The Toxic Treat That Beggars Eat (2)

I ate my first “small/plain” slice in 1969. That momentous day came either two hundred years … or three thousand years … after pizza was invented.

We can’t be more precise than that, because pizza is essentially toast with toppings, and that very simplicity complicates efforts to pin down pizza’s pedigree. Twenty-eight hundred years ago, Persian soldiers used their concave shields as solar ovens to bake flatbreads topped with dates and cheese. The Greeks noshed on open-faced sandwiches layered with cheese, garlic, and onions. The Romans snacked on re-heated matzah crackers sprinkled with cheese and drizzled with olive oil.

Today, upscale pizzerias sell similar “artisanal pies” to deep-pocketed diners for thirty bucks a plate. As recently as the 1800’s, though, pizzas were eaten exclusively by the poor. Nearly-rotten vegetables, fatty meats, and day-old fish became more palatable when scattered on flatbread, smothered with cheap local cheese, and baked at high heat.

Pizza’s association with poverty is also how tomatoes and tomato paste found their way onto pies. After explorers imported tomatoes from the Americas, a mystery emerged: wealthy people who ate tomatoes sickened and died. But as detectives on CSI: Naples discovered, the cause of death had less to do with toxic tomatoes and more to do with being well-to-do. Acidic tomatoes leached lethal levels of lead from the pewter plates favored by Italy’s aristocracy.

The news came too late, though, to save the tomato. The bright red fruit had gained a reputation for being poisonous — except in the slums, where commoners, eating off wooden plates, consumed them without consequence. With time, tomatoes — sliced, crushed, or cooked — found their way onto the pizzas of the poor. 

Ads for the first pizzas, then, might have featured the jingle “The toxic treat that beggars eat.” Yelp reviews like this one, penned by none other than Carol Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, didn’t help:

“Pizza is made from a dense dough that does not cook, and is loaded with almost raw tomato, garlic, pepper, and oregano … (The pizza maker) cuts them into so many slices worth one soldo each, and gives them to a boy who goes off to sell them from a portable table at some street corner. The boy will stay there almost all day, while his pizza slices freeze in the cold or turn yellow in the sun as the flies eat them … The black of the toasted bread, the sickly white of the garlic and anchovy, the greeny-yellow of the oil and fried greens, and the bits of red here and there from the tomato — they make pizza look like a patchwork of greasy filth that harmonizes perfectly with the appearance of the person selling it.” 

Pizza, then — from flatbreads baked by soldiers to the lunchtime staple of the slums of Naples — is the original “humble pie.” Modern day pizza, though, with its generous toppings, stretchy cheese, and spicy sauce, has a stranger and more disgusting pedigree:

That six-inch Pasquale’s pizza my bother and I shared — in fact, every pizza you and I devour today — exists because 14,000 people died of cholera.

This is the second installment of a series of posts on pizza, and, the truth is, I haven’t a clue what I’m doing yet. This could become anything from a long-form essay to a non-fiction book about my personal obsession with hot, spicy pies. The inaugural post, if you’re curious, is here.

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