Pizza: The Great Jewish Invention

Ever wonder how pizza, one of America's favorite foods, came about? Millions of pies are consumed daily. But how did it all begin? And where did it come from? Of course, one never thinks of this while enjoying their favorite slice. Leave it to a compulsive nut like me to reflect on this. Yet Pizza does have an interesting and varied history. First of all, we think of it as an Italian invention. Well, there are many theories out there as to the origins of pizza, and in this respect our Italian brethren are not the only ones involved.

Pizza, at its basic, is baked dough with toppings; and its genesis comes from flat, round bread cakes that have been with us since the beginning of time. The ancient Greeks had a flat round bread (plankuntos) baked with an assortment and toppings and eaten at the time by the common folk. In ancient Persia (modern day Iraq) soldiers of Darius the Great in the 6th century B.C.E. baked a kind of flat bread on their shields and covered it with dates and cheese. But I do not credit the invention of pizza to those great empires, mighty though they may have been. My favorite theory about the invention of pizza involves the Jews and Imperial Rome. Scoff in you will, but the logic and proof is irrefutable. Just as some credit Irish monks with preserving ancient manuscripts and thus saving western civilization during the Dark Ages, I credit the Jews with inspiring America's favorite snack.

Here's how it all happened. In the year 66 of the Common Era, the Jews rose up in revolt against their Roman oppressors in then Judea (modern day Israel). The Romans sent in general Titus Flavius Vespasian with four legions, among them the 10th Legion. The revolt lasted until September 70 C.E. During that time, the soldiers of the 10th legion faced a shortage of supplies, primarily bread. The only thing they had available was unleavened bread that the Jews ate, especially during their holy days. The Jewish unleavened bread was much like present day pita bread, which is still consumed today in Greece and the Middle East (along with countless yuppies on the East Side). But the Romans couldn't stomach this unleavened bread because, truthfully, to them it tasted awful. So they put toppings on it, usually a mix of olive oil, vegetables, herbs and even honey.

With the squashing of the revolt, the 10th Legion was sent back to its home base in Naples. And the legionaries (much like the GIs returning from Italy after the Second World War with a yen for newly discovered pizza) brought back with them a taste for this flavored flat bread. Soon it became a Naples favorite. In fact, shops have been discovered in the ancient city of Pompeii complete with marble slabs and other tools which resemble a conventional pizzeria.

What about the tomatoes and cheese and all that other stuff? The Romans used cheese as a topping as well. Tomatoes were brought to Europe from Peru in the 16th century, and people in Naples started adding tomatoes to the flat bread
to create the simple pizza that we know today. They became known as "Neopolitan pies" and the men who baked the dish (in the poorer sections of Naples, by the way) were "pizzaioli"---hence the pie became "pizza."

So there you have it. You can thank our Jewish brethren (by way of the ancient Romans) for this heavenly creation. Today there are hundreds of toppings for pizza, everything from Jalapeno peppers to caviar. It is estimated that American and Canadian citizens eat an average of 23 pounds of pizza, per person, per year, with the favorite topping combination being pepperoni and cheese. And February 9th is International Pizza Day!

Below is the simplest pizza recipe I know. It's not your traditional pie. It follows more along the lines of the savory enjoyed by the ancient Romans in that it uses a flat bread as the pie. In this case, focaccia. You can get focaccia bread in almost any supermarket these days. My favorite is the Boboli brand which comes in original pizza crust, thin crust, or 100% whole wheat. The recipe is a variation on Pizza Margherita, named after Queen Margherita of Italy who is reputed in 1889 to have inspired her chef to create a pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil---to emulate the color of the Italian flag: Red, white and green.

Combine 2 tablespoons olive oil; 1/2 pound plum, chopped tomatoes (can use good quality canned tomatoes); 2 garlic cloves, finely minced; and salt to taste. Set aside. Top the focaccia with 6 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese, and then add the tomato mixture. Bake on a baking sheet or oven rack at 450 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and top with 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese and 1/4 cup fresh chopped basil. Cut into wedges and serve.

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