Most us can’t imagine a world without pizza. It’s a staple of the American diet, isn’t it?
People on the front end of the baby-boom generation, however, can indeed remember a time when “pizza pie,” as it was known, entered our lives.
That’s the case for food historian Sandy Oliver of Islesboro. Oliver, author of food history books and cookbooks, distinctly recalls her first pizza encounter. She was about 14 and living in Connecticut.
“We went out for it,” recalls Oliver, 66. “I remember I liked it very, very much. My mother was very intrigued by it. She knew it had an herb on it, and it was oregano. After that, she put oregano on everything, even on hamburgers.”
So, pizza hasn’t been around forever. Though it’s thoroughly entrenched now, early on, it was fad food.
Oliver began working in the food history in 1971, when she founded the fireplace cooking program at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Conn. She provides talks on historic cooking at places such as the Freeport Historical Society. Oliver is the author of “Saltwater Foodways” and “Food in Colonial and Federal America,” and has written cookbooks.
It seems like food fads of one type or another have been around forever, and many become part of the everyday, accepted choices. In recent years, they’ve included such dishes as sushi, ribs, smoothies, frozen yogurt, gelato and falafel, and specific diets such as fat-free, carb-free, all-natural, organic, gluten-free, vegan, raw and paleo.
When it comes to fads, Oliver goes back to the 1970s, when quiche became the thing.
“I remember when everyone was learning all the parameters about quiche,” Oliver said. “Most fads just burst on the scene, and then they settle back. Fads are one thing, trends are another.”
Oliver remembers the “heart-healthy” phenomenon of the early 1980s, which might represent the latter.
“Fat was bad, with no distinction between fats,” she said. “Beef took it on the chin. Eggs were bad. Now they’ve found that eggs are very, very good for you.”
Oliver said she sometimes convinces her partner to be what she calls a “flexetarian” – someone who will occasionally eat a vegetarian meal.
Other fads? Back-to-landers in Maine went for more whole grains and foods like hummus in the 1970s, Oliver said. Tex-Mex, with its tortilla chips, tacos and fajitas, became popular a couple of decades later. Oliver also mentioned “fusion cooking” of the 1990s, when foods from the East came into vogue.
One constant in many of our diets is leftovers, and Oliver has no problem with that. In fact, she had just prepared a meal of leftover lemon chicken, cut up in pieces and cooked with mushrooms and leftover cole slaw.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Oliver said “leftovers are like having money in the bank.”
For Freeport resident Sam Hunneman, 64, who was raised on Chebeague Island, pizza didn’t make a blip on her food radar until she was a teenager.
“Mine was the last grade to do middle school on the island, so it was with great fear and trepidation that we four left the small pond of the Chebeague Island Grammar School to attend Greely where we graduated in a class of nearly 70,” she said. “Anyway, no pizza to speak of. Well, there was the one at Carol Jean’s birthday party, which was homemade and looked ever so much like her vaccination scab. But the go-out-and-buy-one-from-a-real-pizza-parlor one was when I was 16 and in Portland and my first serious beau and I decided to be brave and get ourselves a pie.”
She said her boyfriend had, in some ways, “led an even more sheltered life than I, even though he grew up in Belmont, Mass. This was mostly because his palate was limited to hamburgers and peanut butter and fluff sandwiches, but he wound up his courage and walked into Angelone’s. Fifteen minutes or so later, he walked out, with the pizza box firmly tucked under his arm. Yeah, babes in the woods we were.”
The pizza, said Hunneman, “was a great success and I think it was only a few years later that we actually expanded our horizons to include pepperoni.”
Sharon Brennan of Freeport doesn’t remember many food fads. Brennan’s mother, Eva, made everything from scratch, and nothing came out of a can. Going out to Fat Boy’s in Brunswick was an adventure when she was a young mother, but Brennan and her family never ate out when she was growing up.
Frappes at the old Johnson’s Phamacy in Freeport were an adventure, indeed.
But Brennan, 67, can point to one “event” that changed her dietary habits forever. She and her husband, Ken, and the rest of the family were celebrating Mother’s Day in the early 1990s.
“They gave me a grill for Mother’s Day, and we made burgers,” Brennan said. “Our daughter, Amy, said that meat came from somebody’s mother, and she wouldn’t eat it. From that day on, we don’t eat beef anymore. We eat chicken and pork just once in a while. And we try to eat organically.”
That Mother’s Day was a life-changing experience, indeed.
“She changed us,” Brennan said.
Larry Grard is a staff writer at Current Publishing.