at Jupiter eating this very pizza.
Then, shockingly, my mom breaks through my memories. “I remember my first pizza. It came from a Chef Boyardee box.”
My mouth stops chewing as my jaw falls open. “What?!” I cannot imagine what sort of mediocre first experience this could possibly have been.
“Oh yeah,” agrees my step dad. “Mine, too. I must have been twelve years old.”
“Yeah, I think that’s about how old I was,” says my mother. “The first time I had pizza in a restaurant would have been in college—Mabe’s.” She touts the name of her own Alma Mater pizza joint in Decorah, Iowa.
“Me too,” says my step dad. “We ate Chef Boyardee until I went to college and found it in the bars.”
I pop another piece of pizza in my mouth, reveling in the chewy soft bites. I cannot conceive of the world before this standard dish. To me, that would be like life without beer or socks.
An hour later, our bellies pleasantly stuffed to exploding, we pay our tab and swallow the last drops of our beer (now warm). I breathe in deeply—satisfaction from a meal so comforting. We have walked down the halls of memory lane today. I’m proud to have grown up in a world filled with pizza made exquisitely from fresh ingredients by the local Mom & Pop shop, not a prepared mix. I could have grown up in another era—a time when my favorite dish might only have been a twinkle in a mass-producer’s eye.