Wait! Wait, I have to ask us, just a few paces into 2013, to stop and look briefly back. In a year of such 50th anniversaries as James Bond, the Rolling Stones, and the birth control pill, we forgot to preheat the oven to 425 and raise a paper plate to Tombstone Pizza, which celebrated its own oven-gold anniversary in 2012.
You might be skeptical about the importance of the founding of an American frozen pizza empire, unless you are Mark Kurlansky, whose most recent book, Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, told the tale of Clarence Birdseye, who invented flash-freezing fruits and vegetables. The Tombstone story is equally one of experimentation and luck: two brothers of Polish extraction, Pep and Ron Simek, ran a little bar called the Tombstone Tap across form the local cemetery selling pints for a dime in Medford, Wisconsin. In 1962 one of the two brothers, laid up with a broken leg, started experimenting with homemade pizza, and, using local Wisconsin cheese, came up with a pie that had the neighboring bars and bowling alleys clamoring. You hear “Dust My Broom” playing in the background? That’s right, pop some of that newfangled synthetic progesterone, ‘cause this is a story of fucking around in a local bar and the extraordinary growth that followed. Within twenty years, it was a $62 million company.Write This Book!
Write this book: What’s on Your Tombstone?: Life, Death and Pizza in Smalltown America. It’s Kurlanskian in focus, but in tone more like H.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar, the story of a blue-collar Long Island watering hole as the beating heart of its community. You, writer, get to do the kind of research you love best, which is to say drinking, and talking while drinking. You get to explore one of America’s better bar cultures: that of small-town Wisconsin, with its crock pots of free brats during Packers games, its dollar old-fashioneds, and the periodic circulation of bar pizza, usually from the jaws of a little convection oven tailor-made for frozen pies. Get to know the barbacks that loyal Pep and Ron made into regional managers. Find out what happened when the cash started rolling into Medford: who went Hammertime and commissioned a self-portrait in coke rock? Just how much has the Simek-funded local library enriched the children’s lives?
Oh to get the story of the hot Chicago conference room at Foote, Cone and Belding in 1992, where ad execs came up with the immortal slogan, “What’s on your Tombstone?” With its flotilla of ads set in a hyperbolic Southwest cowboy town, it utterly mislocated Tombstone in the consumer’s imagination. But they were great ads. The idea that you might be sitting on a horse with a noose around your neck, about to hang flag dead in front of a band of ruthless thugs who are demanding to know what words your widow should read wailing from your gravestone, but that in truth the whole thing is a hilarious setup by which said thugs just want to know what TOPPING you want on your pizza … has the fantasy-factory of American advertising ever concocted a sweeter relief, a dumber punning jab at mortality? You picture the grim reaper watching this ad and saying, a little hurt, “You guys are fucking idiots.”
If you really want to be reminded of your mortality, the quickest way is to eat a Tombstone pizza. 17 years after its sale to Kraft and now three into its 2010 resale to Nestlé, Tombstone now finds itself a runty sibling to DiGiorno. I just had one (journalism! It’s so sodium-filled!), a spongy 1400-calorie disk with sweetish sauce and cheese that’s actually cheeze, if you know what I mean. It made me think of roller rinks from my childhood more than the pastures of Wisconsin.
That’s the sad streak in the Tombstone story, really: its eventual corporate blandness. But who doesn’t love ripping on corporate blandness, and conjuring, with nostalgia for early Stones and unwanted pregnancy, all the plaid-clad, snowmobiling Wisconsin humanity behind America’s most Southwestern pizza.