March (pizza) Madness
What is it about sporting events and pizza? Ride along with delivery person Tina Lance.
A white pickup truck hurtles with urgency down Wilshire Boulevard. Gripping the wheel is Tina Lance, a brown-haired, 20-something with a winning smile and a mission that, in the course of the afternoon, will cause her to quote Jean-Paul Sartre, Emily Dickinson, and the immortal baseball poem "Casey at the Bat."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
She turns around at the next intersection and stops in front of an apartment building. She grabs her precious cargo and hurries into the building. Part intuition, part adrenaline, she swiftly finds her target, and within moments, has completed her mission – delivered a Sicilian pepperoni pizza to customer Matt Flores.
It is 20 minutes before the start of the game – the semifinals of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, and Ms. Lance has just participated in one of the more lucrative exchanges in the national nexus between food and sports. We're talking "March Madness" and pizza. Millions of pizzas, actually. Acres of anchovies. Silos of sausage.
Pick your metaphor: If the topping goes on pizza, Americans consume it. Especially during the three-week March Madness run, a time when millions of Americans, mostly men but increasingly women, sit on their couches and watch endless basketball games, hardly moving except to answer the door when a Tina Lance knocks.
All of which raises fundamental questions. What is it about pizza and athletic events? For that matter, what is it about college basketball? And are tomatoes really a fruit or a vegetable?
More on that later. First some numbers. During the few short weeks of the college basketball tournament, food industry sources say Americans consume:
•52 million slices of pizza, with pepperoni being among the most popular (13 million slices).
•More than 100 acres of pizza a day, which, for you ecofriendly types, is about the same amount of rain forest that disappears in Brazil every hour.
•Enough pizza during the 19-day tournament to cover nearly 1 million basketball courts, laid rounded edge to rounded edge. Don't try to dribble on the black olives, though. They create funny bounces.
Pizza is "flexible and portable," says Lynne Olver, editor of foodtimeline.com. "It fits into the American culinary mantra better than just about any food."
• • •
Yet pizza is hardly an American food. According to Ms. Olver and others, forerunners of the food date back at least to third-century Macedonia and probably to the Stone Age campfires of Neolithic tribes. Takeout would have to await the invention of the wheel, and the pizza we know today required the introduction of the tomato.
Olver credits Spanish and Portuguese explorers who journeyed to Mesoamerica in the 17th century for combining New World ingredients – notably, the tomato – with Old World traditions to create something that would be recognizable as a pizza today. (The tomato, incidentally, is a fruit, but it was classified as a vegetable by no less of an eminence than the US Supreme Court in 1893 in order to protect domestic growers.)
"Durable," is how Peter Dunay, financial analyst for Meridian Equity Partners describes it. So what if that term could be used to describe off-road vehicles. "You can heat a slice up five hours later," he says. "You don't want to do that with a hot dog or a hamburger."
"It's the ultimate couch potato food," adds Olver.