The Semiotics of Pizza
& Samuel Morse
There are many reasons to dislike Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraphic code that bears his name. First, I had to listen to Morse code for six hours a day for months while I was in the army. I wound up having very bad dreams in which giant succubus mosquitoes danced on my ear drums taunting me with their incessant beeping. Morse was also a Copperhead defender of slavery. Strike three was that he didn't like pizza. While in Naples in the 1830s, he apparently described pizza as ''a piece of bread that had been taken reeking out of the sewer.'' Well, I didn't think that no one didn't like pizza. (That sentence is correct. Don't give me a hard time.)
I once had a "Taco Pizza" in
Honolulu. If pizza were human language, a discussion would
now follow on Grimm's Law, how pizza changes over time,
creolization of pizza, dialects of pizza, and very, very
irregular verbs. Fortunately, it's just pizza. The
greatest recent innovation in pizza in Naples, recently,
is the cyber-pizza. Yes, you can actually walk into a
pizzeria down at Santa Lucia and have a pizza con
funghi (mushrooms) while you check your email and
And I did come across this:
Lévi-Strauss explores the semiotic properties of culinary practices as a model for social ideology [to] express complex transformations of social category systems. His remarks about attitudes to mushrooms suggest the importance of historical experience for the retention of symbolic associations between edible forms and cosmological concepts.
"Culinary Semiotics" in Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics. 1986.
I immediately think when I read this that this Lévi-Strauss is one pretty "sharp cookie." (I am, as you see, no slouch at food symbolism, myself!) I mean, besides inventing Blue Jeans and composing the Blue Danube Waltz, he still has time to "get his licks in" (touché!) in the food column of his local encyclopedia of semiotics. His insight about mushrooms, alone, is worth its weight in —well, mushrooms.
Mushrooms. Think. You are putting on your pizza something that is not animal, vegetable or mineral. They are alive, yes, but so was the thing that burst out of that guy's chest in Alien. Mushrooms are mycetes, fungi, and "they are classified as something else!" (That's just they way my dictionary puts it, too—italics, exclamation mark and all. It even has 'jitter' lines around the phrase, like those old horror-movie posters, to make you think that the words, themselves, are slowly moving towards you, stalking you—but why talk about celery at a time like this? The dictionary then adds: "Believe us, you don't want to know any more.")
Mushrooms live in the dark, reproduce by spores and are spitting images (yuk!) of those things that toads sit on, and if you, with a brain the size of a bowling ball, can't tell the difference, what makes you think toads can? Furthermore, some languages, such as Italian and German, use the same word for "mushroom" as they do for whatever that gunk is that grows between your toes in the condition known as "athlete's foot". Think about that "symbolic association between edible forms and cosmological concepts" the next time you order pizza con funghi. Or, as we food–semiotics say: "How do you like them apples?!"
I know a Neapolitan woman who, for ideological reasons, refuses to eat any other pizza but the "Margherita". It seems that that pizza was named in the last century in Naples for the first queen of united Italy, Margherita of Savoy (1851-1926, photo insert, above), wife of Umberto I. When the royal family was in Naples, they stayed, of course, at the ex-Bourbon Royal Palace. (Why waste a good palace just because it belonged to a previous dynasty?) A few blocks away from the palace, just off of Via Toledo (also known as via Roma) is a ristorante cum pizzeria named Brandi, one of the most historical of such establishments in Naples. Among the many items of interest on the walls, next to all the pictures of the rich, fat and famous who have eaten there, is the story of how their chef concocted the first pizza Margherita for Her Royal Highness and took it over to the palace, himself. (What was he going to say—"We don't deliver." ?) The colors of the makings—green (basil), white (mozzarella) and red (tomato)—stood for the national colors of the new nation. (Right, whenever the flag was paraded by, every pizza in Naples rose. It was the yeast they could do.) The socio-political ramifications are, indeed, getting deeper and deeper here. Why, for example, does one even put "Basil" on a pizza? After all, he was a Greek prelate who lived from 330 to 379 a.d. and who was the Bishop of Caesarea.
Or mozzarella? Something which comes from the udder of a buffalo?! Now, except for that admittedly touching film about buffaloes that dance with wolves, or whatever, what are the other associations you have for "buffalo"? See what I mean?—"Buffalo Gals," "buffalo breath" and "buffalo chips". I am too young to remember exactly–or even approximately–what "Buffalo Gals" were (except that they apparently liked to "dance by the light of the moon") but I do have, modestly, a passing familiarity with the breath and the chips, and I say, "No, thank you."
And tomato? Now that you have worked yourselves into a semiotic feeding frenzy, you are no doubt asking yourselves why the archaic slang of detective fiction refers to a beautiful woman as a "swell tomato", as in "Geez, boss, dat sure wuz some swell tomato you wuz wit'," when it should be clear even to those with marginal IQ's that the adjectival participle of "swell" is "swollen". Ergo: "Geez, boss, dat sure wuz some swollen tomato you wuz wit'." I did, however, see a "tomato" once with a pair of "gazoombas" that would stop your heart. The only reference I have been able to find to "gazoomba" is in my English-Quechua dictionary. It is an ancient Incan word for "mushroom".