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On Grief, Pizza, and Evoking Memory with Food
An excerpt from Humble Pie by Adam Dalva
This newsletter excerpt of The Ultimate by Adam Dalva is presented by Vital Farms, producers of ethically-made butter.
This week, we’re sharing something special: writer Adam Dalva’s tribute to his brother and his love of dollar slice pizza, titled The Ultimate, published in Humble Pie. Adam is the Senior Fiction Editor of Guernica Magazine whose writing has appeared in publications like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic, and we’re thrilled to share his Cake Zine debut with you here. Read on for an excerpt, plus more announcements.
My brother Robert and I grew up on Manhattan’s East Side. Some afternoons, we’d go to a deli—he’d get a stack of Genoa salami on an untoasted plain bagel—or to a diner for a hamburger. Usually, though, we’d stop in at the Ultimate Pizza, a below-ground hole in the wall on 57th and 1st. If you look at the Ultimate’s Yelp page, you’ll see a photo of my mother on the sidewalk holding our long-dead Maltese.
My brother and I would always order a large half regular, half pepperoni. A simple pie, sweet-sauced and oily, which we’d take home. When I think of pizza, I think of those afternoons with my brother: Pardon the Interruption; green bean bags; the space-age boot-up sound of our Sega Dreamcast.
Strange, but often remarked upon, is that food is the pathway to memory. Stranger, I’ve learned, is that when memory is distorted by loss, the food distorts too. Pizza, which I’ve always loved for its humbleness, has become redolent of grief.
My brother died eleven months ago. Ever since, unfathomable depression, nightmares, screaming at random moments in the car. He had been mentally ill for years, but despite our frequent blowups, he was my friend. In his adult life, he mainly ate pizza. The simple kind: Domino’s, after the Ultimate closed. One of his issues with me was his supposition that I was a phony, as evidenced by my adult fondness for artisanal pizza. He felt that I didn’t actually prefer pies with, say, honey and hot peppers.
But then, he hated all the ways that I had changed. His was an ouroboros life. Hospital, childhood home, rental apartment that he’d destroy, hospital again. Every outward motion of mine—my marriage, when he had no girlfriend; my teaching job, when he kept getting fired; my publications, when he never could get past the first pages of his decade-long attempt to write a paper on semiotics—emphasized his own stasis.
Removing myself from our shared childhood forced him to notice our differences. And now that he’s removed himself from me, I notice him everywhere.
Illustration by Rhe Civitello.
There’s a word in German, “Kummerspeck.” It literally means “grief bacon,” but it figuratively means the weight gained after tragedy. I find this word a comfort. For some bereaved people, the shock to the system—and my brother’s death was a shock, though I’d been fearing it for many years—can lead to metabolic issues.
My metabolism was already bad, a lifetime of judgmental changing room mirrors. My brother, though, as he enjoyed pointing out, had an athletic build. Until the last days of his life, nothing stuck to him despite his pizza-centered diet. I’ve always been careful about my eating, salads and low carbs, but my habits disintegrated this year.
I haven’t stepped on a scale since March, but I know it’s bad. The face in the mirror is warped, distorted. Like my brother’s in the last selfies he sent me.
The novel I’ve been writing since 2020 is about my brother now. Everything is. My book reviews, my fiction. My marriage. My dog. Even pizza, that simple canvas of dough, cut into eight.
Grief, like food, plucks at seemingly random memories. I’ve been wrecked this month by that Sean Kingston song at a retro prom party, by a certain street corner in Paris where I once watched fireworks with my brother, by a waiter wearing one black glove, by the Cary Grant movie Charade, by a man in a restaurant who had a particular (beloved) way of holding his head. I started playing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game at one point this fall, but had to stop when a turtle, dying, sprung back to life when he found a digital pizza pie.
Misc cake content:
Eat: A two-day, all-cake pop-up at All Day Baby in Los Angeles.
Go: Aliza is interviewing baking icons Natasha Pickowicz and Claire Saffitz for a live podcast in NYC on August 17! RSVP for free here.