Friday Deep: U.S. Pizza Team

Posted on April 25, 2010


Sometimes I think there are just too many things in the world I want to try before I flip the card on life.  I just don’t think I’ll be able to get around to all of them.  The odds aren’t good that I’ll ever hold an ancestral title (like “Duke of Kingswood Apartments”) or turn a double play in Wrigley Field, or summon the courage to call LL Cool J a name to his face and see what happens.  Opportunities like those are so rare.  They just don’t come around that often.  Which is why, when I recently happened to walk into a kitchen with a flat disc of dough laying on the counter, destined for future pizza-dom, I knew that I had only one choice: to toss that dough in the air, and giggle like a little girl.

I don’t know why I’ve always wanted to toss pizza dough, but I can’t help it.  Maybe it’s the combination of absurdity and elegance that’s present in the action.  The dough is misshapen and wobbly as it spins, and as it’s caught it spills over the hands, like the pizza-maker suddenly caught some flying slime or motor oil.  But in the hands of a good practitioner of dough-tossing, it also has a smoothness, like someone practicing tai chi.  No energy is wasted as the dough goes from hand to air, and as totally ludicrous as it seems in the details, on the whole it looks marvelous.  I could probably watch it for hours.

So I threw the dough for a while, and I had about as much fun as a person can legally have with some dough- I said legally, Vermont, I’m looking at you, perverts.  And my hosts were generous enough not to have a conniption when I dropped the dough on the floor several times.  This floor was clean enough to eat off of, so I wasn’t too worried.

And because of this minor success, I immediately started thinking about how to get better at pizza-tossing.  “How can I get to the point where I’m a master pizza-tosser?  I want to dough to jump off my hands like those guys!  I want to catch it with the touch of a judo master.”  See, whenever I try something new and have a little success, I always think it’s my destiny to become incredible at that thing.  Soccer, tae kwon do, basketball, cribbage, whatever- each time I start something, the imagination gets cranked up, and suddenly I’m in the middle of a daydream where I’m quietly tossing pizza dough in a small Italian village, with a line of people making their way to my shop to learn my secrets.  If I wanted to get to that point, I’d better figure out how to throw it without it landing on the ceiling or turning into something that looks like an amoeba.  Which led me to Google.

It turns out that there’s a group known as the US Pizza Team.  They compete worldwide in the realm of pizza dough tossing, including the World Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy.  There are events like ‘largest dough stretch’, ‘fastest pizza-maker’, and ‘free-style dough acrobatics’, and as if the event names aren’t impressive enough, the US Pizza Team has won multiple medals at pizza-making competitions around the globe.  These guys are good- like if Little Caesar made babies with an Olympic gymnast.  They spin pizza like I flip channels.  They manipulate the dough like a Wall Street banker.  I’d already dropped my pizza on the floor, so there goes my dream of being a guru, a hot-shot, the best in the world at pizza-tossing.  The US Pizza Team had beaten me to it.

But the more I thought about it, the more confused I got.  How’d pizza-tossing get turned into something competitive?  Who decided what the criteria for most delicious pizza were?  I can picture some judge saying “Oh, the dough only went 2 feet in the air on that throw….poor rotation from side to side, and the symmetry was lacking, there was a lot of wobbling…. not strong on the catch either, I like to see you controlling the dough earlier…4.5 out of 10.”  It reminds me of Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society’, ripping pages out of books and yelling about how you can’t grade poetry.  I feel the same way about pizza.

Wanting to quantify things is in our human nature.  We just don’t do very well with gray areas.  We want to know who’s best and what’s most.  And if something doesn’t have a score attached to it, we’ll find a way to set up some rules and go grade it.  It’s only natural that something like pizza-tossing, that’s clearly more of an art, would eventually find its way into the competitive arena.  We can’t help ourselves.  I’m pretty sure the first time Leonardo da Vinci showed the Mona Lisa to somebody, they turned to him and said, “This is great, Leo.  Can you do twenty of them in an hour?  That’s the world record right now.”

It’s part of the reason why a little bit of me sometimes wants to give the Pharisees some slack.  Of course, in the story of Jesus, they’re sort of the villains.  Jesus consistently yells at them for their legalism and hard-heartedness.  They get mad at him and start trying to trap him.  Eventually some of them plot his death and succeed at it.  In terms of likability, they’re not exactly the Mighty Ducks.

Instead of walking individually with God, they took their rules and turned them into a contest.  Who’s most observant?  Who’s the most righteous?  Let’s check all the rules and then we’ll see.  And when they found somebody not living up to their standards, the Pharisees made them feel like failures- all because they weren’t as good at following the Law.  I do this all the time.  Instead of cherishing my freedom, I take my life of faith and make it a competition.  Am I giving to the poor?  Check.  Reading my Bible every day?  Check.  Trying to witness?  Check.  And what happens next?  This thought-  “Well, I’m doing everything right, it looks like.  I must be winning.”  In a nutshell, I’m entering my faith in the World Jesus-Following Championships.  Yuck.  The Pharisees and I, we’re world class Pizza Teamers.

There’s no winning in the life of faith, at least not as we understand winning to look like.  You can’t set up parameters and hurdles and then pat yourself on the back for clearing them, all the while looking at the poor suckers behind you who aren’t doing as well.

The Pharisees thought they had it made- they had all the rules memorized, dedicated their whole lives to obeying them, had gained prominence in the community because, in the game of faith, they were the champions.  And then Jesus shows up and obliterates the whole thing.  He called them white-washed tombs, with nothing on the inside but death, and announced that they’d missed the point of faith entirely.  Obedience comes secondary to the heart, and so they could go on getting 10.0’s on all their scorecards, because God didn’t care.  All their events, all their performances, turned out not to be important at all.

The US Pizza Team has shown me the light- I’ll never be the greatest pizza-tosser in the world.  If I ever get on stage with some dough in my hand, I will embarrass myself and (because of YouTube) likely embarrass several future generations as well.  I would probably get a cease and desist order from the World Pizza Headquarters.  Luckily, it doesn’t matter.  Because pizza-tossing and Jesus have this in common- no grades, no scores, no winners.

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