Despite having a blog devoted to politics, philosophy and the cultural changes taking place in the world today, I’m going to start writing about an important part of my life: pizza. As I reflect, I realize that I cannot do justice to “pizza and me” in one post. So interspersed with my other writings I’ll inject a pizza post now and then. Consider this an introduction.
As a child I did not like pizza. I didn’t know why, I’d never tasted it, but it just seemed something I wouldn’t like. Then at Shakey’s Pizza in Sioux Falls at a birthday party my sister Roni had, I decided at age 12 to try a slice of hamburger pizza. Delicious! I was hooked. Since then pizza has played a strong role in my life.
My first job was at Village Inn Pizza in Sioux Falls at age 16. I left it for a higher paying busboy/DMO position at First Edition Steak House (instead of $2.15 I’d make $2.45 an hour), but returned in less than a year. DMO stands for Dish Machine Operator, and I was told by the manager Warren that I was the fastest dishwasher he’d ever seen. Perhaps I had a future in that profession, but I never pursued it. Within a month after my return to Village Inn I was promoted to Supervisor/Night manager, and continued working there off and on until I was done with college. My sophomore year in college I got a 30 hour a week job at a law firm, but in summers I combined it with my pizza work to total 60 hours a week. Before going to grad school I worked at Guido’s pizza in Sioux Falls, an unbaked pizza place that later went out of business. It was either me or the manager/owner working there, and due to lack of business I spent most of my time studying Italian or playing Donkey Kong.
After a got my MA and did a stint working for a Senator in Washington DC I decided the political games of DC were not for me so I quit and moved to Minneapolis, MN. There I learned that an MA in International Studies from Johns Hopkins SAIS was impressive, but not really helpful in getting work in that part of the country. So I became an Assistant Manager at Rocky Rococo’s pizza, starting in Uptown and then opening the store in Brooklyn Park. My pizza career ended when I started the Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota.
Through grad school I ate pizza almost daily. I made my own dough, mixed spices with tomato sauce, paste and water to create my own sauce, and topped it with cheese. Between that and pasta (usually also with a self-made red sauce and some grated Parmesan cheese) I ate cheaply but well. I mean, pizza and pasta, what could be better? To this day I still make pizzas often, though I’ve found that my family prefers the cheap store pizza sauce to my own concoction.
I still remember my first night at Village Inn. It was my first “real” job, and I was told to run ovens. They had a “buy a family size get a single free” coupon out, so my ovens were full. They were the old fashioned Blodgett ovens where you use a large wooden spatch to get pizzas out — no wimpy conveyor belt. Here in Farmington both the Farmington House of Pizza and Athena’s have the same kind of oven. I also had a metal tool I could use to pull the pizzas to the edge (it had a spot to grab the pan with), and then lift the pizza to check the dough. I also had to pop bubbles. Bubbles emerge if the pizza hasn’t been “doc’d” (little holes put in the dough), and even if doc’d often pop up as the dough rises. They can get very large and potentially ruin the pie. Unless they were small, you had to not only pop them, but cover them with a little cheese to avoid having an ugly pie.
I would later become one of only a few people who could run all four ovens full of pizzas without needing assistance (I also would hold the record for rolling out pizzas, topping pizzas, and dishwashing — I was fast! Thats a trait I have to this day – slow people annoy me.) That first night was fun, I was getting constant praise for how well I was doing on ovens and it was cool to bake pizza and then pull them out of the oven, slice them, and call out on the intercom “pick up pizza number 35 please,” and take the order to the counter. I felt very important, I was the guy handing out the pizzas!
Alas, one negative of those wonderful old Blodgett ovens is the tendency to burn oneself. Over the years I got burns all over my hands and arms, but the worst was that first night. I got a bad burn on my hand, and it puffed up bigger and bigger as I kept working, having to put my hand into the oven to retrieve pizzas. I tried putting ice on it, and ignored a co-worker’s plea that I ask to be relieved of oven duty. This was fun, I didn’t want to have to go bus tables!
At about midnight that co-worker told the manager about my burn, and he came and looked at it. I expected sympathy or perhaps praise for fighting through the pain, but instead he got mad. “This is just a job, you don’t have to be a hero,” he yelled at me, “my God, when did you get the burn?” When he found out that I got it relatively early in evening his anger grew. “You can injure yourself badly, the heat from the oven only makes it worse, that’s just plain stupid.” He then ordered me to go the ER — my first ER visit ever — to treat the burn, and said to make sure I tell them Workman’s Comp should cover it. “And don’t ever do anything this stupid again.”
The ER experience was interesting. The manager had called my parents to let them know I’d be late, and I definitely had an interesting first night in the pizza business. The manager went from anger to playful teasing later on, I think he realized he’d made his point.
Still, that first stint at VIPP (Village Inn Pizza Parlor) was short. A neighbor owned the First Edition restaurant and talked my parents in to having me apply there. It would be a year before I’d be back at VIPP and really make pizza a permanent part of my life. But hey – running ovens, getting a burn, going to the ER…I’d say it was an interesting first night in the working world!