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Sauce on the Side: a Peking Pizzeria Debacle

I’m at a pizza place in Beijing, maybe somewhere else. It doesn’t matter where. It’s in China so I usually get the same thing: pepperoni, sausage (if it’s homemade), mushrooms and/or onions (depending on spontaneity), and always extra cheese. Sometimes I do half and half, like a Margarita on one side and more loaded on the other. But this type of order invariably confuses the waitstaff, most of whom are conditioned to the prescribed titled options, like “Meat Lovers,” Quatro Formaggi,” and so on. Anything customized tends to rattle them, requiring a slow and deliberate explanation. In some cases the manager or chef is involved.

It has usually worked out in the end, and even when it doesn’t I’m still happy. Aptly written on a bumper sticker I once saw, “Pizza is like sex. When it’s good it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.” I’m a New Yorker after all, which makes me a venerable pizza junkie from birth. And while the bar for good “zah” has been set to the highest of Queens standards, I’ve years ago forgone any snobbery for a quick and easy fix.

But the last few years things have changed as a direct result of the growing prevalence of the cheese crust. The problem with the cheese crust is it doesn’t have enough flavor. So the logical and, from my upbringing, obvious solution is the addition of a simple side-dish of pizza sauce. It is upon this innocuous, if even harmless, request when the pizza situation goes pear-shaped.

The server is usually baffled, if even speechless, or at least floundering for words, in English in Chinese, it makes no difference. The sauce thing goes far beyond their training, far beyond the comfort zones of expectation. They have no idea what I’m talking about or what to do. And exhorting that I’ll pay extra for the pleasure only compounds complications.

I’ll call another passing server to come over and assist. While the original waiter still bumbles with inaction, the new one listens intently. This one scurries off and as quickly whizzes back with one hand proudly toting a bottle of grated parmesan.

“No, no, no. The TOMATO sauce the CHEF uses to MAKE the pizza.”

The first waiter finally speaks since taking my order, and he confesses that HE doesn’t know how to make pizza. While an incredulous reply, anything, after all, is possible with oft exception of the most obvious. So here I am, teaching THEM the basics on how to make pizza.

Luckily, I have an iPhone to assist in the crash course, and I’m Googling for images of pizza sauce, pizza, anything that might help. But the connection is too slow and besides, none of us has much patience. The waitress buzzes off again and soon reappears hopeful with a bottle of tabasco sauce. This is nothing new, I’ve seen this before.

A third person, a manager type-of-sorts, enters the scene. With optimism anew I extol my desire for dipping the cheesy crust into flavorful pizza sauce. She listens intently with the trained ear of one who’s ambitious for more authority. I ask if she understands, the flavor thing, does she get it? Does she eat pizza, does she even know how to make it? Reluctantly but with a disingenuous smile she noncommittally shakes her head denying all knowledge.

With the iPhone still in hand something occurs: a stroke of genius. I have a pizza-making app on the phone. My four-year old son loves playing it. It’s called “Pizza Party” or something. I open it with haste and hope, and the three of them huddle in. I select the make-your-own pizza game option, not the timed game where you have to make the pizza they choose.

I hurriedly get through the first stages: with an index finger I chop a pepper and click “ok;” now onto spreading the dough into a gooey amoeba shape. The accompanying sound effect of slurps goes unappreciated, even by me. And then onto the grand finale, and the very purpose of this entire song and dance: the sauce!

I excitedly finger the screen in circles showcasing the red splotch and reveling from the epiphany.

“Ketchup?” she bleats.

It is always the same: nonsensical and hopeless.

But the culinary dream is within reach, it is just a matter of endured passion, a matter of going the extra mile. It is not for lack of language nor of reason. And if I knew it were my only play, I would even march right into the kitchen with the three of them surely running after me and grab the pot of sauce in triumph.

But the inexplicable goes beyond understanding. Butterflies flap their wings. Brains fall apart.

I go into auto-drone: “pizza sauce, pizza sauce, pizza sauce?” I say it over and over. This is a desperate tactic, and they know it. I suggest someone asks in the kitchen. A simple favor. One of them goes, I think, then comes back. It is irrelevant.

On this occasion she returns and finally utters the magic words, “Pizza sauce.” She says them cooly and matter-of-factly as if absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had just transpired between us. She even confirms to my amazement that what I want is some extra sauce they put on the pizza, after the dough and before the cheese, the pizza sauce, yes, she knows now. But there is a problem, there is a catch, a caveat if you will. It couldn’t have been this easy. The issue at this juncture is the pizza sauce is cold. It is cold, I see, and so they can’t serve it this way. She is worried, at an impasse. She/They can’t be responsible if I get sick.

Though I would have never seen this coming it is still a step in the direction of progress.

“Heat it up. Put it in the microwave. I’m not going to get sick. It’s pizza sauce! I absolve you and your franchise of all responsibility.”

I raise my voice in case other patrons should bare witness. I again offer monetary compensation for the unusual provision. Harmony seems to have been restored, my chosen lunch order finally recorded.

Twenty minutes later the pizza arrives. Two waiters dutifully bring it over, one making a clearing on the table and the other presenting it. The manager comes stomping from the kitchen behind them with a smaller tray holding an elongated lasagna dish. It is empty accept for a thin layer of pizza sauce spread across the bottom. They couldn’t have gotten it more wrong than if they brought me the open can.

And the pizza sucks. The sauce instantly goes from microwave-piping hot to cold and congealed. I just want to cry, but I acknowledge the achievement with obligatory thanks, and I devour the sad pie and scrape the lumpy crust through the barely edible paste. I have long ago relinquished the bar on good taste. I am as happy as a pig in shit. And this story, this routine, in one iteration or another, would be entirely uneventful and unworthy of note were it not for the bizarre fact that I have lived it, as if through quantum parallel universes so often a time: the craving, the quest, some sauce on the side.

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