“I called Pizza Hut yesterday to complain about their Rustic pizza,” my mom said during our phone conversation last night.
“But you love that pizza!” I said. “You’ve talked about little else since the first time you ordered it.”
“Well, that’s not true at all. But the thing is, I loved the FIRST Rustic pizza I had. I’ve ordered it several times since and each time it’s missing something.”
“Well, if you are receiving bad pizza, then you should complain,” I agreed.
“Oh, it’s not BAD. It’s still wonderful. But it’s just not quite as wonderful as the first time I had it.”
“You called to complain that your pizza wasn’t quite as wonderful as it once was, but that it was still really good?”
“Yes. The manager swore to me nothing had changed, except maybe sometimes they forget to dip the tomatoes in the spice mixture. He said they can’t possibly remember to dip the tomatoes every single time one of the Rustica pizzas is ordered. I told him I really didn’t think that was it, and that somehow the Rustica pizza had changed in a really fundamental way.”
“But mom, the first time you had it you had gone cross-country skiing for two and a half hours. Your friends were over. You all were cold, and ravenous. The pizza probably tasted so good because of your circumstances, not because Pizza Hut changed.”
“Oh, honestly, Courtney. I really don’t think it has anything to do with that. I think they are sloppy. And cheap. Cheap and sloppy.”
My mom may not think the appetite and the chill that come from two hours skiing in the woods have anything to do with how that first Rustica pizza tasted, but I know differently since I’ve been chasing my own perfect pizza experience for well-over a decade. When I am old and gray and rocking away in a home somewhere, unable to remember that I once loved Jane Austen or had a dog named Skylar, I will remember the time I ate pizza (oddly, at Pizza Hut as well) with this boy, John, the summer after my sophomore year of high school. My friends M. and J. and I had spent the entire day at Thomson Beach, but not as mere sunbathers. For hours, a storm had been threatening, and the way true water lovers do, we relished the crashing waves that came across the bay, furiously white capped. All of us were expert swimmers and beyond that, at the time the lifeguarding positions in Alpena were mostly occupied by our friends, so fear of undertoes or rogue currents didn’t worry us. We knew what to do, and if we didn’t, our friends did. We chased the waves, alternately diving through them, over them, and under them, hoping every time for bigger and bigger waves. When the first flash of lightening crossed the sky and the lifeguard blew the whistle, we lingered just a moment before racing towards the sand and our towels (to this day, I still wish it was safe to swim during a thunder storm). We walked home in the rain, which really was not that unusual an occurance in our hometown, since afternoon storms often interrupted the day. We could always go back afterwards. Well, they could. I had a date. Truly, I don’t remember terribly much about the date itself although the boy,John, I would always remember as an talented artist before he became a harmonica player in a successful bluegrass band. Also, I think he went to Africa for a long time. I could check all of this on his facebook page but now I wonder if facebook is somehow taking some of the sheen from nostalgia? ANYWAY.
So John and I went out for pizza and a movie. We went to pizza hut and I was exhausted, but the good kind of exhausted, the kind of exhaustion that comes from hour upon hour in the water chasing waves and not much else, and we ordered a large pizza with ham and onions which was the first time I had that combination and refillable cokes and we talked about his painting and I have no doubt I talked a ton about myself and then the pizza came and it was hot and the cheese just fell over the pan and the ham was crisp and the onions the most flavorful onions I had ever tasted (and now as I write this it explains why John didn’t try and kiss me that night) and I ate an entire half of a large pizza. It. Was.So. Good. John ate the other half but he was a boy and I felt momentarily embarrassed for eating so much but then realized I was barely even full and it had been the best pizza of my life, to date. Afterward I ate popcorn and half a pound of m and m’s at the movie.
I tell all of this to my mom. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had lots of great pizzas since then – amazing pizzas. But that is the pizza I will remember forever.”
At this point my dad has picked up the other phone. “I had a ravioli like that once,” he said. “In San Fransisco. No words for it. It was in the sixties, and the first time I had even seen ravioli. Nothing has ever matched it.”
I think everyone has a few meals they chase throughout their lives, wishing a replication could match their first experience but never really succeeding. I believe this is because it’s not just the food that creates the yearning, but the whole experience surrounding the meal itself. Pizza shared with a cute boy at Pizza Hut, eating the way you only can in youth, as though you might never be full. Your first ravioli, alone in a restaurant on a lively San Fransisco Saturday night, ordered solely because you’d never heard of it. S. is forever chasing the curries of Capetown, made every night for six months by his host mother that simply, no matter how fresh the ingredients and how precisely he follows Ivy’s recipe, translate just right. I had this smoked duck, once, at a restaurant on a beach during my first year with S., that obliterated all rational thinking, for a while.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and S. and I will go to Doc’s, the bar we practically lived in during my graduate school, for our traditional pizza and pitcher of beer. No cards here – no jewelry or flowers or chocolate – just pizza and beer, the meal we shared on our very first Valentine’s Day together during our senior year of college, before going to the symphony. It is what we could afford. I remember that pizza being overly rich, ordered from Papa John’s, but wonderful just the same, because it was me and S., eating together, and while we weren’t quite yet engaged our future together was firmly cemented (S. proposed the following week, explaing that he refused to propose onValentine’s firstly because he didn’t have the ring and secondly because it would have just been too cheesy). So tomorrow night we will share the meal we’ve been having every year since 1999, and maybe the toppings won’t balance out with the cheese or the crust will be overcooked or maybe it will be a perfect pizza, each element doing its part, but the pizza and the beer are no longer about the meal itself and instead, serve as a reminder of who we once were, just two college students planning on marriage and hoping for graduate school scholarships, while also moving us forward towards the people we hope to become.