Friday, April 29, 2011

Creeping Trumpism and Pizza You Can't Believe In

It's a big world we live in, and there are all kinds of people in it, and a great many of those people are going to see things differently than you or I might. To take a vexingly current example, there are people out there who look at Donald Trump and see a gutsy hero of capital, an innovator and a job-creating doer who has more-than-earned his gold-plated luxury urinal and gold-plated luxury urinal cakes, his monogrammed helicopter, and the right to squint and bluster and fart along through our culture looking like a bullyfaced honey-baked ham. Other people look at him and see a bullyfaced honey-baked ham who is – and this would actually be poignant, if it were anyone but this particular clownshod bullyfaced honey-baked ham – not even very good at being a bullyfaced honey-baked ham.

Or, to be more specific, a bullyfaced honey-baked ham who was too lazy and inept to even do his frankly racist recent rube-trolling properly as regards President Obama, and who is loathsome enough to make that most loathsome of bottom-scraping rhetorical irresponsibilities his attention-getting method of choice. Whose buildings from the '80s look like Soviet housing projects swaddled in gold leaf and whose hilariously classy-joe recent ultra-luxury condominium projects are grandiose marble-tarded mausoleums that look like what Yankee Stadium thinks about when it masturbates. Who apparently uses the phrase "piece of ass" in conversation the way non-assholes use prepositions, and who, as Anna Holmes points out in the Washington Post, has lived his life like someone who really means it when he uses that phrase. Who is in every way a squirm-inducing parody of a steak-fed billionaire phony, except with some long-running and serious-not-a-joke urban-redneck racial issues, the aforementioned throwback misogyny thing, and a boorish ignorance so raw that scan decidedly un-phony and totally, nauseatingly convincing. Also, he made the face you see above while getting worked over by Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents Dinner – which, sidebar, yuck on that thing – and then, in a virtuoso bit of unintentional self-satire, proceeded to knock Meyers' delivery afterwards on popular special-needs morning show Fox and Friends.

But anyway different people perceive this particular bullyfaced honey-baked ham differently, and while both those sides are regarding the same rancid, decay-fuzzed hank of sad protein, they differ in re: its rancidity and appetizingness. "That's democracy," as YOUR President likes to say right before some act of futile meliorativeness. So there's that – different people see different things differently, as is their right. You almost certainly do not know anyone who likes Michael Bolton, and it's true that you should throw his standing-in-line-at-the-drugstore soul music and linen-and-vest wardrobe in the garbage, but that guy sold millions of records and presumably is selling out some cold, vast room in Vegas right now. No one you know probably gave even the smallest shit-shard about the recent royal wedding – and no one that anyone knows understands why American news networks herniated their Blitzers trying to out-obsequy each other in their coverage of another nation's garish fatuity – but it's obvious that there are people out there who do care about it. I imagine pleasant, slightly dotty unmarried British ladies and some of your more overcompensatory newbie American camp aficionados, but that's a few million short of the actual tally. Funny old world, etc. Tackiness is a matter of perspective – cf. the bullyfaced ham from a few grafs back – and some people just like excess.

Which, you know, is their thing and I guess good luck with that. And while I'd argue that there's a place for excess in moderation – what I'm saying here is that I am going to get drunk sometimes, and that's just how that is – I feel increasingly queasy at the idea that the unembarrassed and indeed proudly single-minded pursuit of excess should be humored as another to-each-his/her-own choice. All you have to do is look at a glowering, parodic nightmare hair-steak like Trump to see what a steady diet of every-fucking-thing-you-can-get actually makes you – it might make you rich, but it also gives you a fat, sour soul and a big, dumb, vain heart. But while it is kind of a bummer to have him all up in our monitors, Trump's being Trump-y is Trump's problem, finally. Scale Trumpian humorlessness and vulgar vainglory up and out through the culture, though, and we've all got a problem – namely cruel, crude people who can't listen to and won't care about other people except as obstacles to be cleared on the road to getting more More, and who can't smile for fear of showing some sort of weakness. People who put themselves at the center of a stupid and terrifying universe, and as such are incapable of being serious about anything but themselves, and of laughing at anything but what their own jokes. Trump's weaponized vanity is the way he has chosen to fight a war he can't win against a world he's too scared (and maybe too dumb, and probably too uncaring) to try to understand. That he doesn't appear to have an inner life is kind of sad, but his outer life – a world of surly charlatanry, rageful and prideful ignorance, transactional personal relationships and big steaks – is gaudy and bleak in the extreme.

And that's Donald Trump for you, I guess, although Donald Trump is always an extreme case – not just A garish condominium where the bathrooms don't necessarily work, but THE MOST garish condominium where the bathrooms don't necessarily work; not just a thin-skinned, callow mega-asshole, but the most thin-skinned, most-callow mega-asshole in the whole world. But go a little further down the capitalist self-parody food chain and you've got something that's more humanesque than Trump, but maybe in some ways sadder. Because Donald Trump, while he is indeed an organism moving around the world taking heroic gulps of oxygen into his rich pink lungs – I've seen him in person, and can report that he is more or less a living thing – is also not really like anyone you'll ever have to deal with. Whereas Papa John Schnatter is probably like someone you know from work, and a better example of what a scaled-down Trumpianism looks like in someone other than Trump, who is really more like a Golem crafted from Viagra slurry and dredgings from the bottom of the Long Island Sound than he is a human

I've already smeared plenty of verbiage on Schnatter, and while I obviously enjoy doing that I should probably point out that my problem is less with the guy's terrible pizza than his peculiar and puzzling insistence upon putting his tan, meaty face front-and-center in his advertising. That Papa John's pizza is crummy – salty and cheese-squelched and fatally mall-bound – is, finally, not a hanging offense. No one has passed a law making me eat it, which is maybe my favorite thing about the United States at the moment. But to see him promising that you can Taste His Virtue in every slice of his lousy pizza is to see a man struggling with a chronic case of what is, albeit entirely too slowly, killing Donald Trump. That is, Schnatter presents as a man so self-enamored and self-fascinated – and so peculiarly cut off from things that aren't himself – that he has a difficult time talking about anything but himself, even when he could be talking about one of the most appetizing things known to man, which also happens to be the thing he manufactures and sell for a living.

And so in the commercials for his international pizza concern, instead of seeing pizza – which is delicious and can be photographed attractively; one wise move for Papa John might be to photograph pizza from another establishment – you get a face-full of Schnatter, Schnattering on very seriously about "100% fresh dough" (alternatives being?) and explaining that "better ingredients, better pizza is a way of life," which is 1) hilarious ("What'd I do on Saturday night? Scrutinized green peppers, as usual") and 2) doesn't even mean anything. And of course you also get the dewy close-ups and the decontextualized and seemingly unmotivated good-guy laughs and those awkward high-fives pistoning out towards the too-giddy Caucasian exurbanites that absorb those unmotivated kamikaze "Papa's In The House" pizza-invasions in his commercials. I'm aware that these are commercials, and so not necessarily deserving of these or any keystrokes, but Papa John's ads increasingly look like political ads: in earnest, pore-inspecting close-up, Schnatter (or Candidate X) delivers a heartfelt, heavily platitudinous address about something – an un-understood faith in an imaginary definition of American exceptionalism in the political ads, a fucking way of life predicated on the use of super-premium pepperoni in the other – that is so ill-understood and insignificant as to totally opaque.

It's ridiculous, but it's not ridiculous (just) because the pizzas Papa John is getting all dewy about are so defiantly Indiana-n, so crassly mass-produced, and so frankly unappetizing. It's ridiculous because the dude is so serious about himself and the crummy food that made him a multi-millionaire. And while it's a stretch to look at those queasily cholesterolic nightmare-pies as being an expression of Schnatter's own cheese-clotted soul, his branded vanity – and again these are commercials for pizza, which is infinitely more appealing-looking than some Kiwanis Club doof talking earnestly about core corporate values – is another side of the same unthinking excess evident on his pies. It's one thing to be self-absorbed enough to put your name on a pizza place's awning – a million Fat Sal's and Cousin Joey's and Original Famous Ray's do that, sea to shining sea. It's another to be so self-absorbed and humorless that you can't talk about the pizza you put your name on without insisting upon the ways in which it reflects your own flinty virtue.

At some level I'm inclined to see the Papa John's Royal Wedding Pizza above as a symbol of something dreadful – and honestly it's pretty terrible to look at – but I think in a lot of ways it could be worse. While there's a sense in which the PJRWP is clearly the poisonous of a bunch of different delusions and stupidities and excesses and so on, there's at least a simple honesty to it. It's a joke – there's a pepperoni flower on it, and also look at that fucking thing – and while there's plenty of that sad whimsification-of-food that I hate so much at work, it's also at least in on it's own joke. Let a thousand pepperoni flowers bloom, honestly. I'll take a joke pizza over a dead-serious pizzaiolo any day. That horrifying pizza at least knows that it's a joke.

(Thanks to Richard Timm and Jeff Johnson for sending news of the PJRWP)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Time Flies

I know that I should've followed up the big pizza post with more big pizza posts. Stuff about pizza-flavored Combos, pro and con and how I can see both sides of it. A defense of Domino's, or an attempt at understanding my urge to defend Domino's, or something. But I got really busy again, in a good way, and so have been off the reservation a little bit. It's nice to have good reasons for the radio silence, but also... well, I like writing here, and I should be doing it. It makes me happy. But instead I have been writing elsewhere. I have been writing:

Something about the end of the Space Shuttle program and our enervated, half-depressed culture, for New York Magazine.

Some goofy stuff about the NBA at with my mellow the very brilliant Bethlehem Shoals.

Some other goofy stuff about Guy Fieri's imaginary Seder menu, at The Awl, with my other mellow the very funny Charles Star.

And a dozen other little goofy things for the Journal and a bunch of other places (about things like, um, The Masters). Lot of Tweeting. Lot of staying up very late for no obvious reason. Lots of that sort of responsible and reasonable thing.

At any rate, we'll get re-regulated here soon enough. Until then you should watch that video and continue to eat, read and act responsibly.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sleepy-Eyed Joe

I had a really busy week. A full week at the Daily Fix, with my esteemed co-dude Nando DiFino on his honeymoon, and a bunch of reporting and other writing and phone calls and suchlike. I got a lot of work -- most excitingly, I'll be working on a running blog with the ultra-great Bethlehem "Nathaniel Friedman" Shoals at during the NBA Playoffs, and reviewing a book for my CSTB-mate Ben Schwartz at the Los Angeles Review of Books -- and I even got a little bit of work done. The thing I'm proudest of, even including my inexplicable stuffed crust pizza cri de coeur, is my second piece for my close personal homeguy Ben Polk's mighty Wolf Among Wolves blog. It's half a report from the (un-televised!) Nets/Timberwolves game on Tuesday, and also another tilt at the Nets Make Me Sad windmill for me. I'm happy with the way it turned out, and always glad to get some burn at that mightiest of NBA-affiliated blogs.

But as usually happens after a busy week with more work than sleep in it, I am pretty tired on this Saturday afternoon. And the frankly comatose Joe Buck, who is sleep-announcing this already sluggish Red Sox/Yankees game on Fox, is not helping. As I type this, Buck is giving a performance so hilariously soporific and drowsy as to make a talking-in-his-sleep Brit Hume sound like Al Pacino in "Devil's Advocate." Cheer up, Joe Buck, it's not that bad. I mean, the sitting next to Tim McCarver is probably pretty bad, admittedly. But nothing is as sad as you currently sound. It's like he's doing play-by-play on a famine.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


This woman has absolutely had physical actual-sex with Newt Gingrich, so I guess you could say she deserves this brilliant Photoshop upgrade? (By this person, and via this one)

I am kind of fascinated by conservo-wives, more for aesthetic reasons than anything else. Intellectually, I have a hardish time understanding women who get turned on by men willing to spend their working lives trying to prevent women from doing various things with their bodies -- we all have our things. I can't really get in a sex-mode without thinking of Joe McEwing getting thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double. Different strokes, different folks, and so on. But also...

But also look at Calista Gingrich's face. Look at her hair and that weird scimitar part, and the inevitable headache-blond dye job. Her mouth, her creepy-smooth skin. Now try to imagine her in casual clothing. Try to imagine her at age 25, or after two beers at a bar. Imagine her on mass transit, or listening to rock and roll. Can you do any of this? Because I cannot do any of this. Who are these people, these people who are married to/are Calista Gingrich? What Calista Gingrich could think or want -- beyond "I think I want to fuck Newt Gingrich," of course -- is utterly impenetrable to me. I imagine it has something to do with immigrants and poor people and the choice-v-child question. But I would honestly prefer not to imagine it. Still, sweet ink.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Leftover Shrimp Pizza

I imagine that, given the few hours and great many words I spent on the subject, I'm now officially on the record as regards Pizza Hut. Which would ordinarily be the place to leave it, since I am not running a pizza blog, here -- although, of course, if anyone knows anyone else who wants to fund a long-form pizza-based literary quarterly or something, obviously that person should get in touch. There is also the matter of the thousands of words of copy I have due to various people this week. That as well. But there is, astonishingly, one thing I missed about Pizza Hut in my novella-length exploration of its manifest and manifold objectionabilities. And that is the fact that these fuckers have lobbyists.

The fuckers in question, I should be clear, are Yum! Brands, the Louisville-based garbage-cuisine concern that owns Pizza Hut, KFC and, presumably, a lot of stock in whoever makes Lipitor, diabetes meds, and scooters for the obese. The world needs lobbyists, of course, if only to ensure that extra-formal steakhouses stay in business. But probably only for that. Yum! Brands, though, needs lobbyists to advocate for the cause of allowing the elitist communo-fascist Takers-coddling program formerly known as food stamps to be used at Yum! Branded fat-dispensaries. From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

Yum! Brands Inc. is lobbying the Beshear administration to make Kentucky one of only a handful of states that allow food stamps to be used at restaurants by certain groups of recipients. Under the federal food-stamp program, states may authorize that use by the elderly, disabled or homeless, who often have difficulty preparing meals. Only Michigan, Arizona and parts of California have done so.

...One of [Yum!'s] top executives has helped raise money for Gov. Steve Beshear's re-election campaign. And the company has presented the idea to officials of groups ranging from the Kentucky Restaurant Association and the Louisville Urban League, who have written letters of support to Beshear.

“We think it's a win-win,” said Paul Carothers, the company's vice president for government affairs. “It's obviously of interest from a business standpoint, and it provides access to the elderly homeless and disabled who are often underserved.”

It certainly does sound like a win-win, unless you actually eat the food in question! In which case it sounds like groaning-in-bathroom and feels like a clammy complexion, grease-coated tongue and an inert and un-fun sleepiness. Which are all, to be fair, all-natural organic feelings that your body delivers when you try to kill it with cheese.

Over the past day or so, some dear friends -- my sister, my good friend Matthew Abrams, the chums-I-have-never-met of Twitter -- have sent me pictures and links to some of Pizza Hut's legitimately insane and truly avant-garde pizzas from the rest of the world. And while I am obviously not looking for an abalone-and-hotdog pie with extra mayo -- or the similar Asian nightmare pies our corpo-pizza buddies have made available -- I at least get those. Different cultures have different ideas of what terrible and terrible-for-you food is like, and it's incumbent on Pizza Hut and other Yum! Brand arteriosclerosis distributorships to deliver that food-misery most effectively. That's their job, and I suppose they should do it. I would just prefer if, here in the United States -- where despite the best efforts of your president, Barack Hussein Obama, we are still FREE TO CHOOSE any shitty, life-shortening garbage-food we want -- we didn't have to subsidize it. You know that shrimp mousse pizza was not the product of any nanny-state food stamp BS. That exists because... oh wait, that actually exists. Huh. Okay, I'm going to need a minute.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Our Pizzas, Ourselves

The other day, I linked to this site in an email to a prospective employer. As with all of those sorts of emails, it felt like kind of a longshot. I don't necessarily know what makes editors say yes or no to a pitch, and I have the track record to prove as much. But one thing that might not help, or which at least could conceivably influence decision-making in one direction or another, would be if the person pitching you an article idea linked you to his professional page and the top item was a series of barf-centric St. Patrick's Day limericks and if the obvious purpose of this purportedly professional page was to air some amorphous grievances with Papa John Schnatter.

I am not unaware of this. But unless and until I can find a paying venue for my musings on our nation's pizza corporations, I'm going to use this site to air those particular amorphous grievances. These particular amorphous grievances. Which is to say that I'd like 1) to remind any and all readers that my grown-up writing work -- which I am proud of and I like to think pretty good at, and which generally has nothing to do with pizza -- is over there in the right hand column and 2) to rap at you about offensive pizza for a minute.

And I don't just mean pizza that tastes bad. That sort of pizza will always be with us. You can go back to biblical times on this -- about the only thing I agree with in the Pauline Epistles is when Paul instructed the Corinthians not to get a slice with toppings on it at the average pizzeria, because (and I'm quoting from memory) "it's just a regular crappy plain pie that they kind of threw some mushrooms on, and is probably like a week old." Which is wise and forward-thinking and generally the sort of thing that makes you surprised at how rigid and sour Paul was on other matters. But my point -- to the extent that such a thing can be said to exist in a post that is (spoiler alert) about stuffed-crust pizza -- is that pizza mega-brands have no kind of lock on wack slices, and that bad pizza is just an irksome fact of modern life, not unlike libertarians or allergies.

It's also easy enough to avoid, if you eat pizza often or have decent eyesight -- pizzerias that display slice pies featuring, like, ziti or salad or sliced breaded chicken cutlets where toppings should be are generally worth avoiding. Pizzerias that do not at least attempt the odd parm-style sandwich are kind of suspect to me. Places with gross-ish names -- there's a Fat Sal's near me, which just sounds kind of unappealing -- are probably worth a pass. Misspellings aren't a good look -- I'll deal with a "calzon" on a menu, but I don't really appreciate "Our Heros" and will not abide a "Sweaty Vin's Pizzaria" on the awning, because come on with that shit. You probably know all this already, or at least know the non-crazy stuff.

And you probably know, too, that nothing good is coming out of a place called Pizza Hut or Papa John's. (You may think nothing good will come out of a Domino's, and you may be right, but for a series of complicated reasons I am not sure I agree with you) Everyone knows this. Papa John's helpfully reminds us of this by actually showing its pizzas in its television commercials, and in so doing revealing those pizzas as less pizza-as-pizza than as garbage fires that were extinguished by six pounds of cheese, and then resold as foodstuff. I don't like looking at Papa John's commercials very much -- and I especially dislike the parts featuring Schnatter himself, which scan like the ads of a Club For Growth-backed congressional candidate from the Indianapolis suburbs -- but they are kind of instructive. This goes beyond Schnatter, although it starts with him: if you can deal with his I-am-the-brand self-seriousness and new fakey Pawlenty-style imitation country voice and strained what-are-my-muscles-doing-this-feels-weird smile, you can deal with the pizza. If you are the sort of person who sees televised images of something called "The Tuscan Six-Cheese Pizza" (or even the meaningless words "Tuscan Six-Cheese Pizza") and thinks "fuck yes, and let me get some breadsticks and a side of ranch with that," then the commercials work for you and of course good luck with your diabetes. If you see those commercials and do not think that, then you just avoided engagement with a Tuscan Six-Cheese Pizza, and also probably dodged a clammy and miserable evening of junior coronary incidents. So maybe I should bitch less about Papa John's, I guess? Pizza Hut, though, deserves no such quarter.

Pizza Hut, as far as I know and can imagine, is no one in the world's favorite pizzeria. Where during my youth the (oddly, Wichita-born) macro-pizza corp dealt in crummy buffets and suspect-seeming deep dish cholesterol supplements, Pizza Hut has responded to the challenges of the current pizza marketplace -- foremost among these, I have to imagine, being a nation of physicians telling patients "never for lunch and dinner, unless you want to be riding around in those sad Tea Party scooters by age 40" -- by first attempting to rebrand as an Italian bistro, and then finally and terrifyingly embracing a strange and high-fat avant-garde. The former didn't work because Pizza Hut is one of those places that would rather pay teenagers as little as possible than pay more for people who can be trusted around a hot oven, and also because no one, ever, has ever been enticed by the words "ravioli from Pizza Hut." The latter... I don't really know about, honestly. The chain is not yet in Chapter 11 -- which is more than bankrupt lukewarm-pizza dons Sbarro can claim -- and continues to run national television ads and loose its horrible pizza-vations on an American public that will apparently eat essentially anything. So I'll assume that Pizza Hut is doing fine. Their frontier-pushing new stuffed crust pizzas, though, are proof that Pizza Hut cannot and will not do good.

Of course, Pizza Hut has been putting cheese into pizza crusts -- where it manifestly does not belong -- for decades now. What makes their new endeavor different is that they're now jamming either pepperoni or what I'm pretty sure the TV ads refer to as "meaty" (full stop), which is a short way of describing a pizza crust crammed with shards of sausage, bacon and "beef." Pigs and cows, in other words, but only the parts of which are choice enough to be cheese-jected into pizza crust. I should mention, I guess, that I eat all those things/animals, and that natural ambivalences aside I imagine that I will continue to do so until a doctor gives me the Tea Party Scooter Speech mentioned above. I don't eat them all the time because 1) what-am-I-made-of-money and 2) is a bit more complicated.

Because at some point -- probably about 600 or so words ago -- it doesn't matter if a bunch of assholes jam sad bacon crumbles into pizza dough to appease a broad and uncool national dedication to high-performance lardassery. It matters to the pig whose body became a punchline, presumably, but I can't really write that particular essay right now. (That is, I can't write it as long as I continue to consume cured pork products with such aplomb) What's a bummer about it, for me, is the whimsification of meat and the dumb carelessness with which (especially) bacon has been turned into some sort of man-status-bolstering bro-condiment. (Note: the gnarled, glib, chuckleheaded bloodlust of upmarket foodie writing is just as gross to me -- my ideal food writing is, I think, a Ted Berg sandwich review) No one really turns to pizza for a monastic, austere experience. The opposite, I know. (Note: I tend to like my pizza monastic, but I am a doofus and have already written like 1200 words on this)

But even if pizza is what we eat when we want to feel like kids, or to remember a time when eating was just a fucking blast -- even then -- I don't know why macro-scale pizzas have to be so dumb and bro-branded and irresponsibly fatful and aggressively un-foodlike. I understand that, nationally and discursively and in an increasingly dangerous way, our nation has had a hard time distinguishing between "better" and "more" for a few decades now. Of late, at least in our politics and also I think in our other smaller life-decisions, that indistinctness has curdled into a sad, babyish nastiness -- alternately an hysterical fear of being asked to make do with slightly less excess and a childish petulance at the prospect of ever and anywhere being told "no." Finding ways to jam more More into everything -- regardless of whether or not grafting a pepperoni roll to the perimeter of your meat lover's pie could possibly taste good -- is no way to go through life. It's a decent enough way to go through second grade, and a popular one. But if you're an adult who understand where food comes from and what effects it has on one's body and environment and economy and so on, this is no way to eat. Which makes it all the weirder and more distressing that our tax dollars are funding this ongoing national extra-cheese order, but which is also another reason to do the one simple thing that will prevent any reasonable person from ordering a baco-stuffed crust meatstravaganza pie. That one simple thing being to think, even briefly, about what you are about to eat, and whether you are sure you can't maybe do a bit better by (for starters) yourself.