Pizzagate, or Pizzaghazi, if you prefer, has been roiling for four days and shows no sign of abating. On Friday, Jan. 10, new New York mayor Bill De Blasio was filmed and photographed eating pizza with a knife and fork. Left-leaning New Yorkers immediately began calling the board of elections to see if they could rescind their votes for him. The New York Times eagerly chronicled the “foodie firestorm” under the headline “A Fork? De Blasio’s Way of Eating Pizza Is Mocked.” (The more quintessentially Times-ian headline “With a Fork, Bill de Blasio Eats Pizza” had already been claimed by the Observer.) The owner of the Staten Island restaurant where the ostensible culinary crime took place, Goodfellas, put the fork De Blasio had used on display and announced plans to auction it off. And last night, Jon Stewart—perhaps the most opinionated pizza eater on the planet—let loose a torrent of opprobrium for the Democratic mayor:
Stewart, in his scornful, profanity-laden tirade, gave voice to what he seemed to think was a truth universally acknowledged: The only proper way to eat pizza is with one’s hands—especially if one lives in New York. Or, as Stewart put it, “Everyone knows you’re not a real New Yorker until your shirt has at least seven see-through orange grease stains on it.”
Is this true?
I make a living presenting my arbitrary opinions about food as though they were facts, so I understand the impulse behind Stewart’s pizza prescriptivism. But the correct position on pizza-eating techniques is a flexible, open-minded one that takes context into account. Some pizza slices are sturdy, with a thick, bready foundation. Such slices are easy and pleasurable to eat with one’s hands. But other pizza slices are floppy—perhaps overladen with sauce or toppings, or simply too thin-crusted to withstand the weight of the cheese—and these slices are much more enjoyable to consume when you use a knife and fork. Surface area makes as much difference as crust consistency—large slices are, as a rule, more difficult to eat by hand than small slices.
Now, whether pizza slices ought to be sturdy or floppy, broad or dainty, is a legitimate question. And if Stewart and the rest of the New York City-based media were debating the qualities that a proper pizza should possess, that would be a harmless argument. But these self-appointed pizza czars aren’t presenting an argument about how a pizza should be—they’re presenting an argument about how a person should be. Specifically, how a New Yorker should be. And this type of argument is obnoxious.
The implication of Stewart’s diatribe is that only effete, hoity-toity types eat pizza with utensils, while real salt of the earth folks—especially real salt of the earth men—eat pizza with their hands. De Blasio presents as a tall, masculine guy, and his political persona is as a man of the people. So when he eats pizza in a way that doesn’t read as sufficiently manly or populist, Stewart calls him out for it and tries to bring him back in line. It’s a subtle bit of gender and class policing wrapped up in humor.
But why should eating pizza with one’s hands be any manlier or more authentic than eating pizza with a knife and fork? Why shouldn’t people eat pizza however the heck they want? To quote another famous New Yorker who’s currently at the center of a rather more serious controversy, the heart wants what it wants. If Bill de Blasio wants to cut his pizza into bite-size pieces, let him. The new mayor should prove his populist bona fides with policy, not with pizza.