The Biblical Rheology of Deep-Dish Pizza

A visit to Illinois—home to snow, slaughterhouse romance, and a fraught geology masquerading as pizza—courtesy of Matthew Gavin Frank’s brilliant new book.

Matthew Gavin Frank | The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food | Liveright | Nov. 2015 | 11 minutes (2,839 words)

The following is the Illinois chapter from Matthew Gavin Frank’s exceptional new tour of signature foods from fifty states, excerpted here courtesy of Liveright Publishing.

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If frostbite is just another kind of scalding, then let’s imagine this earth as a dish, or—even better—a platter, something capable of containing the thickest of our dinners, the cold cut, as if geologically, with the orange grease of the mozzarella, the pepperoni’s fat char. Let’s pretend that all winters can be spatula’d into our mouths in easy triangles, that, if we take too big a bite, if we don’t blow the world cool, our mouths will fall lame, and we will make only weather sounds.

Uncle sprinkles crumbs of parmesan and crushed red pepper over his slice. Outside, on the window, a child leaves his hand in the frost, and the pizza whines as Uncle bites it. You think of crying, of fallow fields, of—just south of the city—some awful crow choking to death on some kernel of frozen corn. Here, in Illinois, our corn is better. Better even than the birds.

The crust uplifts the sauce. In this is some kind of offering, sacrifice. The pizza cries for its mother. The ovens gasp. This, Uncle says, tracing his pinky over the imprint of the child’s thumb, trying to measure up, is what your aunt and I used to call Baby-Making Weather.

***

In 1943, Chicagoans were desperate for anything substantial. Something to stand up to war and weather. To commemorate perhaps the launching of the city’s first subway, or the Bears’ winning of the Super Bowl (then known more humbly as the League Title), or the way the light poured through the newly-refurbished triangular windows of Union Station and pooled over the floor—the travelers in top-hats and topcoats, the lit up arrow sign boasting TO TRAINS—in such a way that it resembled a pie and its steam, an unnamed chef at Pizzeria Uno on Ohio Street (it could have been owner Ike Sewell, the former football player, or Ric Riccardo, the WWII hero, or Rudy Malnati, then-mere line-cook, or it could have been all of them, or none of them), decided on a legendary whim, to beef up the crust, to ladle the tomato sauce on top of the cheese, to wedge sausage into its heart, and to look through the frosty windows of that kitchen, to know that by morning 24.3 inches of snow would be on the ground, predicting, in just a few months, what would become known as The Summer of Midwestern Flooding, and Ike or Ric or Rudy or none would take the pizza from the oven, the crust somehow able to support the weight of all laid on top of it, never sagging, never cracking, and Carl Sandburg may have stood under the gas lamps outside in the weather, under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth, and before he even took a bite, as if humming some lullaby to the snow, as if estimating the weight of the thing it took both his hands to lift to his mouth, as if speaking the sole language of the city, the only vocable it shares with us, he said mmmmmm….

Here, we call this kind of weather a storm—an onset, a tumult. We have to dupe ourselves into luxury, warmth. Here, we call this kind of restaurant, a parlor. Tom Skilling says we’re getting another 13 inches overnight—so much shallower than Lake Michigan, deeper than our pizza. The ice sheaths the cattails, and Uncle, with a mouthful of sausage patty, mutters something about the elm’s branches as a downed crystal chandelier, about the snow that makes us taller when we walk on it, closer to the gray of the sky and the red light of the Sears Tower blinking like the tumor that will take us all out.

In depth is move toward elegance. Parlors, platters, chandeliers, the kind of icy light that reminds us of rhinestones, even as it takes from us our fingers and toes. Neither Uncle nor Skilling says anything of snow as altar, of crust as the sacrificial stone. In depth, Uncle says, we can go back in time. He unearths wet dough from the sauce, the cheese, the sausage. He calls this layer, the Urban Paleozoic. He calls Chicago, the alien bursting from the chest of Illinois. You wonder if, within the context of your state, you are alien. You wonder why the food you require is heavier.

Once again, you wonder if this pizza has always been here, is older than the state.

Sandberg may have warned you: At the word Illinois, its Frenchified-Algonquin- ness, bearing the migratory weight of Rivers Mississippi, Illinois, Des Plaines, and Chicago, Lake Michigan and the railroads, blues and jazz, John Deere’s steel plow and dirty inland creeks carrying green foam, poisonous trout, and cans of Old Milwaukee, you will sigh and feel like running, away and through stockyards to cornfields, getting lost in the very soil that’s beneath both your fingernails and this snow, reinventing it, maybe even renaming it, Uno— as if this state is just one thing; as if, in this place of domesticated wildness, in the middle of the fields, the tassels way above your head, bearings lost, the crows of Champaign and Chicago, still-alive and feasting together on the kernels, you can help locate yourself, foster some kind of bridge between thin-crust and deep-dish. Somewhere above the rows, some braggart archeologist announces, in your uncle’s voice, his discovery: that the pre-Columbian copper plate carvings he unearthed from burial sites near Collinsville, Illinois (formerly Cahokia, the central regional chiefdom of the indigenous mound-building Mississippian culture) bear an uncanny resemblance to bug-eyed pepperoni atop cheese, atop crust, and once again, you’re bewildered, and once again, you wonder if this pizza has always been here, is older than the state, and you want to ask your uncle, Where am I? but your mouth is full.

Here, all it takes is one bite to fill the mouth. Like the snow, the sediment, the narrative, the toppings accumulate, until they bury. Eight inches and counting. You eat a second slice, armor yourself from the inside. When we press the still-cooking pizza with the spatula, the layers panic. The language of this pizza, like that of our state history, is deep. That doesn’t mean it’s yet hit bottom.

***

Sandburg, if not Uncle, knows: Linguists believe that the name Illinois, in the Algonquin Algic language, means man, which means that you have no idea what that means. You watch your uncle eat from his half as the child’s frosty handprint gets lost in the gathering cold, and window shudders in its frame, and your chest seems to swell from the inside—perhaps you’ve eaten one slice too many—and Uncle’s eyes go glassy, and you know exactly how long it’s been since he last kissed someone, and you know that you’re supposed to react as a man, be a man, a man beyond biology, and you swear to God or Sandberg or Malnati that you have no idea how to do that, in spite of being born in Chicago, Illinois, the biggest city in the state of Man.

You’re not sure if it’s the cheese or the pepperoni, or the entire depth of this deep- dish, that reminds you of your first kiss in a slaughterhouse in Urbana—a slaughterhouse that bragged about selling their sausage in bulk to places like Uno, and Due and Lou Malnati’s and Gino’s East. There, in the cornfields, the simmering stench of cow shit, the sewage of it carried away by a creek named The Boneyard, you take the hand of your first girlfriend and watch the lead slaughterer, a tall, thick-glasses’d man in a floor-length white smock (miraculously free of blood and fat), the name Lazerus stitched misspelled over his lapel in green cursive, blowtorching the hair from hanging pig halves. She drops your hand when you tell her, also bragging, that these pigs will die a second time for the pizza in the city of your birth.

You reach again for your girlfriend’s hand, as Lazerus threads two steel hooks through a pig’s hind ankles

Here, we try to excise the danger from depth. Try to pretend that it’s just as easy to drown in the shallow end of things. Nothing, Uncle says, asphyxiates the earth like this weather. Nothing stops the voices in our throats like this pizza. In deep-dish is overdraft protection. It keeps us from saying the things we shouldn’t. Into the soft wood of the table, Uncle, with his butter knife, carves, BREADTH IS A PUSSY. You wonder if breadth is just bread spoken through a mouthful of deep-dish. You wonder if the crust is as strong as it thinks.

10 inches. So many years ago, it could have been Paleozoic, you reach again for your girlfriend’s hand, as Lazerus threads two steel hooks through a pig’s hind ankles, and hoists it upward, the snout pointing down toward the white tile where a boy-intern hoses the blood into diluted pink rivers, running his small thumb over his lips, as if reminding himself of the substantiality of his own body amid all of these larger pigs. Lazerus stands on a platform with a chainsaw, his goggled eyes rising from between the animal’s spread hind legs, and with his gurgling orange ripcord Stihl, the chainsaw gasoline of it coupling with the smell of the blood, halves the hanging animal from crotch to snout. After gutting the pig into a plastic brown trash can, Lazerus yanks a thick cable as if closing window-blinds over all of the state’s frozen handprints, and the pig halves slide like dry cleaning along a ceiling mount toward the blowtorch station. The boy has his hose. That’s something.

You say nothing of pizza or Chicago, or how an entire animal can be rendered to one of twenty toppings, but while you stand separated by a hanging curtain of rosy, and now hairless, pig, you take her hand, larger than yours, and, wondering which the slaughterer and which the slaughtered, which the cheese—so used to being the top layer, closer to mouth and to sky—and which the sauce, kiss her on the lips and, desperate for any comfort, she kisses you back, and somewhere—not too far away—a pizza is pulled from an oven, a groom-to-be is late for his wedding as, with his own uncle, he gigs for frogs in the snake-infested river of Peoria, and the largest frog of the day, the thickest legs, the one demanding the full depth of the blades and their plunge, deflates on the end of the spear, and your uncle consoles himself with the comfort of pizza, filling himself with its temperature, and you listen to chainsaws and torches and popping frogs, and think of cheese and sausage, and you move to kiss her again, harder this time, believing, like an idiot, that the greater depth, the greater the sympathy, and she’s crying now, and she’s lost her appetite, and you keep trying, and keep trying to thicken yourself against all rejection—romantic and regional—and this is blood, and this is bone, sauce and crust, and this is not the right thing to do.

***

No matter how far down our food goes, we will eventually hit the pan. We will be hungry again. Uncle worries about the roads, the drive home. You stab your fork into the pizza, think of frogs, of depth as an entrance, and invasion, a getting to the bottom of things. In depth, you think. Depth as something to get into. Uncle wrings his hands. Eleven inches at least. He tells you, or himself, to turn into the skid. In the skid is a loss of our bearings, our hold on the earth. In entering, we can right ourselves again, uncover all the once-delicious things that burnt to the bottom of the pan.

The physicist in the kitchen scatters a fistful of cheese. He deduces that in depth is a slower speed. Like the bullet fired into the Lake, the more space through which we traverse, the closer we are to coming to a stop. The physicist in the kitchen says, Alternative operationalizations of depth variables result in very similar findings, as the sous chef, as requested, cuts the pepperoni extra-thick.

This pizza as the altar we raise to our mouths. This pizza allows for no substitutions. Uncle says that the enzyme responsible for a firefly’s light is called Luciferase, that Lucifer means Light-bearer. That his mouth is burning on sausage when he says this is appropriate. Hell is deeper than this pizza, he says, but, in name only, so much brighter than Chicago.

The deeper we go, the hotter it gets. Hell as core, as sub-skyline, as salve against winter, as down-jacket, as postcard from Cozumel to Chicago. The spiciest pepperoni wishes you were here. When you stab into the pizza like this, the heat screams from the center in a sound your uncle calls, bleating. We sacrifice our warmth for this pizza.

Geologists believe that substances with a “complex microstructure”—muds and sludges and suspensions, and cheeses and sauces and doughs—respond to an applied force in the same ways in which our bodily fluids do, and other elements of our insides that correspond to “soft matter.” In this way, we are what we eat. This pizza behaves like our blood.

We write our names in the frost for the same reason we eat this pizza as if inheritance. As if ancestry. As if water bodies as diverse as Boneyard and Michigan. Because we live here.

***

Lazerus extends his white-gloved thumb toward a lamb. The lamb reaches its small mouth toward Lazerus’ thumb, attempts in vain to suckle, as Lazerus slowly backs the animal toward the steelgun, which hangs from the ceiling by a black stretch-cable. Hooves clattering on the tile like castanets. As Lazerus reaches for the steelgun with his free hand, your first girlfriend turns her eyes away, not toward you, but behind you, the world beyond this slaughterhouse, and this dumbass boy, and this farmland stage in her life, which is to be so much bigger than this, through millions of years of limestone, sandstone, crusts thick and thin, pepperoni limp and pepperoni charred stiff, all the way to Chicago, or Wisconsin even, Canada, the Arctic, anyplace in which to hide in the depths of weather and scarf, any attempt to make such depths edible and steaming hot, and taken inside of us, any way to contain such multitudes in our own bodies. Your life perhaps will not get bigger than this, and you will dwell on this slaughterhouse for years, no amount of deep-dish sufficient to sop it up.

Depth as a sponge. As the question: how can the deepest stuff we take inside of us, also absorb us, carry us away, trick us into identifying an entire city after its measurements, and its outline? In a quick boom, as if in fast-forward, the air-forced gun fires its retractable steel bit into animal’s brain, Lazerus’ smock and glasses flare with its blood, and the lamb, as if gravity doubles its force, deepens it all the way to the floor, accelerates to the tile in a heavy heap, and you think of the flow of its blood, so steady, as veil, as deepening drapery, and as you turn away, Lazerus doing his carving behind you, you realize that you will never kiss her again— and, here, finishing a pizza with your uncle now, you’re not sure if it’s the butchery, or the first-and-final kiss that you recall only via its ripping sounds.

Watch the snow, hear the pigs

You wonder about yourself as a man whenever you feel these feathers in your chest. You think of your body, as you do masculinity, as a mineshaft. You wonder how deep it goes. You wonder if, at bottom, whispering secrets into your ear, is the demon we’ve named after light. Eventually all of this, under pressure, force applied, will coagulate like geophysics, like our small stories, extra-large pizza.

Watch the snow, hear the pigs, wonder how Downstate can share space with Chicago; wonder how deep this geology goes, how sharp the spatula needs to be to cut into it, examine its layers. Wonder how many things Illinois really is. We are everywhere, Uncle says, we are a franchise.

Outside, the weather surpasses Skilling’s prediction. Accumulate/bury, accumulate/bury… In so much depth, take comfort in the small things—the skinny plants, and hibernating insects. Try not to listen to what your uncle repeats: that the prairies grow smaller each year.

Between Chicago and Downstate, the last cicada of the season coughs enzymes into the cattails. The milkweed—ever too late—opens her nursing bra. You breathe a hole through the frost, stare at the elm in Uncle’s front yard. You stare through the circle, still hot, but freezing. You don’t think of pepperoni, or of any kind of slaughter. There’s grass you think, under all of this snow.

Get the Book

Matthew Gavin Frank | The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food | Liveright | Nov. 2015 | 11 minutes (2,839 words)

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  Ed. note: Deep-dish pizza is still garbage.