Ridiculously full vs. sublimely hungry

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 20, 2012

I am on the S44 bus on Staten Island heading deep into the heart of the landfill borough to sample pizza from Denino’s, another contender in the knock-down, drag-out pizza vs pizza heavyweight championship of my personal world.

It’s four-ish, the bus is packed and making stops every fifteen seconds, and so it’s impossible to tell exactly how far we’ve gone until we get the signal. The high school kid in the back of the bus, our point man, is jerking his head at an ordinary looking maroon brick barrack. “This is you,” he says.

I don’t really know how I got here, ticking off pizza-war pizzas for the third NYC visit in a row, especially since I don’t even eat wheat anymore. And I’ve never really been allowed to have dairy, not since I was born. (I cheat, but I pay.) At sea level, however, where digestion dances the tango instead tiptoeing through a maze like it does at 9,000 feet, I get to say one of my favorite things and say it loud: All rules are OFF.

I’m on a wheat fest: wheat with butter, wheat with chocolate, wheat with hamburger patties, and that special Sunday kind of wheat called brioche. And, because all rules are so scorchingly off already, I sort of decide to be on the cookie tour of New York, too. I can tell you right now that it’s exciting to be in a place where everything regarding food is a sort of combination war, carnival, and ultimate contest. Where trucks drive around to deliver emergency cupcakes, Cuban sandwiches, and kimchi tacos to desperate neighborhoods.

Once inside Denino’s, it doesn’t matter one bit how well I know Manhattan and where in New Jersey my friend lives, we’re not from Staten Island, that much is clear. Social discomfort aside, I’m going into wheat withdrawal and I haven’t had lunch yet, so I tell myself that hunger unites all us human beings and I smile. That is, until my friend orders a sausage and mushroom pizza.

Though I have no specific dietary policies about either of these, he breaks one of my cardinal rules of pizza judging, which is never to order anything other than the basic margherita. At this point, what has been an engaging personal quest becomes a self-indulgently roundabout way to get fuel into my body. Now, in short, all comparisons are off.

With the comparison switch off on pizza, I find I’m a little disoriented and maybe even depressed and start wondering about our need for goals in the world, which is directly related to our need for contrast. Because virtually everything we do is born of compare-contrast. For instance, right now I am contrasting the earlier, more eager and fun bus ride with a more somber bus ride back. Am I just full — or am I (contrastingly) deflated?

This, in turn, makes me contrast overindulging with eating too little, which makes me compare food “from a family recipe” (pizza, for one) to wave-of-the-privileged-future micro-artisanal food from Brooklyn, which is more about nano-batches, single sources, and savoring the concept-to-mouth perfection of it all.

The genius of this extreme form of small-is-more-than-beautiful-it’s-hip is that the food becomes so unique that there seems to be hardly anything to compare it to. For example, take the grapefruit/smoked salt marmalade from Anarchy in a Jar. It’s unbelievably delicious and it’s possibly not been thought of before. By rights, it is already the best grapefruit smoked salt marmalade there is. It wins because there’s nothing to compare it to, right? Or am I already comparing it to my own marmalade that I used to think was fantastic until I tasted this?

The thing is, everything, by virtue of its existence, is not something else. And when you have an opportunity to enjoy this rule that can never be turned off, life is far more baby-fresh and wondrous. You don’t have line up pizza margheritas to figure this out.

As we float past Lady Liberty waving her green, fire-holding hand under a slate blue sky, I am thinking of the owner of Denino’s, leaning across the bar in a white tee shirt handing us two paper plates and some silverware, and his amused “What’ll it be folks?” In contrast a couple of hipster s’mores makers in Williamsburg, one using a micro torch on a micro house-made rose-vanilla marshmallow with hyper-politically correct post-dark chocolate, and then passing the sacred micro-tower to his (probably former graphic designing) co-conspirator as if it were a long, lost relic from Mesopotamia.

All I’m saying is: would one image be even remotely as good without the other?


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