As we come upon the treacherous holiday season before a presidential election, there will be plenty of people in media who tell you it is your moral responsibility to ruin food and fellowship with political confrontations. Armed with the emotional IQ of one of those idiots tossing perfectly good soup on the Mona Lisa — an ineffectual waste of vittles and dignity — these columnists insist that you must not let Aunt Margie’s incorrect opinions stand, lest democracy die in the darkness of her benighted worldview. You must serve countervailing takes as hot as the mashed potatoes, no matter the cost to family comity.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There was a time, not too long ago, when we didn’t have to turn every breaking of bread into a struggle session. Luckily, there’s a roadmap to show the way back to that time. It was on display when the Washington Post decided to get the all-consuming politics season going in September and chose as its target a newfound holiday known as Pizza Fest. And despite the mountains of Bezos cash and the golden playbook of cancellation, the pizza won this conflict. Let’s see what we can learn from the glorious victory as we set the table for successful family gatherings. Dave Portnoy is a businessman and internet personality who started a news and entertainment empire by focusing on, well, not politics. Barstool Sports is like ESPN, but with sports. As the ESPNs of the world descended into sanitized corporatism and desperate virtue signals, Barstool offered the vibe of a three-beers-deep dude at a Saturday sports bar. It worked. Portnoy, a Massachusetts native with the brash and ballsy tone of his people, is now a multimillionaire commanding an army of young, bro-y, online fans dubbed “Stoolies.” A wildly popular series of videos called “One Bite Pizza Reviews,” started in 2017, has also made Portnoy into an unlikely make-or-break food critic for America’s most chilled-out party food. His foray into food journalism has been as well received as his foray into sports, with fancy food writers responding by serving up passive-aggressive copy like short-order cooks. These reviews resulted in a massive event at New York’s Coney Island that Portnoy christened Pizza Fest, inviting pizza-makers across the city to participate. The sin the Post was investigating? Being a pizzeria that wanted to participate in a Pizza Fest helmed by Portnoy. The people who encourage Thanksgiving shout-fests are the same ones mystified by Portnoy’s popularity. Since they cannot beat him on the beat, they have zeroed in on politics and character assassination. His exact views, which are normal in that they don’t fit into an exact bucket, are beside the point. There was a time when we didn’t need encyclopedic knowledge about a dude who likes sports and pizza in order to enjoy the sports and pizza content he purveys. A friend recently said something wise to me — on a listserv, but hear me out — about modern society and its demands. He said we’ve largely swapped connection for information in the last three decades, and the former was far more satisfying. Both Pizza Fest and Thanksgiving give you a chance to connect with your community, with actual people who are imperfect and unvetted and uncategorized. Our cultural elites demand that you “do the work” and read “surfaced tweets” and “contemplate our past” and “call out” transgressors.
But a life consumed by politics leaves little room for a family meal, let alone a borough-wide pizza party. Where some see community, others see an opportunity to call sponsors and pizzaioli to ask them about “how some of the participants have drawn criticism by seeming to associate themselves with Dave Portnoy, who has a history of misogynistic comments and problematic behavior.” That quote comes from an email the reporter sent a participant. We know because Portnoy read it back to the obviously embarrassed reporter in a recorded phone call. A funny thing happened; some might say a Pizza Fest miracle. “None of the pizzerias or sponsors contacted by the Post indicated that they were pulling their support,” the paper laments midway through a rambling 2,500-word mess. Would you look at that? A pizza fest that is about the pizza and the small businesses that sell it, not the 2010 problematic blog post of the guy arranging the festival. You don’t beat politics addicts by trying to meet them on their extortionary ground — you win by standing up for yourself and your right to ignore politics for an evening. The incident showed no one had a problem with Pizza Fest except the reporters making the calls, and Joe Rosenthal, a “Minnesota-based mathematician who has positioned himself as the conscience of the food and restaurant industries.”
Don’t be like this. Do not do it to your family members over the holidays. Act like an adult, not a Minnesota-based mathematician who can’t stay in his lane. Your gatherings don’t need a conscience, they need grown-ups mature enough to value connection rather than mere information. Follow the example of Al Santillo, owner of Santillo’s, one of the storied pizza makers who refused to back down to the Post’s extortion attempts. “Nobody’s all good, and nobody’s all bad,” the owner said. “Right now, to me, his good points are outweighing his bad points. Everybody has a dark side, but basically, don’t shoot the piano player. I’m just a piano player here. Why you want to shoot me for?” Let this be a lesson to us. When the going gets tough and your MAGA aunt and pink-haired triple-boosted niece get to yelling because some advice columnist told them to, just focus on the pizza. Or the turkey, as it were.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2023 World edition.