That sausage pizza you had the other night -- what did it mean to you?
Well, maybe it reminded you of your youth, and Saturday night treats with your family. Or maybe, if you are Italian, it struck a cultural chord.
Or maybe it was just ... food.
Sometimes, after all, a pizza is just a pizza -- although you wouldn't know it from watching "The Meaning of Food," a three-part series airing Thursday nights starting this week on PBS.
Which is OK, to a point. This is a very entertaining series, with a very charming host -- Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised executive chef of Riingo and Aquavit, two acclaimed Manhattan restaurants.
Of garlic and love
He shows off a jar containing enough garlic to ward off legions of vampires. "Lots of garlic, already peeled and ready to go. God bless America," he says.
In the course of the hour, we also meet a former prison inmate who found his ministry in cooking the last meals of condemned men; a Muslim teenager who struggles to fast each day during Ramadan as others scarf down their food around her; a concentration camp survivor, who makes dishes from a cookbook written by women in the camps.
Most poignant is Thomas Soukakos, a Greek immigrant who closed his restaurant after his beloved wife, in the throes of postpartum depression, killed herself. Now, with his young son at his side, he's opening a new restaurant -- a cafe called Vios, the Greek word meaning life.
The last installment looks at food and family, featuring a Seattle food critic whose family operates a Chinese restaurant, the elaborate feast of a Samoan funeral, and a cookoff between police and firefighters in St. Paul, Minn.
All of the food (excepting, perhaps, the poi) looks scrumptious. The interstitial music is swell -- Johnny Cash singing, "We are gathered here together to break bread"; Cab Calloway singing, "Everybody eats when they come to my house."
And the people are vivacious; at the end of each show, we see them gathered in a TV studio with Samuelsson, dining and exchanging toasts. Fine company, fine food -- it's a table anyone would want to join.
They are so beguiling that it seems peevish to point out that much of this is the equivalent of empty calories.
The show mentions that cuisine has become homogenized, that you can eat the same food nearly everywhere. It gives a minute or two to the almighty hamburger, but otherwise does not dwell on fast food and its central role in the American diet.
Nor does it talk about the onslaught of convenience foods that lack both taste and nutritional value. It shows people washing rice to make Gullah specialties, but it never points out that most Americans couldn't make a cake from scratch if you spotted them the mixed batter in a bowl.
(Perhaps coincidentally, "The Meaning of Food" is presented by Knorr, makers of bouillon and instant gravy.)
Also, watch this series and you can't help but notice that a lot of the people on screen are ... well, portly. Obesity is the elephant in the kitchen -- obvious to all, but never confronted.
A customer in a Chicago breakfast joint says he once weighed 172 pounds, but thanks to the food at the White Palace Grill he now tips the scales at 272. Then, he laughs.
If we're talking about the meaning of food, how can we ignore the meaning of eating too much, and eating too much that is bad for us?
This is, perhaps, criticizing the series for failing to be something it never set out to be. These are engaging stories about people and food, artfully presented. But with the title "The Meaning of Food," you expect more.
"Food is nothing and it is everything," Samuelsson says near the end of the third show.
That about covers it, though this show does not.