When the Spice is “Race”: The Case of the “Racist” Pizza

Huffington Post called it “the most racist pizza ever.”    It’s got southern fried chicken, argula, sea-salted watermelon, a sunflower seed crust and goat, ricotta and bleu cheeses.  It’s the “pick-a-nika” pizza from Certe in New York.

I’ve never had this pizza, I don’t want to have this pizza, I don’t think this pizza sounds particularly appetizing, but I’m still waiting for this pizza to call me a nigger.  When that happens, I’ll let you know.  It will be moldy, fly covered and finally dried and petrified before it does and that’s why I’m calling this outrage of the week a lesson in the need to understand context.  Is this pizza truly racist?  Can it BE a racist pizza?  What does calling it racist say about us?

“Pick-a-nika” is supposedly based on the way that Mr. Guzman, the owner of the pizzeria pronounces the word “picnic.” That’s not unheard of. It’s part of ethnic European America. What Mr. Guzman didn’t know is the old urban legend circulating in the African American community that picnic is a racist term.  Before you scoff, keep in mind that during the time of Nadir of Black life–between Reconstruction and World War II, many normal, happy-go lucky things were transformed into racial battlegrounds–jokes and words circulated that gave all African Americans an air of unease.  Products were sold by the thousands mocking and demeaning African Americans or at best, praising them for their servile and submissive attention to white people.  Sunrise and sundown meant the times you were to enter and leave all-white towns.  More than one white supremacist in that day MAY HAVE referred to a lynching in coded speech as a “picnic”, (short for pick-a-nigger—apart.)  Doesn’t mean the origin of the word “picnic” lies in that fetid, twisted, grotesque joke–because it absolutely doesn’t.  It means that something harmless was given a sinister veneer and that it remained in the memory of African Americans as a scar from the trauma of lynch law.

This difficult miscommunication/ situation reminds me of a PC gone awry situation in the 90’s when a group of high school kids got disciplined when their multicultural band chanted “Oi! Oi!” during the performance of a song they wrote. Their principal thought they were being anti-Semitic when in reality they were a punk band and using the British “oi!” not the Yiddishe “oy!”  If that seems terribly off to you consider that many attribute “Hip Hip Hooray” to anti-Semitic cries during massacres of Jews in the Middle Ages and 19th century.  Is this about feelings or about blood memory?  Do we really have a grip on how far historical traumas bleed into our own time and experience?  (In writing this post I noted that Snopes.com didn’t have an article addressing “hip hip hooray,” but there certainly was one for “picnic.”  (#ijs)

White Southerners have long been grandfathered into Africanized foodways over the course of multiple generations for the past 400 years there are very few that would doubt you’re just as likely to find fried chicken and watermelon at a Klan rally as you would at a Black family reunion.  Fried fowl–born of a collision of West African  poultry fried in palm or peanut oil and Dorset style chicken from the British Isles and that ancient African curcubit–the watermelon–speak volumes about the complicated nature of being Southern and the deep influence enslaved and free people of African descent had on the American South.  Fried chicken and watermelon are foods that came to be associated with African Americans owing to stereotypes and accusations of theft, greed and barbarism during the late 19th century.   Both of those realities exist side by side—and you don’t have to Southern to like watermelon or fried chicken or both.  This pizza had nothing to do with the South or our assumptions about whst those foods mean. Again, what does it say about us that these ideas persist under the skin of American culture?

One of the first memes to come out about Michael Brown, killed just over one year ago in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri was the image of the corpse of young Brown surrounded by fried chicken and watermelon.  The image enraged me and made me burst into tears. It brought up all sorts of emotions in me about my own place in the world as a Black male with a big body and often–but not always–seen with a veil of suspicion.  It was both cruel and crude–and undoubtedly racist.  It wasn’t funny–it was meant to underscore some un-articulated notion that perhaps the white supremacists of the 19th century and early 20th century were dead on–we were dangerous, sub-human, useless eaters. But still, this pizza had nothing to do with any of that.

I had to field many a question as a Hebrew school teacher to students who thought they were being clever by asking me if I enjoyed fried chicken and watermelon.  My retort was often, “Oh like you like bagels, lox and kreplach?”  The reply was almost always, “Well that’s just stupid.”  My response, “No more stupid than you believing something you’ve heard passed around about how I adore watermelon and fried chicken.  I can’t stand watermelon but I happen to love fried chicken.  Do you like fried chicken?” The answer was usually yes, and my reply was usually, “Welcoming to being Black! Please collect your toaster on the way out the door.  I should have known that I could have converted much easier just by liking bagels and kreplach…could have saved me the trouble.”  That went over a few heads–but not so many I didn’t drive home the point.

If you are reading this you are either an American or a participant in the global culture brought about by technology, media and airplanes.  A smaller human earth is your home.  I acknowledge and participate in the stories of other people’s cultures and civilizations every day from the moment I awake until the moment I crash.  That’s the power of enduring cultural traits..they outlive the borders of the individuals and cultures that initially gave them life and they spread over time and place and take on different meanings and assumptions beyond the control of their innovators.  Control cannot be had in the journey of these ideas but only in the consciousness and respect and measured and balanced response we give when controversy arises.

Relating to neighbors of different cultures even as we draw on and participate in their worlds is a delicate act.  It is made more complicated by the fact that we more often than ever before have multicultural families and friendships and are enriched in ways the people of the past could never have dreamed.  With this comes a responsibility to be self-educated on multiple levels.  We often read these incidents smugly as an attempt to regulate feelings or inculcate guilt.  That’s not really possible and that really isn’t the case.  We are crying out for intercultural responsibility.

This pizza wasn’t a racist pizza.  It looked pretty damn racist because we haven’t dealt with the mental detritus of our collective past.  Instead we sweep it under the bodies of the people who fall victim to our inability to once and for all clean up.  It’s our responsibility to think about how what we say and do may come across to others and to ask how we can handle the past and cultural artifacts and mentifacts with respect and care and the proper deference to traditional authority.  We labor under the fantasy that the illusion we live too comfortably with called “race,” can be annihilated by our dismissal of the very real power of that illusion.

This pizza isn’t ever going to call me the n word, make me feel less of myself or take away my earning potential, shoot me for reaching for my ID or become enraged for kissing a white guy in public (I do that sometimes) .  It’s a gross pizza, in my opinion…but its not a racist pizza.  The people who called it out are not “race-baiters,” and the people who thought it was silly to raise the issue in the first place are pretty naive–but they aren’t necessarily going to burn a cross.  We owe it to each other though–to dialogue, hear each other out, sit at the table together–not because we want a kumbayah moment–but because we want truth.  Ethnotype, genotype and phenotype–all real–all very much a part of the human experience, and undeniable.  With those come history, culture, blood memory, emotions, hard truths–passions.  Like it or not that is the real Homo sapiens–complex computers of culture, genes, colors, body types, states of mind–and we all have baggage.   Sensitivity and respect aren’t options in that kind of world–the only world we have ever known.

So….

Give me my pizza–because I love it–but next time–think twice–maybe three times–and hold the “race.”

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About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in African American Food History, Cultural Politics, Pop Culture and Pop Food and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to When the Spice is “Race”: The Case of the “Racist” Pizza

  1. Ann says:

    Well said! Bravo!

  2. You teach me moment by moment and your writing is astounding. Thank you for doing YOU, Michael W. Twitty! Such an honor to be able to work with you!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Good read. If everyone participating in conversations about race would take some time to breath between shouts…

    Off the main topic, I have to ask, what is “Dorset style chicken”? Google renders me nothing.

  4. DeAnna says:

    Michael, you are a very, very gifted writer – I have rarely read such a powerful essay. Please keep telling it like it is in your unique and intellectually articulate way! I look forward to each missive –
    Love you here in Oregon! DeAnna
    And if you ever come to Eugene I would love to cook you dinner! It would be a pleasure!

  5. Mitch Mitchell says:

    First, that was a wonderful read; have to thank Holly for sharing it.

    Second, I think I’d have missed the possible racism in the title after I looked at all the ingredients on the pizza, which sounds pretty nasty if you ask me. I’ve heard some folks from Europe say that phrase so it didn’t bother me at all, and truthfully I was thinking it looked more like a Greek thing than Italian anyway. Of course, since there wasn’t a single thing I saw there that I’d want on any pizza I was thinking about eating… just yuck! lol

  6. Paige McB says:

    I’m new to your blog, I was brought here because of your “Black Thanksgiving” post. I am white, hosting the black side of my family and wanted to make sure I had the right dishes. I just want to thank you. You are doing the work of angels and your point of view is complex and beautiful. Thank you.

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