How I Changed My Mind About Pizza

When immigrants come to their new country and get established, the first thing they do is go to a restaurant. Usually, it’s a restaurant that serves food from back home. Food nostalgias are the strongest of all.

Twenty years ago, Russian-speaking immigrants in Montreal didn’t have any restaurants from back home. I have no idea which eateries today’s immigrants from my part of the world go to but in 1998-2005 fresh-off-the-boat newcomers always went to the Greek restaurants on Prince Arthur Street. Greek food was the only available in the strange new place that we recognized as food.

Today’s Ukrainians probably have more developed palates but back then we are fresh out of the USSR and had a very limited understanding of what constitutes food. For years, I would go to Japanese restaurants or pizza places with friends and sit over an empty plate trying not to look disgusted with the weird stuff they were putting in their mouths. Once I followed a group of friends into a Thai restaurant and had to excuse myself to the bathroom as soon as food appeared because the sight of it made me retch.

Greek food was exotic to us but at least it was food. Not anything adventurous like grape leaves or moussaka (those terrified us) but grilled meat and potatoes. Or even rice. It was unusual – whoever just eats rice? That’s simply weird. Rice is to put into soups or tefteli, not eat it up straight – but we felt adventurous.

It took years in the new country for me to try pizza. I was at my office on campus with other graduate students. We were grading papers and felt ravenous. Pizza was brought, and I sawed at it with a fork and a knife feeling scandalized by the people who just bit into it. (You should have seen how I ate hamburgers, stunning people in roadside diners around the country. I’d take the whole thing apart, spread it around, and then eat each ingredient separately with a fork and knife. I have a feeling this had the same effect on other patrons as the sight of Thai food still does on me).

I really didn’t care about that first pizza. Unlike with sushi, which made me realize I’d been missing something great the first time I stopped picking them apart and just stuffed one in my mouth, pizza took a very long time not to be puzzling and even longer to be enjoyable. I never eat it more than 2-3 times a year but at least I now enjoy it when I do.

10 thoughts on “How I Changed My Mind About Pizza”

  1. This was such an enjoyable perspective to read. Being American, I grew up on pizza–now I rarely eat it. I read in a book recently that pizza is one of the main “vehicles” for the dairy industry to push people to eat more cheese. Cheese is the highest fat thing one can consume so it contributes to the American obesity problem. Since I am a former obese individual, I try to avoid it now–mainly because I don’t feel well when I eat it.
    I love your description of Greek food. We have a wonderful Greek eatery near my home and this reminded me that I need to go there and get some. I would enjoy stories about the good food from your homeland if you have time. I really enjoy your blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Too bad that you didn’t come to Western Canada, especially Edmonton and Winnipeg. There are plenty of restaurants serving East European food. Note that the local nickname for Edmonton is “Edmonchuk” for the large number of people with Ukrainian ancestry in that city.

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    1. Those aren’t Ukrainians like us, though. Those are all from Western Ukraine. Their food is very different and they don’t like us much. It’s like Georgians and New Yorkers. :-))

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  3. “When immigrants come to their new country and get established, the first thing they do is go to a restaurant”

    This is one reason why I don’t identify as an immigrant (I’m somewhere between expat and immigrant in my own taxonomy for people who move to other countries).
    Despite some initial…. adaptation difficulties (fish in jello? tripe? blood sausage?) I mostly took to local food very easily (I even remember a village homemade sausage I was given in the early 1990s that made me realize I was going to be around for a while…)

    I didn’t miss “American food” for years and years (most people in Europe don’t even realize there is such a thing beyond hamburgers which I was never a big fan of). And most of the things I did miss (comfort foods like meat loaf, pot roas, beef stew) I’ve learned how to make out of local ingredients.
    Of course there are things I’d like but can’t get (generally in Europe) like fresh corn tortillas, or hominy (or hominy grits) or yellow squash (tons of zucchini but no yellow squash anywhere) and I just do without.

    But… not always but starting sometime in my early 20s have been a food explorer (and my parents were not…. good…. cooks so that helped in a weird way). When I do travel I’m always looking for weird local things rather than fast food chains or bland deracinated ‘internaitonal’ (Chinese, Italian, Indian, Kebab) foods.

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  4. The first thing I did after reading this was google “was there pizza in the USSR?” because I remember pizza in Poland in the mid 1980s (very weird but recognizably trying to be pizza and even okay if you didn’t attach any pizza preconceptions to it…..).
    The results were mixed and it seemed pretty non-existent before the late 1980s in a few (mostly Baltic) cities.
    But in the 1990s? How badly did the bandit wars affect living standards in Ukraine?

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    1. We didn’t have a pizza place in my city when I left in 1998. We had a real McDonald’s and a fake Burger King. The fake Burger King sold homemade Ukrainian stuff so I liked it. It was a huge discovery later on that this isn’t what the real Burger King was like. We also had one place that was supposed to serve pelmeni-type food but they never had any actual food.

      This was absolute all that there was in terms of eating out in a 1,5-million city.

      In Kiev, of course, it was a different world. The McDonald’s and the fake BK were the only sit-down restaurants I’d ever visited before emigrating.

      I was making really good money in the 1990s. Really good. But there was nowhere to spend it. No shops, no restaurants. And this was late 1990s. It was ridiculous. We shopped for clothes at an open air market called “Under the Bridge” because it was located under an overpass. You had to strip right there in public if you wanted to try anything on.

      One real bookstore in the whole city and even that one almost completely empty. Absolutely nothing like a toy store or a shoe store. Tons of kiosks, of course. We lived for those kiosks because they were the only form of entertainment.

      And it wasn’t the bandit wars even. It was that nobody wanted to bother.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What people call pizza in America is not pizza. Once you have eaten the real stuff in Naples you’ll never call it pizza again.

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    1. The best pizza I’ve had wasn’t in Italy but at a hotel in Lanzarote, there was a dedicated pizza oven and they cranked out these small pizzes (maybe a foot or so across) with super fresh ingredients (just a couple per pizza) . Amazingly good (my favorite had some kind of blue cheese which is maybe not canon but delicious)

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  6. I’ve always hated pizza and almost never had to eat it, thank God. What they have in Naples, yes, that’s different but this greasy bad dough covered with bad cheese, canned tomato sauce, and low quality processed meat is just not something to choose.

    Description of Kharkiv in the 1990s is fascinating.

    It was always Mexican food we ended up missing in Europe. Not U.S. Mexican food, the real thing, handmade corn tortillas, caldo de camarón. You can sometimes get these things now but it used to be, only in Mex. or Greater Mex., and we didn’t realize until we didn’t have them that those, for us, were the foods of home

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