Illustration by Lars Leetaru
Illustration: Lars Leetaru

Imagine life in Chicago without pizza. It hasn’t disappeared, you just don’t eat it. When there’s a deep dish vs. tavern style debate, you sit it out. When somebody says New York pizza is better, you don’t get huffy, because you have no opinion on the matter. When you meet your friends at Pequod’s, you order a salad, and they stab you with their eyes.

Until a few years ago, this was my life. I was born lactose intolerant, meaning I’d throw up, violently, everywhere, at the merest suggestion of milk, yogurt, cream, dips, and, yes, cheese. This is challenging in America, and crippling in the Midwest, where we put cheese on everything. Sandwiches? Better with a few slices. Pasta? No fun without a shower of Parmesan. Fries? Vessels for melted cheddar.

But no food proved harder to navigate than pizza. It’s an institution, a rite of passage, an ineffable mystery like music or sex — and everyone got to enjoy it but me.

At childhood birthday parties, my peers would abandon me and swarm the soggy Little Caesars boxes, dope-sick for grease. I sat off to the side, watching them eat joyfully. Sometimes I made do with the limp side salad. Sometimes an adult would take pity and make me a peanut butter sandwich.

It was no better in the classroom, where every special day was Pizza Day. First day of school, last day of school, assembly day, zoo day, Friday — all Pizza Days. What’s more, pizza was a bonding experience for the crew of skateboarders and metalheads I ran with as a teenager. Order a pizza for band practice! Write a song about pizza! Have a slice-eating contest! Throw pizza at the ceiling! I lived outside of these experiences, on the fringes of my own friendships.

Every few years, I’d give cheese another go, just to see if I’d been magically cured. The last time was in 2007, when I puked into my parents’ shrubs after a single jalapeño popper from Buffalo Wild Wings.

It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago after college that I stumbled on the miracle that would change my life: vegan cheese! And so, at age 26, my lifelong pizza fast ended, with a faux-mozzarella pie from the Boiler Room in Logan Square. I’ve since been back approximately 100 times. Now I force my bowling team to eat there every Tuesday before we play. Sometimes I fold my slice. Other times I add a dash of hot sauce. Sometimes I get two slices and eat them like a sandwich, which they tell me is a calzone. I don’t know if the vegan version tastes like the real McCoy, but I don’t care. I’m eating pizza with friends.