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The Food King: Pizza Den

From Oxford Town 225, December 4, 1997

THE FOOD KING

REQUIEM FOR PIZZA BOB

"The world can be divided into two groups; those who love Pizza Den and those who have never eaten there." - The Food King

One afternoon as our intrepid O-Town editor Jamie Kornegay and I were sampling a few margaritas at mi casa, we came up with the idea for a light-hearted, shoot-from-the-hip restaurant column (Animal House aficionados recognized that immediately) that was meant to be a celebration of the variety of eateries available here in our fair city. The main impetus for writing the column was a comment I overheard that day from a beautiful, 18 year old freshman girl; "What's a muffaletta?" Oh dear God, somebody had to educate these poor children, so that they might find the gold buried in their own backyard. So the first Food King was to be a celebration of Pizza Den, one of our most beautifully idiosyncratic eateries, but that week was the Latin issue, so the "Ode to a Stromboli" was pushed back. And pushed back. And pushed back. After all, what's the rush? Pizza Bob would be there forever.

As time passed, I began to realize that journalistic criticism (whether of good food or bad movies) is not really where I care to carve a niche in this world gone mad, and I had decided to end the column, but not before we finished what we started; our paean to Pizza Den. It was scheduled to run in a few weeks, but sadly, circumstances have changed our timetable.

This column is dedicated in loving memory to Bob Whiteaker.

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Pizza Den.

Two simple words with a clarion ring, words that resonate through thirty years of more satisfaction than any Oxford eatery has ever produced. Two words guaranteed to settle the night's argument over where to eat or to bring a look of utter longing to the face of unfortunate alumni that no longer live within driving distance.

Pizza Den.

If all you've ever done is drive by that old brick building across from Sonic and wonder how the place stayed open for so long, or why anybody ever ate in that dark little corner, then you have my condolences. If you've never happened to wander in, past the old jukebox and pinball machine past last week's newspapers and around the open cardboard bread box just delivered from New Orleans and been greeted at the counter by Pizza Bob's gravely "What 'chall been up to t'day?", then it is truly your loss, because few places have ever been regarded by its regulars as reverently as Pizza Den.

Overly-picky people might have called it grungy, but to us, it was character. Art critics might have labeled the semi-Venetian murals as tacky, but to us, they were unique. But anybody that turned their nose up at the food was considered a flat-out moron, and deservedly so.

I know folks that loved his pizza and his pasta, but for most of us, the real treasures were those sandwiches; big, giant, sloppy sandwiches baked in that ancient, time-blackened oven where they gathered little, black, burned cheese crinklies that clung to the bottom of the fresh New Orleans Reising bread as it cooked to just the slightest crunch, then were slathered by the trusty paint brush that lived perpetually in a weathered saucepan of melted butter. It was our little corner of heaven, with Reverend Bob doling out his sermons on Styrofoam plates full of the majesty of the muffaletta or the glory of the stromboli, the sandwich of the gods.

It was our haven in the storm.

It was church.

It was peace.

Bob and his food had an unbelievable connection with his patrons. One time a guy pulled up in a U-Haul and bought a dozen strombo's on his way out of town after graduation; another refused to date a girl because she couldn't appreciate the beauty of a muffaletta. One fellow never ordered less than two roast beefs at a time, because in his words, "They're like Lay's. You can't eat just one." After a football weekend a girl I knew turned around in Grenada and drove back because she forgot to pick up a turkey sandwich on her way home.

Such was the loyalty of Bob Whiteaker's customers. People that ate at Pizza Den loved his food with a near-messianic passion that is most rare, like a club of kids with their secret decoder rings, trading covert messages that only they could understand. Bob once told me that he got a kick out of how enthusiastic some of the old regulars who had moved away would act on occasional visits. He turned and pointed to two forty-ish, successful-looking men huddled in a booth, who for all the world seemed more like groaning, moaning junkies getting a fix than visiting alumni having a meal.

For a great many people, Pizza Den, that darkly-funky hole in the wall where the food ruled the world, was just as big a part of what made Oxford the truly unique place it is as Rowan Oak, Square Books, Yerk's, the Warehouse, and the Hoka.

Bob Whiteaker's murder is a shocking, horrible tragedy not only for his family and friends that knew him, but also for those that did not. It's a tragedy that people could drive past that dark little room for years without ever knowing the joys contained within. It's a tragedy that so many people don't even realize what it is that they've lost with Bob's most untimely passing.

I hope his kids can keep the business open, that the food can always be there, but it won't ever be the same. Not without Pizza Bob, sweating away in front of his oven, his big knife in one hand, his stretched, white smock covered in sausage grease and red sauce, jawing away about everything and nothing in particular.

When I came home from my father's funeral, the first place I stopped was Pizza Den. As I sat in my booth and ate, I realized that for the first time in days, I felt better. It was then that I figured out what it was about this place that was so satisfying; in those few precious minutes …it was impossible to think about anything else in the world except how damn good that sandwich was.

If that's not soul food, I don't know what is.

Rest in Peace, Bob. We already miss you.

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The Food King has left the building.