I wonder if John is still in business?

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Posted by Jeff from d14-69-22-254.try.wideopenwest.com ( on Saturday, August 09, 2003 at 1:39PM :


Pssst! Wanna know where to pick up a 5,000-year-old pizza?

OK. OK. Let's backtrack a little. I'm up on National Avenue. Reasonably grimy. Car lots. Old
houses with dirt gardens, some with shops built onto the frontage. Kids playing skip-rope. My kind
of place. Not like the lonely immaculate 'burbs of the very rich.

But it's late. Around 4pm. I haven't had lunch. Stomach feels as hollow as a log with a family of
woodpeckers inside.

Then I spot this little blue box. Heaven Pizza. Actually I smell it first. Bready meaty savory baking
smoke is sifting past my nose.

So I wander inside. Two or three tables and an ordering slot. That's it. In the back a grizzled looking
guy is taking great chunks of cheese and burring them down through a grating machine. Beside the
ordering slot there is a picture of Jesus Christ and Mary with gold halos.

A sign: "Thanks for not smoking. We'd rather die of natural causes."
Another sign: "We don't have another location."
Another sign: "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere."

But the sign that catches my eye is the "Lunch Special, 7-inch Pizza, $2.00."

"You're my first customer all day," the guy shouts from the back. "And I'v been open since 11am."

His name's John. When I ask for the $2.00 Lunch Special, he sounds a little disappointed. So I ask
for a couple of extra toppings (35 cents each): black olives and mushrooms.

"Come back here while I get it ready," he says. "It takes a bit of time. I do everything from fresh. We
can talk."

We start talking. Me leaning against the workbench while his fingers work and knead at the dough,
and paint on the tomato paste and cheese and add the pepperoni and olives and mushrooms. He
slides it in on a scoop, a tiny circle in the huge oven.

"You been doing this a while?" I ask.

"Well, yes," he says pregnantly, like thereby hangs a tale.

And tale there is. A long and fabulous one that he spins out as he goes back to grinding his cheeses.

John is a - don't worry, I'd never heard of these people before either - Chaldean. Pronounce that
"Cald-EEan". One of the most ancient peoples in civilization. They have been making circular breads
like these for5,000 years. 200 generations. They call them - Rakqa.

"We Chaldeans come from Mesopotamia, from the most ancient city knownto man. Ur of the
Chaldeans. The city where Abraham was born," says John."And Jesus Christ traces his ancestry
through the House of David back to Abraham. So he is from Chaldean blood too. I am Christian,
part of the Chaldean church. We come from Nineveh province. Mostly from the village
of Telkeppe. That's part of Iraq these days. There are 10,000 of us here in San Diego, because San
Diego has the same climate as Nineveh. Dry, warm,with snowy mountains nearby in Winter. The
Chaldeans invented the wheel.We invented law. Writing. The 60-minute hour. The 360 degree
circle. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Nebuchadnessar was our great King. Hamurabi was the
first legislator in the world. The chariot, beer...and of course - Rakqa . That is our bread. We still
make it, three feet round, very thin."

He suddenly remembers my little seven inch pizza. He hauls it out and puts it steaming and
crust-darkened on a plate for me. We go out front and with a 75-cent iced tea I start munching in,
wondering if he's overcooked it with all the talk.

No way. It only takes one bite. Maybe it's those woodpeckers I had echoing in my gut. But this is
the crispest, tenderest, -and most flavorful pizza I can remember. Anywhere. No wonder the ancient
Chaldeans thrived, if they were eating crust like this.

"Of course these days we are Iraqis," John says. "It has been very hard. First we watched George
Bush kill thousands of our innocent people there. Then people started hating us here. Even though
my family is not Arab, not Muslim. In my place in Santee they threw rocks through my window.
They shouted. They insulted my family. It has not been easy. -And they don't know! Iraqi people -
all of us, Muslim, Arab, Chaldean, are good! We are intelligent. None of us Chaldeans ever are on
welfare. We work - 18 hours a day to feed our families. It has been difficult. I want to appeal to Bill
Clinton that Iraqi people are the best in the world. Life is too hard for my people
there now."

The $2.00 7-inch pizza is almost enough for a full meal. I can't help wondering what the real thing, a
- Rakqa with sesame oil, with honey dripped on it, would taste like. Nearest thing I see here is what
looks like a two-foot-round pizza on special at $14.99. The lavish illustration makes it look fit for a
King Nebuchadnessar.

John says his wife wants to go back to Detroit where the main expatriate Chaldean population lives -
50,000 of them. "Business would be easier there," he says.

But that mustn't happen, folks. Not while John's making the best 5,000-year- old pizza in town.
Time is of the essence!

-- Jeff
-- signature .

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