Believing the Unbelievable

For some time, I have been trying to understand people who support former President Donald Trump. To me, Trump is a lying, conniving, corrupt politician who leads a movement dedicated to destroying American democracy. Yet, I have friends and family members—people I like and respect—who not only supported Trump as president, but continue to support him even after the revelations of corruption and illegal activities came to light (and continue to come to light) following his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, a defeat that many of these people still don’t believe.

My attempt to understand these people has less to do with Trump than it does with the phenomenon of good people believing and spreading lies and misinformation. I see Trump for who he is. He is not a mystery to me. What is a mystery is how people I know—intelligent, successful, well-meaning people—can fall for his lies, excuse his bad behavior, and continue to support him no matter what he says or does. That’s the thing I have never been able to understand.

I recently came across a term from the field of psychology that helps to explain the confusing behavior of my friends and family members. The term is “motivated reasoning,” and it’s a real eye-opener.

Motivated reasoning is a phenomenon that uses emotionally biased reasoning to produce justifications and make decisions that are most desirable rather than those that accurately reflect the evidence.

Psychology Today says this about motivated reasoning:

“One of the most significant ways information processing and decision-making becomes warped is through motivated reasoning, when biased reasoning leads to a particular conclusion or decision, a process that often occurs outside of conscious awareness.”

In applying this concept to politics, Psychology Today goes on to say:

“Studies by political psychologists highlight denial of climate change or discrediting its science as important examples of motivated reasoning; people process scientific information about climate shifts to conform to pre-existing feelings and beliefs. After all, accepting that climate change is real portends unpleasant environmental consequences and would require most people to head them off by making significant changes in lifestyle. Changing one’s mind and changing one’s lifestyle are hard work; people prefer mental shortcuts—in this case, having the goal fit their ready-made conclusions…[Motivated reasoning] is seen as a mechanism people commonly use to preserve a favorable identity, particularly in Western cultures. To maintain positive self-regard, people (unwittingly) discount unflattering or troubling information that contradicts their self-image. Individuals engage in motivated reasoning as a way to avoid or lessen cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort people experience when confronted by contradictory information, especially on matters that directly relate to their comfort, happiness, and mental health. Rather than re-examining a contradiction, it’s much easier to dismiss it.”

This is exactly the behavior I’ve witnessed with my friends and family members. They see the same things that I see when it comes to Trump and his anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian behavior, but they dismiss anything he does that goes against their values and beliefs. For them, Trump didn’t encourage and provoke the January 6 insurrection (despite loads of evidence to the contrary). He didn’t sexually assault any women (despite his own confession). He won the 2020 presidential election and had it stolen from him (despite not a shred of evidence to support this belief).

Julia Galef, co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, does a great job of explaining motivated reasoning in this Ted Talk (see below) from 2016. She uses the idea of soldiers and scouts to make her point. Soldiers accept their orders to kill the enemy and are motivated to carry out those orders without questioning the truth that led to the orders. Scouts are more concerned with gathering information. In order to do their jobs effectively, they have to question all of the data they are gathering in order to get to the truth. Their motivation is different than soldiers.

Here’s Julia Galef’s Ted Talk:

Many of these same people who dismiss Trump’s bad behavior also fall into the “anti-vaxx” category: those who dismiss and disbelieve the best scientific opinions on COVID-19. Recently, podcaster Joe Rogan interviewed Dr. Peter McCullough, MD about COVID. McCullough is a well-respected doctor who has consistently been opposed to vaccines as a way to immunize the country from COVID. The podcast gained a great deal of traction, primarily because McCullough parroted much of the misinformation the anti-vaxx community already believes.

Dr. Zubin Damania, MD, did an excellent job of breaking down McCullough’s biased, misinformed beliefs in the attached video (It’s long but very informative). One of the strongest parts of the video involved the tools Damania used to analyze McCullough’s arguments to determine if they were based on facts and evidence or bias and misinformation. These very same tools are useful when dealing with any argument or controversial position.

The first thing to look for is, is a conspiracy being alleged? If the argument is based on a conspiracy rather than hard facts or scientific evidence, it almost certainly is misinformation. It’s not that conspiracies don’t exist. But most claims of conspiracy, especially widespread conspiracies involving large groups of individuals, governments, and corporations, designed to nefariously hide the truth, are extremely, extremely unlikely. The larger the conspiracy, the less likely it is real.

A good example of this is the anti-vaxxers appeal to a “New World Order” being behind the push to force people to get vaccinated so this NWO government can control and enslave us. Anti-vaxxers portray themselves as a persecuted minority fighting to spread the truth to the rest of us, who they view as misinformed sheep, in an effort to save the world. This is an unfouded conspiracy.

The second tool or indication that someone is dealing in misinformation is if they set up impossible to meet expectations, and every time evidence is presented to debunk their claim, they move the goalposts. They refuse to consider any viewpoint other than their own, and they constantly make excuses when facts or evidence are presented that weaken or destroy their argument.

The next tool is cherry picking facts or data to support an argument. Anti-vaxxers consistently support groups like America’s Front Line Doctors even though the doctors involved are not experts when it comes to COVID, and are an outlier group, far outside the mainstream of the medical community.

Likewise, they often point to research studies that are badly flawed and often repudiated by other, more well run studies. They dismiss the more credentialed doctors or the more relevant studies in order to not have to abandon their arguments.

As Dr. Damania says, “You can always find something to confirm your bias.” However, if the argument requires cherry picking data and dismissing better, more relevant facts, you’re likely dealing with misinformation.

Appeals to fake experts (or false authority) is another indication that the person making the appeal is dealing in misinformation. What is a fake expert? It’s usually someone (or a group of people) who is not qualified to make the arguments they are making.

For instance, a few times during his interview with Joe Rogan, Dr. McCullough used Dr. Pam Popper and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as support for his arguments. What he didn’t say is that Popper is a naturopath, not a medical doctor, and Kennedy is a lawyer and a long-time anti-vaxxer who’s vaccine conspiracies were discredited by the medical community long before we ever heard of COVID. Popper and Kennedy are fake experts, and represent a fringe minority that is at odds with the vast majority of true experts.

Finally, people dealing in misinformation often set up logical fallacies involving internal contradictions. In a previous post, I wrote about a conversation I had with Adam Gaertner, an independent virology researcher. One of Adam’s arguments was that a conspiracy between world governments and “mega-corporations” was designed to enslave humankind, keeping us sick and replacing us in factories with automation, so the “mega-corporations” could maximize their profits. Of course, this argument falls apart the minute logic is applied. If humankind is too sick to work, and we are replaced by automation, who are the “mega corporations” going to sell their goods to? The claim falls apart due to it’s own internal logical contradictions.

Here’s Dr. Damania’s full video:

So, that brings us back to my Trump-loving friends and family members. I have to admit, I have a soft spot for these people. Other than their support for Trump, everything I know about them tells me that they are good, genuine, well-meaning people. So, I tend to be a bit defensive toward them.

Think about it this way: Every day, they are being lied to. During Trump’s term in the White House, he lied incessantly. According to the Washington Post, by the time Trump left office, he had told 30,573 documented lies.  That’s an average of 21 lies told by Trump each day during his presidency. That’s amazing! As Trump supporters, my friends and family members were prone to believe what he was saying.

Also, as Trump supporters, most of these people turn to Fox News or other right-wing media outlets to get their news. And every day, these outlets misinform their viewers, spinning news to favor Trump, and at times fabricating stories, telling outright lies designed to confuse and incense the very people who turn to them to be informed.

Adam Serwer, writing in The Atlantic, took Fox News to task for lying to their viewers. He wrote that, although Fox News hosts were blaming Antifa and BLM for the January 6 insurrection, claiming it was being overly dramatized by the media, and contending that those arrested  following the insurrection were “political prisoners,” behind the scenes,  those same hosts were texting Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, with language making it clear that they knew Trump encouraged the insurrection, and those that carried it out were not Antifa or BLM, but Trump supporters. In private, they reacted to what they knew to be the truth, but in public, on the air, they purposely lied to their viewers. According to Serwer, this type of two-faced behavior by Fox News is par for the course.

“The [text] messages also highlight Fox News’s unusual relationship with its audience, which involves the conservative media’s most trusted figures consciously lying to their viewers. The texts between Meadows and the Fox News hosts are hardly the only example of the network’s personalities deliberately misleading their audience: From downplaying the deadliness of COVID to making misleading assertions about the effectiveness of the vaccines, to advancing the false claims of voter fraud that helped motivate the riot in the first place, Fox and its satellites have shown little hesitation in exploiting the confidence of conservative viewers who are convinced that the network is one of the few trustworthy outlets in a media landscape they regard with fierce hostility.”

Of course, I can’t in good faith blame just Trump or the right-wing media cartel for these lies. My friends and family who supported Trump and tuned into Fox News and the other misinformation factories have to take some responsibility. After all, they have personal agency and possess critical thinking skills. If they want to know the truth, it’s out there, and it doesn’t take all that much effort to find it. Why don’t they? Motivated reasoning. It’s not a complete excuse for my friends’ and family members’ belief in the unbelievable, but it does help explain how they have been able to fool themselves.

I may be a cock-eyed optimist, but I still hold out hope that people will come to their senses and will turn their backs on Trumpism and the authoritarian future it is pushing us toward. Even so, I’m not holding my breath. Motivated reasoning is a powerful phenomenon, and many of these people simply don’t want to know the truth.

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Talking To Myself About January 6

On January 7, 2021, the day after the insurrection took place at the Capitol, I jotted down some thoughts on Facebook about what I was feeling and what I thought the future held for our nation. I was in shock about what I had witnessed on January 6, and I was doing my best to wrap my head around how something like the attack on the Capitol could happen here in the United States.

I’ve reprinted my thoughts from that day below. I’ve also included some additional thoughts (bolded and in italics) in response to those I shared a year ago. Even with the benefit of time and hindsight, I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding how we could suffer this type of political and criminal uprising, and I certainly don’t understand how, after living through what happened on January 6, people can still dismiss it, defend it, and even support it.

Here’s my conversation with myself about the January 6, 2021 insurrection:

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After a day like yesterday, how do we, as a nation, move forward?

This morning, I am struggling to find the words to adequately explain what we saw yesterday in DC. It’s easy to use words like “coup d’état” and “insurrection” to describe what happened in the Capitol, but those words only scratch the surface. To be sure, the words are accurate, but they fail to describe the emotions associated with the acts.

Even a year later, the emotions surrounding January 6 are still very raw. But rather than being predominately emotions of disbelief and sadness, the overriding emotion is one of anger. What happened on January 6–including what and who instigated it–is unforgivable. The fact that none of the people responsible for planning, organizing, financing, and carrying out the Stop the Steal rally that preceded and encouraged the insurrection have been punished is not only disheartening, it’s dangerous. It’s paramount to an open invitation to the insurrectionists to give the coup another try.

I am on the verge of disbelief. I know what I saw with my own eyes, but even after four years of the worst president in our country’s history, I was still unprepared to process what happened. I’m still trying to come to terms with how and why a putsch like this could happen in the United States. What I feel more confident about is how we must move forward if we are to avoid similar attempts to overthrow our government.

First, every single person who can be identified as involved in yesterday’s takeover of the Capitol must be tried, and if convicted, punished severely for their illegal actions. If anyone in the future thinks about following in the footsteps of these insurrectionists, they should know that they could pay a very high price.

This makes so much sense, yet we’re not doing it. Several of the January 6 foot soldiers have been convicted on relatively low-level criminal charges, receiving little more than wrist slaps in many cases, but none of the people who organized and encouraged the insurrection have been held to account. This is a national disgrace. I still hold out hope that all involved will be held accountable, but as each day passes, my confidence that this will happen decreases. 

Second, we need to know how security at the Capitol failed so miserably. Not only did Capitol police not prevent insurrectionists from entering the Capitol, in many cases, they assisted them. I’ve seen videos and photos of police taking selfies with the mob, moving barricades to make it easier for the mob to enter the Capitol, and helping people up the Capitol steps. This was a massive failure. Why did it happen? How did it happen? These protests were not a surprise. They had been planned for weeks. We need to know what happened so we can make sure it never happens again.

It’s funny how my perspective on this has changed. The day after the insurrection, one of my main concerns was the possible involvement of police at the Capitol that day. It’s true, I had seen videos of police escorting insurrectionists into the Capitol, as well as holding doors for them and taking selfies with them. It was a really bad look. But it was only a partial and misleading look.

Since then, overwhelming video evidence has made it clear that the police were under attack that day. They may have been overly accommodating due to being so badly outnumbered, but they did not invite in the insurrectionists nor did they simply turn the Capitol over to those attacking them. They fought like mad to protect the Capitol and the elected officials inside. There were several acts of heroism and bravery that day by police whose efforts helped save lives and our democracy.

Having said that, an important question remains: why were police so ill-prepared that day for what happened? The evidence was clear that the Stop the Steal protest posed a danger of getting out of hand. There’s also reason to question why the National Guard wasn’t deployed sooner. Testimony before Congress since January 6 has been inconclusive, but one thing is certain. Someone is lying. The contradicting stories told by National Guard and DOD officials cannot both be true. Answers are needed. We can’t simply shrug our shoulders and move on without getting to the bottom of things.

Third, politicians who shared easily debunked lies with the American people, and encouraged their supporters to rise up and “Stop the Steal” must be held accountable for spreading misinformation.

As an example, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) knew that there was no widespread voter fraud. He knew that courts across the country had already ruled on lawsuits claiming fraud and unconstitutional vote counting methods. He knew that objecting to electors from Pennsylvania would not only cause damage to our democracy, but that such objection would fail. Yet, he moved forward with his objection, even after insurrectionists had taken over the Capitol. His actions accomplished nothing other than ingratiating himself with Trump supporters. It was a cynical ploy that violated his oath, but Hawley moved forward with it anyway, putting his own selfish interests ahead of the needs of the country.

Of course, Josh Hawley wasn’t the only Congressperson spreading misinformation and inciting rioters. There are hundreds of them, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Ron Johnson (R-WI), as well as Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA), Louis Gohmert (R-TX), etc. They must be held to account. It may not be possible to remove them from office until the next election, but in the meantime, they must be marginalized. The actions they took to destroy our democracy is a stain they should never be allowed to wash away.

This may be the most infuriating facet of this whole sorry affair. Even today, GOP members of Congress continue to deal in lies and conspiracy theories about the January 6 insurrection. They claim it was instigated by Antifa and BLM. The say it was organized by the FBI. They claim the insurrectionists were no worse than a tour group. They say the insurrectionists are patriots who love this country. They call those being held for the role they played in the insurrection “political prisoners,” and advocate for their release. 

The people intentionally gaslighting us about what happened that day are just as bad as the clueless, misinformed minions who stormed the Capitol. They used lies to radicalize their supporters, and use more lies now to try to make the insurrection into something it was not. 

If there’s a common theme to what I have written about the insurrection, it is that those responsible–including those elected officials who lied before, and continue to lie now, in an effort to confuse and radicalize–must be held accountable. This is not an option. It is necessary for the survival of our democracy and our way of life.

Finally, Donald Trump must be held to account for his lies and criminal actions. In the short-term, he should be impeached (It’s probably too late) or removed under the 25th Amendment (more likely). After yesterday, we can not have a president who encouraged violence against the Congress and our democracy, and who still refuses to accept the results of the election. He’s only in office for two more weeks, but he can cause further chaos and damage to the country in that time. He has to go.

Sadly, neither impeachment nor the 25th Amendment occurred in time to get Trump out of office before the last day of his term.

In the long-term, Trump’s time in office must be investigated and he must be held accountable for any illegal activity he participated in. Even if the incoming administration decides not to punish Trump (something I suspect Biden will do), as a nation, we must still have a full accounting of the actions, legal and illegal, that occurred on Trump’s watch.

I believe that then and still believe it now. Trump’s time in office, particularly his role in organizing and encouraging the insurrection, must be investigated and, if appropriate, punished. No country can afford to allow their highest elected official and commander of their armed forces to plan a coup d’etat and plot the overturning of a free and fair election without seeking to punish such behavior. 

The January 6 Select Committee continues to investigate the insurrection, and Rep Liz Cheney (R-WY) seems intent on looking closely at the role Trump played in it. That investigation is critical to finding out what Trump did to organize and encourage the insurrectionists. But no investigation is necessary to know what Trump didn’t do.

For more than three hours while the Capitol was under siege and elected officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence, were in grave danger, Trump didn’t send in the military. He didn’t lift a finger to try to stop the attack. Even as people like Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows begged him to call off his dogs, he refused. This failure to act–this dereliction of duty–by itself is worthy of the DOJ bringing charges against him.  As a nation, we cannot have closure from this event without holding everyone involved, particularly the president, accountable

These are easy and obvious calls to make. What is more difficult to figure out is, how do we as citizens move forward. At the moment, we live in a country where half of the citizens don’t share the same reality as the other half. Democracy cannot survive in a country where the citizens cannot agree on objective facts.

Trump and his supporters in Congress have spread misinformation that has disconnected half the population from reality, and which have radicalized a large group of people who are willing to attack and destroy our democracy. They have done this for selfish political purposes, and as of now, they have not had to answer for it.

Calling out and punishing politicians is the easy part. It should be the job of our elected officials to tell us the truth. Failing to do that should carry a high cost. But what about those of us not in Congress?

It would be easy to say that we need to tone down the rhetoric and accept the opinions of our fellow citizens. It seems nice, but how can those who love democracy co-exist with those hellbent on destroying it?

Our democracy is a fragile thing. We are only one election away from losing it. Those who would prefer an authoritarian government, such as those supporting Trump, can not be allowed to get a foothold in Congress or in the White House.

In other words, we should not endeavor to make a compromise with those that would damage or destroy our democracy. Rather than come together, we must crush the forces that push for authoritarianism, including far right-wing groups, white supremacist groups, neo-nazis, and others, including those who would prefer a kleptocracy, that would benefit the wealthy and burden the rest of us. We can give no quarter to these people. We cannot compromise nor can we attempt to appease. Our democracy cannot survive any accommodation with those that would destroy it.

This is still the case. We cannot work with those intent on destroying the thing we hold the dearest. That which we work for–the strengthening and continuation  of our democracy–is exactly what the other side wants to destroy. There is no compromise we can reach with them. No common ground we can find. The forces of authoritarianism cannot be accommodated. For democracy to survive, they must be destroyed. 

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Don’t Sell Me A Car, Tell Me A Story (Part II)

A while back, I wrote a post entitled “Don’t Sell Me A Car, Tell Me A Story.” If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here. This post is a follow up to the first.

In that first post, I talked about how the most effective commercials don’t try to sell a product. Instead, they tell a story in which the product they are selling is the solution to whatever problem the character in the story is having. The example I pointed to was this Super Bowl ad from Audi.

The Astronaut commercial came out in 2016. Three years later, Audi went even bigger with this commercial for their RS4 Avant, a performance station wagon with great styling. This commercial is a little longer (six minutes and forty seconds), so it’s more than just a network commercial. It’s almost like a mini-documentary.

This commercial from Dodge is another example of a car commercial using a story (or type of story) that features the vehicle they’re trying to sell, but isn’t specifically about the vehicle.

Finally, this is the best “story commercial” I’ve seen yet. It comes courtesy of Chevy and it doesn’t even contain a vehicle that they are currently selling. They’re just building their brand and wishing their customers (and prospective customers) a Merry Christmas. Take a look:

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Christmas Eve, 1944

By Christmas Eve 77-years ago, American troops had advanced well into Europe, storming the beaches at Normandy six months earlier, and pushing German troops out of France, back toward the Fatherland.

At the time, my dad was an 18-year-old kid who had recently landed in England with the 2nd Engineer Battalion of the 89th Infantry Division, Company B. His unit was preparing to cross the English Channel the following month to push across France and ultimately engage Nazi troops near Trier, Germany. Little did any of them know that over the following four-plus months they would battle a desperate-but-not-yet-defeated German army, would witness some of the most disturbing sights of human cruelty the world has ever known, and they’d celebrate the liberation of Paris and the end of the war in Europe.

Like many of his fellow soldiers, Dad’s deployment to Europe was the first time he had ever been outside the United States. For the first Christmas in his young life, he was far away from his home and his loved ones.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the emotions he knew U.S. troops were feeling during the holiday season, a season the President knew meant so much to so many Americans. As he did each year on Christmas Eve, Roosevelt addressed the American people at home and our troops stationed around the world. As people gathered around their radios, unsure of what the future held for themselves and their loved ones, this is what FDR had to say:

“It is not easy to say “Merry Christmas” to you, my fellow Americans, in this time of destructive war. Nor can I say “Merry Christmas” lightly tonight to our armed forces at their battle stations all over the world- or to our allies who fight by their side.

“Here, at home, we will celebrate this Christmas Day in our traditional American way- because of its deep spiritual meaning to us; because the teachings of Christ are fundamental in our lives; and because we want our youngest generation to grow up knowing the significance of this tradition and the story of the coming of the immortal Prince of Peace and Good Will. But, in perhaps every home in the United States, sad and anxious thoughts will be continually with the millions of our loved ones who are suffering hardships and misery, and who are risking their very lives to preserve for us and for all mankind the fruits of His teachings and the foundations of civilization itself.

“The Christmas spirit lives tonight in the bitter cold of the front lines in Europe and in the heat of the jungles and swamps of Burma and the Pacific islands. Even the roar of our bombers and fighters in the air and the guns of our ships at sea will not drown out the messages of Christmas which come to the hearts of our fighting men. The thoughts of these men tonight will turn to us here at home around our Christmas trees, surrounded by our children and grandchildren and their Christmas stockings and gifts—just as our own thoughts go out to them, tonight and every night, in their distant places.

“We all know how anxious they are to be home with us, and they know how anxious we are to have them- and how determined every one of us is to make their day of home-coming as early as possible. And- above all- they know the determination of all right-thinking people and Nations, that Christmases such as those that we have known in these years of world tragedy shall not come again to beset the souls of the children of God.

“This generation has passed through many recent years of deep darkness, watching the spread of the poison of Hitlerism and Fascism in Europe—the growth of imperialism and militarism in Japan- and the final clash of war all over the world. Then came the dark days of the fall of France, and the ruthless bombing of England, and the desperate battle of the Atlantic, and of Pearl Harbor and Corregidor and Singapore.

“Since then the prayers of good men and women and children the world over have been answered. The tide of battle has turned, slowly but inexorably, against those who sought to destroy civilization.

“On this Christmas day, we cannot yet say when our victory will come. Our enemies still fight fanatically. They still have reserves of men and military power. But, they themselves know that they and their evil works are doomed. We may hasten the day of their doom if we here at home continue to do our full share.

“And we pray that that day may come soon. We pray that until then, God will protect our gallant men and women in the uniforms of the United Nations- that He will receive into His infinite grace those who make their supreme sacrifice in the cause of righteousness, in the cause of love of Him and His teachings.

“We pray that with victory will come a new day of peace on earth in which all the Nations of the earth will join together for all time. That is the spirit of Christmas, the holy day. May that spirit live and grow throughout the world in all the years to come.”

Addendum: Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, was staying at the White House on Christmas Eve, 1944. That night, he also spoke to the American people. Here is the audio of his remarks.

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“Zuzu, Zuzu! My Little Gingersnap!”

I don’t have many Christmas traditions. Now that the kids are older, I don’t even put up a Christmas tree anymore. But one thing I still do every Christmas is watch my favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

The iconic film came out in 1946 to very little fanfare. It underperformed at the box office and, although it was nominated for five Academy Awards, it didn’t win any.

By 1974, the film was all but forgotten. Liberty Films, the studio that owned the rights to the movie, didn’t even bother to renew the copyright, which it could have done for an additional 28 years. Oddly, this failure to renew the copyright was the start of the film gaining a loyal and adoring following.

With the copyright expired, TV networks could show the film without paying royalty fees. It was free content for an industry always looking for ways to make a profit. Suddenly, people were rediscovering the film and falling in love with the powerful story of friends, family, and faith.

Karolyn Grimes had no idea any of this was taking place. Grimes had been a child actor in Hollywood when she went to an audition for It’s A Wonderful Life. While she sat in the waiting room before the audition, the mother of another child “accidently” spilled a cup of coffee on Grimes new dress. It might have thrown some people, but not Grimes. When it was her turn, the coffee stain prompted a conversation between her and the film’s director, Frank Capra. The six-year-old Grimes was cast in the role of Zuzu, George and Mary Bailey’s youngest daughter.

The year after filming It’s A Wonderful Life, Grimes appeared in another Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, and a few years later she landed a role in the John Wayne classic, Rio Grande. But all was not great in Karolyn Grimes’ life. At the age of fourteen, her mother died, and just a year later, she lost her father. Grimes gave up the movies and her life in California, and was sent to live with an uncle and his unstable wife in Missouri. The couple were religious zealots who preached against the dangers of movies, singing, and dancing.

Grimes survived her years with her aunt and uncle, but rarely spoke about her life in California. She made friends, finished high school, and went off to school at Central Missouri State College. After graduation, she became a medical technologist.

Life went on for Grimes, but didn’t get any easier. She married and had two daughters with her first husband, who was killed in a hunting accident. She re-married and had five more kids. Sadly, her second husband died of cancer. Throughout these tragedies, Grimes spent much of her time cooking, cleaning, and running kids to piano lessons and sports practices.

She lived what many would consider a normal life until 1980, when It’s A Wonderful Life once again entered her orbit. The film had gained an audience, due in large part to it’s copyright-free status, and reporters came calling, requesting interviews and asking questions about the film. Problem was, Grimes didn’t remember much about it. She had filmed the movie thirty-four years earlier and had never watched it all the way through. In fact, she had fallen asleep during the film’s premiere. Before she could answer any questions, she first had to watch the movie.

Since then, Grimes has been busy attending screenings, holiday gift shows, movie memorabilia conventions, and her personal favorite, the annual It’s A Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls, NY, which bills itself as the real-life Bedford Falls, the town from the film. While in Seneca Falls, she is often joined by Jimmy Hawkins, the actor who played her older brother, Tommy.

For most of us that love It’s A Wonderful Life, we’ll always remember Karolyn Grimes in the role of Zuzu saying one of the most iconic lines in all of film. Take a look:

 

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Ranking the 50 Best Saturday Night Live Cast Members

I have been watching Saturday Night Live since it debuted in 1975. When the show first began, there was absolutely no reason to think that it would become a TV staple, and that 46 years later, it would still be an ingrained part of the culture.

But after a rough start, the show found it’s legs. It helped that the original cast included some of the best cast members in the show’s history, including Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Lorraine Newman, Chevy Chase, and the great John Belushi.

Ranking the SNL cast members is a bit of a fool’s errand, but what the heck? I did it anyway. You may agree or disagree with my rankings. After all, this isn’t science. It’s all based on personal preference. What you can’t argue with is the fact that SNL muscled its way into the national conversation, and continues to be relevant today.

Without further ado, here are the top cast members to ever do time on Saturday Night Live:

50. Robert Downey Jr (1985-86) – Robert Downey Jr. in 1985-86 wasn’t the RDJ we came to know later. While on SNL, he was distracted and undisciplined. Yet, there was something about him. He obviously had talent, and we now know he is one of the best actors in Hollywood.

49. Chris Elliott (1994-95) – Chris Elliot was hilarious and had a thriving career before he joined SNL. Then when he got there, he kind of fell flat. Instead of raising the level of the show, the show brought him down to its level. Looking back, as much as I like Chris Elliot, I have to admit that his time on the show was a disappointment. Little known fact: Elliot’s daughter, Abby Elliott, was on the show from 2008-12.

48. Don Novello (1978-80, 1985-86) – Novello was a one trick pony, but what a great trick that was. Novello, as Father Guido Sarducci, the rock critic for the Vatican newspaper, had a great, hilarious run on SNL. He didn’t do much else, but he was really good at what he did.

47. Harry Shearer (1979-80, 1984-85) – Shearer’s heyday on SNL was during the 84-85 season when he was teamed with Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean. Shearer held his own with McKean, but paled in comparison to Crystal and Guest.

46. Anthony Michael Hall (1985-86) – I like Hall more than most people like Hall. I can’t tell you exactly why that is. I just found him very funny. He went on to great success after SNL, appearing in such films as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science. Little known fact: His real name is Michael Anthony Hall, not Anthony Michael Hall.

45. Laraine Newman (1975-80) – I’m not the fan of Newman that a lot of people are, but I recognize that she is widely respected for her time on SNL. I think she benefitted from the players around her,. But the fact is, she was there at the beginning of SNL and she was good while she was there.

44. Seth Meyers (2001-14) – Meyers was on SNL for a long time. He was mostly known for working the desk at Weekend Update. In that role, Meyers brought a decency and charm that hadn’t been seen previously, yet it worked.

43. Jimmy Fallon (1998-2004) – I have to admit, I sometimes get Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers confused. Maybe that’s why they are next to each other on this list. Fallon’s forte (as opposed to Will Forte) was imitating rockers. In that role, he was very good.

42. Chris Rock (1990-93) – Rock had a forgettable run on SNL. The show didn’t seem to know how to use him, so they often didn’t. Since then, he has shown that he is one of the funniest comedians in the world, but SNL failed to bring that out of him.

41. Kevin Nealon (1986-95) – I personally liked Nealon better in sketches than as a Weekend Update anchor. On Weekend Update, Nealon seemed lost, like he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing. He was still funny, but as a Weekend Update anchor, he didn’t compare favorably to others on this list.

40. Rachel Dratch (1999-2006) – Every time I saw Rachel Dratch on SNL, I got the feeling that she was fearless. More so than many other players, Dratch put herself in uncomfortable, embarrassing situations, playing characters you wouldn’t expect her to play, and saying things you wouldn’t expect her to say. She was very good.

39. Tim Meadows (1991-2000) – Meadows was hilarious in “Ladies Man” sketches, playing a too-smooth-for-his-own-good Lothario who often falls flat in affairs of the heart. Too often, Meadows was an afterthought on the show. But when he got his shot, he hit it.

38. Ana Gasteyer (1996-2002) – Gasteyer was especially good at playing quiet characters in the most hilarious way. For instance, her NPR host of Delicious Dish where she discusses Schweddy Balls with Alec Baldwin is a classic. She also played a mean Martha Stewart.

37. Tim Kazurinsky (1981-84) – To me, Kazurinsky is underrated. Part of the reason is that he was part of weaker casts. Even so, he was fantastic on SNL, especially when playing awkward, angry characters. He could make me laugh with just a look.

36. Kenan Thompson (2003-Present) – Thompson holds the record for the longest serving cast member, currently sitting at 18 years. For the longest time, I had trouble thinking of Thompson as an SNL cast member. I first saw him on Nickelodeon’s Kenan & Kel, and for years associated him with that role. He has been very good on SNL. Even during some pretty thin periods, he shined.

35. Chris Parnell (1998-2006) – When I think of Parnell, I think of the word “solid.” He’s good at everything he does. He can be counted on. Even if he isn’t flashy or spectacular, he’ll do a competent job no matter what assignment he is given. It may not sound like it, but I mean that as high praise.

34. Tracy Morgan (1996-2003) – Morgan is one of those players that really hit his stride after leaving SNL. He was great on 30 Rock, and has had a good run on The OG. He was also very good while on SNL, and has gotten even better since leaving.

33. Darrell Hammond (1995-2009) – The second longest serving cast member in SNL history. He did great impersonations, my favorite of which was Sean Connery on the Jeopardy sketches. Truth is, his impersonation was nothing like Connery, yet was hysterical.

32. Molly Shannon (1995-2001) – Shannon will always be remembered primarily for her character Mary Catherine Gallagher, but the truth is, she was very good at everything she did. In that respect, she reminded me a bit of Jan Hooks.

31. Jan Hooks (1986-91) – Hooks could do it all, from redneck waitress at a truck stop to entitled elite. She always seemed to me like one of the players who would go on to bigger and better things. She didn’t, and that was sad. Even more sad, she died in 2014 at the age of 57.

30. Cecily Strong (2012 – Present) – Every time I see Cecily Strong, she is a breath of fresh air. She’s another cast member that reminds me of Jan Hooks. She can play any kind of character, from a beautiful heiress to a drunken tramp. Her two Emmy nominations bear that out. She was very good as an anchor on Weekend Update, and the sketch was weaker once she left.

29. Dan Aykroyd (1975-79) – I know it is a bit sacrilegious putting Aykroyd this far down the list. After all, he was a founding member and, in part because of his talents, SNL is still on the air. I’ll admit, Aykroyd is a very creative, talented guy, but he was never one of my favorites. I just didn’t find him all that funny. Interesting, yes. Funny, no.

28. Andy Samberg (2005-12) – To me, Samberg is the poor man’s Adam Sandler. Where as Sandler went on to great success in movies, Samberg did the same thing on TV with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He was very good on SNL, especially in the Dick-in-a-Box skit with Justin Timberlake. His genius was in creating videos for the show. His live skits weren’t quite as good.

27. Joe Piscopo (1980-84) – I admit, I value Piscopo more highly that a lot of people. I get it. In a lot of ways, he was a blowhard who allowed his success to go to his head. Even so, I thought he brought the best out of Eddie Murphy, and I found his impression of Frank Sinatra hilarious.

26. Norm MacDonald (1993-98) – MacDonald had the rare ability of simultaneously being both the smartest and the dumbest guy in the room. He was great on Weekend Update (maybe my favorite Weekend Update anchor), and was hilarious as Burt Reynolds (Turd Ferguson) on the Jeopardy sketches.

25. Jane Curtin (1975-80) – I don’t know why Jane Curtin is so underrated, but she is. She’s underrated as a cast member on SNL, and she was underrated as a TV actress on such shows as Kate & Allie and 3rd Rock from the Sun. On SNL, she was terrific as an anchor on Weekend Update, and in the Point-Counterpoint sketches with Dan Aykroyd (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”)

24. Kate McKinnon (2012 – Present) – McKinnon is the brightest star on the present iteration of SNL. She is a fantastic character actor, inhabiting the characters she creates and uncompromisingly portraying them. She’s simply very, very funny.

23. Christopher Guest (1984-85) – When Lorne Michaels left SNL for a few years, the show brought in some heavy hitters to jump start the show. Guest was one of those people. He was good, but truthfully, sketch comedy was not his strong suit. He was brilliant in longer-form pieces, like This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show.

22. Amy Poehler (2001-2008) – Poehler’s Weekend Update opposite Tina Fey was fantastic. They have great rapport and play off each other very well. Poehler was especially good playing quirky, off-center characters. She brought an edge to her character portrayals that is a real gift.

21. Jason Sudeikis (2005-13) – Sudeikis looks like a normal guy, but brings a freaky side to his characters. I don’t know why I find his dancing guy in the red tracksuit so funny, but I do. His work on SNL is currently being overshadowed by his portrayal of Ted Lasso, but we should never forget how good he was as an SNL cast member.

20. Dana Carvey (1986-93) – Carvey was primarily known for his impersonations, particularly of George Bush. His Church Lady character became part of the late 80s/early 90s culture. And who can forget Carvey’s sketch where he played a rock musician creating the “Chopping Broccoli” song. I’m laughing just thinking about it.

19. Fred Armisen – (2002-2013) – What a talented guy Fred Armisen is. Whether acting, writing, or creating music, Armisen can do it all. He wasn’t the best actor of the group. Every time I saw him play a character, I was seeing Fred play a character. It was Fred who shone through. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

18. David Spade (1990-96) – Spade may not have invented snark, but he certainly raised it to an art form. As an actor, he’s limited, but what he does, he does very well. He was very good on SNL, and did some good films, including Tommy Boy with Chris Farley, and the classic, Joe Dirt. He also had a good run on TV (“Just Kill Me”) after his run on SNL.

17. Jon Lovitz (1985-90) – There are two recurring sketches that define Lovitz run on SNL for me. The first is the Master Thespian sketch (“Acting!”), and my favorite, the pathological liar, Tommy Flanagan (“Yeah, that’s the ticket.”). His use of his eyebrows was second only to John Belushi. Lovitz is one of those guys that can make me laugh just by looking into the camera.

16. Adam Sandler (1990-1995) – Sandler is a polarizing character. He has a ton of detractors. I get it. At times, I have felt the same way about him since his SNL days. But while on SNL, I thought he was hilarious. I loved his “Opera Man” character, and thought his occasional songs (“Chanukah Song”) were very funny.

15. Chevy Chase (1975-77) – I sometimes think Chevy Chase is overrated. I wonder if he would have had as much success post-SNL if he had not been a part of the inaugural cast. Don’t get me wrong, he was good. His portrayal of a bumbling, stumbling Gerald Ford was hilarious, and he was in one of my all-time favorite sketches, Chase playing “Barely White,” a Caucasian take-off of the great Barry White. But to me, as a cast member, he paled (no pun intended) next to many of the original members.

14. Maya Rudolph (2000-2007) – Rudolph was (and is) ridiculously talented and versatile. She was always the coolest kid in the room, confident she could pull off whatever stunt the sketch called for. Rudolph sometimes took a backseat to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but she was every bit the performer they were, if not more so.

13. Tina Fey (2000-2006) – She was great as an anchor on Weekend Update, and was brilliant impersonating Sarah Palin. Fey is also credited as being one of the best writers ever on SNL. She could do it all. Since SNL, she has had nothing but success on shows such as 30 Rock, and several box office hits, including Date Night and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

12. Phil Hartman (1986-94) – Phil Hartmann was a genius. While on the show, he seemed to stand apart from the other players in talent and presence, yet melded with those same players to come up with some of the most memorable sketches in SNL history. He was great as Frankenstein, and his impersonation of Frank Sinatra was even better than Piscopo’s. His untimely death was a real tragedy.

11. Gilda Radner (1975-80) – When SNL first started, Gilda Radner was a revelation. We had not seen anyone like her on TV since Lucille Ball, a woman who was brainy and insanely funny. The characters she portrayed are timeless, whether Roseanne Roseannadanna (“It’s always something.”), Emily Litella (“Never mind.”), and Lisa Loopner, opposite Bill Murray’s Todd Dilamuca. Her life and her career were really just taking off when she died at the age of 42 of ovarian cancer.

10. Chris Farley (1990-95) – What a huge talent Chris Farley was. His big body hid the fact that he was very athletic. His athleticism was on full display in his famous Chippendales sketch, where he danced alongside Patrick Swayze. But his most famous character is Matt Foley, the overbearing, low-rent motivational speaker who goes ridiculously overboard to help keep kids on the straight and narrow (“…when you’re living in a van down by the river.”).

9. Eddie Murphy (1980-84) – Eddie Murphy had one of the most brilliant runs of any cast member ever on SNL. His portrayal of characters such as Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson poked fun at society’s racial hang-ups, as did his character’s poem, “Kill My Landlord” (“Dark and lonely on a summer night/Kill my landlord/Kill my landlord/Watchdog barking/Do he bite?/Kill my landlord/C-I-L-L my landlord.”). Here’s Eddie as Gumby, one of my all-time favorite characters.

8. Kristen Wiig (2005-12) – Wiig was an incredibly talented writer and actor on SNL. She was beloved by the casts she was part of, and recognized as one of the true geniuses of the series. One of the funniest things I ever saw on SNL was a take-off on the Lawrence Welk Show, where Will Farrell sings to the Maherelle Sisters (“From the Finger Lakes region.”). Rather than tell you about it, take a look. And keep an eye on Kristen Wiig. She’s great.

7. Will Farrell (1995-2002) – Farrell was one of the few cast members from SNL that was at the top of his game while on the show, and somehow got even better when he left it. His “More Cowbell” skit with Christopher Walken is a classic, but was just one of many sketches Farrell made memorable. After SNL, his career went through the roof with movies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step-Brother, and Old School.

6. Martin Short (1984-85) – I know a lot of people think I’m ranking Martin Short too high. He was only on the show for one year, and a lot of what he did during that year was knock-offs of things he had done previously on SCTV. Even so, he was hilarious. Whether he was playing Ed Grimly. Irving Cohen, Jackie Rogers, Jr. or Jiminy Glick (one of my favorites), Short was brilliant.

5. Billy Crystal (1984-85) – In just a year on SNL, Crystal created some of the show’s most memorable characters, including Fernando Lamos (“You look marvelous.”), Willie (alongside Christopher Guest’s, Frankie) (“I hate when that happens.”), and the blues singer, Buddy Young, Jr. (“Can you dig it? I knew that you could.”). Crystal had terrific success before he joined SNL, and he went on to even bigger success afterwards, but during the 1984-85 season, he was terrific.

4. Bill Murray (1977-80) – Although I don’t remember it this way, Murray didn’t join the show until season three. In my mind, he was there from the very beginning. Everything he did was good. He’s just one of those guys who makes you laugh no matter what he does. He created memorable characters like Nick the Lounge singer and Todd Dimuca (opposite Gilda Radner’s Lisa Loopner), and he went on to stardom after SNL in such films as Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters.

3. Bill Hader (2005-2013) –Hader had a great run on SNL. He was a guy who is a bit understated and doesn’t necessarily draw attention to himself, yet he was one of the best things going on the casts he was a part of. My favorite character from Hader was definitely Stefon, the emo kid giving hilarious club updates during Weekend Update. The funniest part for me was when Hader couldn’t suppress a laugh. Take a look:

2. Mike Myers (1989-95) – Everything Mike Myers did made me laugh. During the time he was on SNL, he was the best thing on the show. He created memorable characters like local access TV hero Wayne Campbell (“Broadcasting live from Aurora, IL”), talk-show host Linda Richman (“Her legs were like buttah.”), and Dieter, the monkey-petting German talk-show host from Sprockets (“Pet my monkey. Touch my monkey. Love my monkey.”). After his SNL days, he went on to fame and fortune reprising his role as Wayne Campbell in Wayne’s World 1 & 2, as well as the popular Austin Powers movies. Unfortunately, in recent years, he has largely disappeared, instead choosing to enjoy his family and his money out of the public eye. Can you imagine?

  1. John Belushi (1975-79) – Without Belushi, I don’t think the original cast of SNL would have been able to turn the show into a television staple. He was the glue that brought it all together for that cast. He was best known for characters like Samurai Hitman and the Chee-burger, Chee-burger skit, inspired by the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago (“No Coke, Pepsi.”). But it was his bigger-than-life persona that really lit up the SNL stage. Watching him was like watching a comet streaking across the sky before it inevitably burns out.

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Three Words You Should Know

There are three words that have become more popular in recent years that you should know about. The three words are often used interchangeably, even though they mean slightly different things, and they all could factor into the future of our democracy.

The first word is oligarchy, which means “rule by the few.” Like all the words we’re discussing today, oligarchy is a Greek word.

Next is kleptocracy, which means “rule by thieves.

And finally, plutocracy, which means “rule by the wealthy.”

The reason these words are so important and could potentially bear on the future of our country is that the relatively few wealthy, who are often viewed as corrupt (i.e., thieves) are leading the charge toward authoritarianism in the United States.

Although Donald Trump (himself, a want-to-be oligarch) is the face of this movement, it is much deeper and more committed than just Trumpism. It has gathered many disparate players from traditional Republicans, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, militia groups, other far-right groups, and evangelicals (particularly Christian Nationalists) who view the turn toward an autocracy run by oligarchs as a way to achieve their individual political agendas.

We often associate—with good reason—oligarchs with Russia. The reason for this is that the people who benefitted most from the fall of the USSR were the people who spirited away millions and billions of dollars (or rubles) from the national treasury to line their pockets. The money helped these people, including Vladimir Putin, to gain and exercise power in the newly formed Russia.

Its this hunt for money that makes our current turn toward authoritarianism different from what we saw with the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, or the rise of fascism under Benito Mussolini during that same period in Italy. Those movements, much like the administration of Viktor Orban in Hungary today, were grounded in fanatical patriotism. While patriotism can be a good, constructive thing, fanatical patriotism tends to support country at the expense of civil rights, particularly for marginalized groups.

What we are seeing in the United States is more akin to an oligarchic autocracy. Also known as a kleptocracy or plutocracy, it plays on the patriotic fervor of those on the far-right, but it’s true aim is to enrich (or further enrich) the few at the top of the movement.

To be sure, there are some common hallmarks shared by the money-grubbing Russia-style autocracy and the nationalistic-based authoritarianism. For instance, both create laws favoring the wealthy. In the United States, we have seen tax breaks for the rich, government subsidies to corporations and wealthy landowners, and suppression of voting rights, especially impacting the poor and marginalized groups.

The impact on the poor and marginalized groups (including women) is another shared trait. Rights gained through years of hard-fought advocacy are often lost during authoritarian regimes. Often, leaders will pay lip service to civil rights, but in practice, will work to curtail them.

Yet another commonality between these two groups is the use of violence. In the United States, we saw a rise in violence against citizens during the Trump administration, including the use of government law enforcement personnel in a storm trooper-type role, national guard troops breaking up peaceful demonstrations, and the normalization of citizen-on-citizen violence for political purposes. In addition, we witnessed an attempted violent coup against the government that was largely excused by those supporting authoritarianism, and for the first time in our history, we failed to have a peaceful transition from one presidential administration to another. The specter of violence continues to be a daily concern, with right-wingers threatening another civil war and asking their leaders when they can start shooting those that defend democracy.

A contributing factor to oligarchy in the United States is the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission. In essence, the Citizens United case gave corporations and other outside groups the right to spend as much money as they’d like to influence political campaigns. This invited wealthy individuals and corporations into politics, giving them unlimited ability to not only influence the outcome of elections, but to have undue influence over a candidate once they had been elected to office.

Giving wealthy individuals and corporations the ability to spend to their heart’s content on elections also had the effect of reducing the influence a citizen of ordinary means has in an election. This act of moderating, or even eliminating, the power of the non-wealthy is a cornerstone to the rise of oligarchy in the United States.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice:

“With its decision, the Supreme Court overturned election spending restrictions that date back more than 100 years. Previously, the court had upheld certain spending restrictions, arguing that the government had a role in preventing corruption. But in Citizens United, a bare majority of the justices held that “independent political spending” did not present a substantive threat of corruption, provided it was not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign…As a result, corporations can now spend unlimited funds on campaign advertising if they are not formally “coordinating” with a candidate or political party.”

To understand what is happening in the United States from a political perspective, it is important to understand the meaning of oligarchy, kleptocracy, and plutocracy. They will be playing an increasingly important role in our national discussion, and sadly, in our future.

To better understand oligarchy, PHILO-Notes, the online philosophy teaching project, put this video together that does a good job of explaining oligarchy in just three-and-a-half minutes.

 

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Know Your Pizza

I grew up about 40 miles outside of Chicago. Like a lot of families in our area, we ate pizza often, either as a meal or a late-night snack. The two pizzerias we patronized the most were Gario’s (still in business) and Tony Weed’s (out of business). In later years, when I was old enough to drive, Ach-N-Lou’s pizza became a favorite. If we were having frozen pizza, it was almost always Tombstone.

I loved pizza, but as a kid, I didn’t know that Chicago had the reputation for being the pizza capital of North America, a title that New York-style pizza fans might dispute. In fact, I was in my late 20s or early 30s before I ever had deep-dish pizza, that gastronomical delight that most people associate with Chicago.

In those days, I was blissfully ignorant about the pizza scene in the Chicago area. I loved our local pizzerias, but I also took them for granted. I didn’t realize that I was eating some of the best pizza in the nation. But once I was introduced to Chicago-style deep-dish, my eyes were opened to the many different varieties of pizza on offer at pizzerias around Chicago, and from coast-to-coast.

Chicago vs New York City

Let me take a quick side trip to address the Chicago vs New York City pizza debate. In a recent poll conducted by USA Today, 49% of respondents proclaimed Chicago as the pizza capital of the United States. Thirty percent voted for New York City, 12% said they’d eat pizza anywhere (that seems like a cop out to me), and 9% voted for another city or region in the United States.

Although I’m gratified to see that Chicago won the poll (I’m nothing, if not a homer), I think it misses the point. New York-style pizza can be great. My go-to place in my new home is a New York-style pizza joint. It’s fantastic. To me, the big difference between New York and Chicago, at least when it comes to pizza, is that pizzerias in New York overwhelmingly serve New York-style pizza, while pizzerias in Chicago serve a wide variety of different types of pies. It’s the variety that, to me, makes Chicago the true pizza capital of America.

The following is not a comprehensive list of pizza styles. I’m a pizza snob, but in many ways, I’m still a novice when it comes to the art of pizza making. With that caveat out of the way, here are the type of pizzas you might consider the next time you have an urge for a little bit of Italian-inspired happiness.

Oops…One final caveat: Many of the types of pizzas I’m about to discuss overlap from one style to another. For instance, there are a lot of similarities between thin, Chicago-style thin, and New York-style pizzas. And yet, they are completely different. When it comes to pizza, the details really matter.

Okay, enough caveats. On with the list:

Thin Crust Pizza

While you could argue that “thin-crust pizza” is a generic term, there’s nothing generic about eating a thin-crust pizza. To qualify as thin-crust, one obvious criteria is that the crust must be thin (duh!). To put a finer point on it, the crust is not deep and not pan, but it’s also not as thin or crispy as a Chicago-style thin (see below). It tends to be a little thicker and chewier than a Chicago-style thin, which has a crispier bite.

A thin-crust pizza has a rim of crust that can be used as a “handle” when eating a slice. The crust is usually firm enough to carry the load of cheese and other ingredients, unlike a New York-style pizza that often has a flimsy crust. Thin crust pizzas can either be cut into wedges (like New York-style pizza) or into squares (known as the “party cut) like Chicago-style thin.

A good example of a thin crust pizza is served at Italian Fiesta Pizzeria, a favorite of the Obamas. The pizza at Italian Fiesta is cut into squares and has a slightly thicker crust than a Chicago-style thin. It also has the crust “handle” that further separates it from a Chicago-thin.

If you can’t make it to Chicago for thin crust pizza, pick up a Home Run Inn frozen pizza at the store. It’s not quite as good as the pizza you’d be served in one of their numerous pizzerias around Chicago and the suburbs, but it will likely be the best frozen pizza you’ve ever had.

Chicago-Thin Pizza

Imagine you’re a Chicago bar owner in the early part of the twentieth century. You want to increase business, but you don’t have a ton of money to spend. What would you do?

What some bar owners did was make inexpensive pizzas with extremely thin (but sturdy) crust to feed to the after-work crowd. The hope was that by feeding their customers, they’d stick around a little longer rather than rushing home to dinner, and if the pizza they served was a little salty, maybe the customers would buy another beer or three.

Initially, the pizzas, which were cut into squares to make them more like a snack, were given away free. But in time, they became so popular that bar owners began charging for the pizzas. Some even transformed from bars into pizzerias.

Chicago-style thin is also known as tavern-style due to its history. Despite reports to the contrary, Chicago-style thin is the true Chicago-style pizza. Chicago-style deep dish or stuffed pizza is more for out-of-towners or special occasions. I love deep-dish, but only have it a couple of times a year. Chicago-style thin is on the menu much more often.

As the name implies, a thin crust is a hallmark of Chicago-style thin. It’s thinner than regular thin crust, yet it’s still sturdy enough to carry the load of ingredients. Unlike thin, there is no “handle” of crust along the edge. The cheese goes all the way to the edge, making it slightly more difficult to eat, but well worth the effort. Chicago-style thin is always cut into squares, partly because it doesn’t have the crust edge.

In Chicago, two of the most well-known Chicago-style thin crust pizzerias are Vito & Nick’s on South Pulaski Road, and Pat’s Pizza and Ristorante on N. Lincoln Ave. Be warned, if you visit Vito & Nick’s, bring cash. They don’t take credit cards.

New York-Style Pizza

Until now, I have supported the notion that Chicago is a better pizza town than New York. Let me throw a little love New York’s way. One way New York City outshines Chicago when it comes to pizza is in the number of “By-the-slice” options they offer. If you have a hankering for pizza at lunchtime in Chicago, you’re most likely going to have buy a whole pizza. In NYC, there’s practically a “By-the-slice” joint on every other block.

The most famous New York-style pizzeria (at lest to people who don’t live in NYC) is Sbarro’s. But don’t be fooled into thinking Sbarro’s is typical New York-style pizza. In the same way Chicago-style deep dish has an out-sized reputation in Chicago, Sbarro’s has an out-sized reputation in NYC. It’s not what locals eat.

New York-style pizza has a thin crust, but unlike either thin crust or Chicago-style thin, New York-style crust is more flimsy. Almost always cut into wedges (or slices), the lip of a slice of New York-style pizza will droop. To beef it up a bit, aficionados of New York-style will fold the slice in half lengthwise, so as to not lose any of the ingredients onto the ground, or worse yet, your lap.

It has been my experience that most New York-style joints skimp on the sauce, at least in comparison to Chicago-style pizzas. And because that crust is not as firm, the bite is often chewier than either thin or Chicago-style thin.

A good representation of New York-style “By-the-slice” pizza in Chicago is Dimo’s Pizza on North Damen Ave. or North Clark Street. Another good New York-style joint is Paula & Monica’s Pizzeria on West Chicago Ave. But be warned, New Yorkers claim that you can only get true New York-style pizza in NYC because of the NYC water that is used to make the dough. I’m not sure if that’s true, but thought you should know.

Chicago-Style Deep-Dish

There is a story that has been around for a long time that claims that Ike Sewell created the first Chicago-style deep dish pizza in the 1940s in his Chicago restaurant, Pizzeria Uno. While it’s almost certainly true that the Chicago-style deep dish originated at Pizzeria Uno, it almost certainly wasn’t Ike Sewell who created it. It’s much more likely that his partner, and the main cook at Pizzeria Uno, Ric Riccardo, is the man we have to thank for Chicago-style deep dish.

What started off as a lark in Ric Riccardo’s kitchen soon became a Chicago hallmark. Other restaurants began imitating the deep-dish creation, and soon, the likes of Gino’s East, Lou Malnati’s, and Connie’s began springing up around town.

Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is a cross between a pizza and a casserole. It’s made in a deep-sided, round pan. The dough is spread across the pan and is pressed so it goes up the sides. The crust itself is thin. The cheese, sauce, and other ingredients make it deep. In contrast, the crust is thick with thick crust pizza. It is a common misconception that deep dish and thick crust are the same. They are NOT! The pizzas may be roughly the same depth, but they are made very differently.

Next, the pizza is made in reverse order to a thin crust. The cheese goes on first, directly on the dough. Next comes the ingredients, such as sausage, pepperoni, or, if you’re a true Chicagoan, giardiniera (If you’re not a true Chicagoan, you may need to Google it). The sauce goes on top.

Let’s take a second to talk about the sauce. In some ways, Chicago pizza culture is split right down the middle. Generally speaking, the Southside prefers a sweeter sauce, so many Southside pizzerias add sugar to their sauce. Northside pizzerias usually forego the sugar. Of course, life is never that straight forward. Over the years, Southside pizzerias have expanded onto the Northside, and vice versa, spreading their unique sauce into new territory. Today, there still is a bit of a North-South split, but it has become much more of a mish mash of styles and sugar content.

I’m a fan of Gino’s East, Lou Malnati’s, and Connie’s, but the best Chicago-style deep-dish pizza I have ever had was at My Pi Pizza on North Damen Ave. (If you Google it, you’ll see it referred to as “My Pie, My Pi, Mi Pie, and Mi Pi, Officially, the name is My and the mathematical symbol for Pi, but that doesn’t work on the internet, so the web address is Mypiepizza.com, even though they refer to themselves as “My Pi.” Go figure.) For me, it was tastier and less filling than Chicago-Style deep dish I have had elsewhere.

Chicago-Style Stuffed Pizza

Think of Chicago-style stuffed pizza as a variation on a theme. It’s like deep-dish, but there are differences. Just like a Chicago-style deep dish, the stuffed pizza is built in a deep-sided, round pan. The dough is spread across the bottom of the pan and up the sides. Next, the ingredients are added, then the cheese, usually shredded mozzarella. This is backwards from how deep-dish pizza is made.

Rather than sauce going on next, a thin layer of dough goes over the top of the cheese, separating it from the sauce, which goes on top of the second layer of dough. Parmesan cheese and oregano are often sprinkled over the top of the sauce after cooking.

I like stuffed pizza but have to admit that something is lost when the sauce, cheese, and ingredients don’t mingle while cooking. It’s not a big difference, but depending on the pizzeria, can be noticeable.

Giordano’s is the biggest name in Chicago-style stuffed pizza. After all, they created it back in the 1970’s. Nancy’s is also really good, and like Giordano’s, they have several locations around the city and suburbs. A place I hear is good, but have never tried, is Suparossa, with two locations; one on North Central Ave and one on West Lawrence Ave.

Thick Crust

Thick Crust pizza is actually a generic name for a few different styles of pizza. For years, Pizza Hut has offered a thick crust pizza that is in reality, a variation of a Sicilian-style pizza. Technically, French bread pizza would also fit in this category. Detroit-style pizza also qualifies as thick crust pizza.

Another area that New York excels over Chicago is when it comes to Sicilian pizza. Until recently, there were very few Sicilian joints in Chicago. However, that is changing.

To qualify as Sicilian, or what New Yorkers call Grandma-style, the dough must be thick, and the pizza must be cooked in a rectangular bakery-style sheet pan. The dough itself is left to rest and ferment for anywhere from one to five days. The longer it ferments, the more moisture it absorbs, creating a spongy texture.

Like thin crust pizzas, the sauce goes on the dough, followed by the ingredients, then the cheese. For my taste, Sicilian-style pizzas often have too little sauce and not enough cheese. However, that’s a personal preference. Others might feel differently.

Properly made Sicilian crust, although thick, should be light and airy. If not, the crust will be dense and overpower the rest of the pizza. This is one reason I don’t like French bread pizza. Too much bread.

In New York, and increasingly in Chicago, Sicilian-style pizzas are made in bakeries. This usually leads to a fluffier, flakier crust that supports the pizza, but doesn’t dominate it.

Full Shilling Public House on North Clark Street (near Wrigley Field) makes an awesome Sicilian-style pizza. But be warned: although they serve food all week long, Sicilian-style pizzas, which are made by Anthony Scardino (who goes by the handle “Professor Pizza”), are only available on Fridays and Saturdays.

Similar to Sicilian-style pizza, Detroit-style pizza is made with thick crust in a rectangular pan. However, the Detroit-style pizza crust is different. Detroit-style pizza crust dough uses bread flour, which increases the gluten content and makes the dough more elastic and chewier. Properly made Detroit-style crust should be similar to focaccia bread. Like Sicilian-style crust, if not made correctly, Detroit-style crust can be dense and overpowering.

Cheese is pushed up against the side of the (normally aluminum) baking sheet, giving the pizza a browned edge where the cheese is charred. To get a good, dark charring (and for taste), Detroit-style pizzas are often made with higher-fat Wisconsin brick cheese. This charring on the edges is often the favorite part of the pizza for Detroit-style lovers.

Detroit-style sauce is acidic with a hint of sweetness. It is applied sparingly, either just before cooking or on top of the pizza right after it is taken out of the oven. Although any ingredients can be used on a Detroit-style pizza, the iconic ingredient is traditional circle pepperoni, which cups and chars, holding a tiny bit of liquified fat, which is tasty, if not healthy.

In the interest of full discloser, I have to admit that I’ve never had a Detroit-style pizza that I liked. It may have been that the crust wasn’t made properly, or it could be that I just don’t like thicker crust pizzas (I tend to think it is the latter). Even so, I have heard that Fat Chris’s Pizza and Such on West Foster Ave has excellent Detroit-style pizza.

Artisan Pizza

What makes a pizza an artisan pizza? That can be a difficult question to answer. Often there are big differences from one artisan pizza to another. However, the common similarity between artisan pizzas is the passion for changing and improving the pizza that the chef puts into their creation.

Artisan pizzas are usually not mass-produced, and rarely, despite notable exceptions, are these pizzas available at more than one location. The chef usually starts their experimentation with the crust, trying different flours, temperatures, and fermentation times to develop a crust that offers a unique bite.

Next, they source the freshest ingredients and offer gourmet-type toppings normally not found in other pizzerias, such as smoked lake fish, chili, kimchi, and pickled onions. Different sauces might also be used (like creamy taleggio and scented truffle oil), as well as artisan and gourmet cheeses not usually found in pizzerias. Then, the entire concoction is often cooked in a wood- or coal-fired oven. The result is a pizza unlike anything you’ve likely ever had before.

Two well-respected artisan pizzerias in Chicago are Bungalow by Middle Brow on West Armitage Ave and Paulie Gee’s Logan Square on North Milwaukee Ave. Both come highly recommended.

California-Style Pizza

California-style pizza is a type of artisan pizza, but gets it’s own category due to it’s popularity. Introduced at Spago, the hip Hollywood eatery owned by Wolfgang Puck, Chef Ed LaDou created California-style pizza in 1982,

California-style pizza crust is a thin version of a Neopolitan-style pizza, but the toppings are often unique, including thai chicken, pineapple and ham, carne asada, broccoli, kale raab, and arugula.

A couple of California attorneys saw the potential of Ladou’s creation and started California Pizza Kitchen, the largest purveyors of California-style pizza in the nation. They have 250 locations nationwide, including locations in Skokie on Old Orchard, Northbrook on Lake Cook Road, Schaumburg on East Golf Road, Deer Park on North Rand Road, and in Oakbrook on Oakbrook Center.

Roman Pizza

I have to admit, I’m not familiar with Roman-style pizza, or what is more properly called Roman al taglio (“by the cut”). For this new-to-me type of pizza, I’ll turn to my pizza mentor, Steve Dolinsky,* to explain:

“The ‘al taglio’ refers to a process involving scissors. You tell the employee behind the counter how much of the pizza you’d like—using your fingers or other pantomime—then they’ll cut it from the rectangular pan and weigh it. You pay by the pound. The slices are topped with all manner of seasonal and regional specialties. Personal favorites include a thinly shaved zucchini accented with freshly ground black pepper and bright lemon zest, but you’d be struck by how good the potato-mozzarella is, or the octopus. They (Bonci) recently started making an “Italian Beef” flavor with the namesake, thinly shaved, plus homemade giardiniera.

“The pizzas are stretched and baked in large steel rectangular pans, but after they’ve baked on the stone decks of the Castelli ovens imported from Italy and you’ve placed your order, the employee will reheat the slice in a different oven, then cut them into tiny, almost tapas-sized squares for easy eating. The focaccia-like interior is the result of three flours, a lot of water in the dough, and a thirty-six-to-seventy-two-hour fermentation. The second bake ensures a hallmark of all Roman pies: they must be crispy.”

I am struck by not only how different a Roman al taglio pizza is, but how the entire ordering and preparation process is different. It almost feels like Roman-style pizza is pizza in name only, like it’s a different class of food. Even so, I’m open to giving it a try.

If you’d like to try it, check out Bonci on North Sangamon Street. According to Steve Dolinsky, Bonci will soon be expanding to New Orleans and Miami.

Neapolitan Pizza

Purveyors of Neapolitan-style pizza are serious about their craft. The pizza, which originated in Naples, Italy, must be made according to certain instructions which are promulgated and enforced by the Vera Pizza Napoletans (VPN).

Some of the instructions that must be followed include:

  • Only use “00” (highly refined) flour in the dough
  • Water must be at a certain pH level
  • Sea salt and compressed solid yeast must be used
  • San Marzano tomatoes must be used

In addition, there are rules for how many times the dough must rise and even what type of oven the pizza is cooked in.

Purveyors of Neapolitan pizza are represented by the Association of Neapolitan Pizza Makers, a trade organization that publishes an official guide. The guide explains how the pizza should look and taste once it comes out of the oven:

“The consistency of the pizza should be soft, elastic, and easy to manipulate and fold. The center should be particularly soft to the touch and the taste and appearance of the pizza must be evidenced by the red color of the tomato. For the Pizza Marinara, the green of the oregano and the white of the garlic must be homogeneously spread, while, in the case of the Pizza Margherita, the white of the mozzarella should appear in evenly spread patches, in contrast with the green of the basil leaves, slightly darkened by the cooking process. The crust should possess the flavor of well-baked bread. The slightly acidic flavor of the densely enriched tomatoes, mixed with the characteristic aroma of the oregano, garlic, or basil ensures that the pizza, as it comes out from the oven, delivers its characteristic aroma of fresh and fragrant typical Mediterranean product.”

Wow! That’s impressive. So, what is Neapolitan pizza?

The crust for a Neapolitan pizza is thin, but not as thin as you would expect from a normal thin-crust pizza. Many different types of ingredients can be used on a Neapolitan Pizza, buy only one of two types of chesses is acceptable. The first is Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, which is made with the milk of water buffalos. The second option is Fior di Latta di Agerola, made with cow’s milk from the Agerola region of Italy.

A favorite in Chicago for Neapolitan pizza is Panino’s Pizzeria on North Broadway Street (they also have restaurants in Evanston and Park Ridge). Eatly on East Ohio St. is also popular with the Neapolitan crowd.

New Haven-Style Pizza

Technically, New Haven-style pizza is a variation on a traditional Neapolitan pizza. Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitano in New Haven, CT (hence the name) originated the New Have-style pizza, or what locals call “apizza.”

The New Haven-style crust is thin, similar to a Neapolitan pizza, and is often oblong, as opposed to round. The pizza is normally cooked in a coal-fired oven, giving it a charred, chewy bite. The sauce and cheese are both applied sparingly, making a New Have-style pizza drier than most other pizzas.

Another thing that sets a New Haven-style pizza apart from other pizzas is the use of local seafood as an ingredient. For instance, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitano’s signature pie is a white clam pizza, featuring the Neapolotan-style crust, olive oil, oregano, grated cheese, chopped garlic, and little neck clams.

Although Frank Pepe is the Godfather of New Haven-style pizzas, others have jumped in with their own offerings, including Sally’s Apizza and Modern Apizza. Although New Haven-style pizza has gained popularity in recent years, it is still primarily available in New Haven, CT.

St. Louis-Style Pizza

If you like thin crust pizza–I mean super thin and cracker crisp–then you’ll probably like St. Louis-style pizza. The dough starts with unleavened (no yeast) flour that creates a crust similar to a Matzo cracker. The toppings are generally the same toppings you’d find at most any other style of pizzeria, but it’s the cheese that really sets it apart.

St. Louis-style pizzerias use Provel cheese, a white processed cheese that remains gooey even when it’s cold. This is the reason St. Louis-style pizza has the reputation for being the best next-day-eat-it-cold, style of pizza.

The sauce is normally sweet, and is heavy on oregano, giving the pizza a unique flavor. Like Chicago-thin pizzas, St. Louis-style pies are normally cut into squares rather than slices, and it is common to order a salad-to-share to enjoy alongside the pizza.

To get the true St. Louis-style pizza experience, you’ll want yo visit the restaurant that started it all. Imo’s Pizza has several locations around the St. Louis area, as well as locations in Illinois and Kansas.

Quad City-Style Pizza

In case you didn’t know, the Quad Cities are made up of Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa. The Quad Cities area also consists of several smaller towns in northwestern Illinois and Southeastern Iowa.

There are a few things that set Quad City-style pizza from other thin crust pizzas. The first is that the hand-tossed crust is made with a spice mix that includes malt, giving the crust a toasty, nutty flavor. Like other thin crust pizzas, Quad City-style pies have a crust “handle” around its edge.

The sauce is spicier than most Chicago-style sauces, containing red pepper flakes and ground cayenne. The sauce is also thinner than most Chicago-style sauce, and is applied more sparingly, making for a slightly drier pizza.

The sausage used on some Quad City-style pizzas is also unique. It is heavy on fennel (like many Chicago-style pizzas), and is applied as an entire layer on the pie. This is similar to the way Gino’s East applies their sausage, but, because the sausage is ground twice on Quad City-style pizzas, it is less like a patty (as with Gino’s East) and more crumbled, like you would expect with ground beef taco meat.

One final unique feature of Quad City-style pizza is that it is cut into strips, rather than slices or squares. This involves making one cut down the center of the pizza, then five or six perpendicular cuts across the pie.

Two of the originators of Quad City-style pizza are Frank’s Club Napoli in Silvis, IL and Harris Pizza in Rock Island, IL (Hat tip to Don Fry for the recommendations). I’ve had Quad City-style pizza at Davis Bros. Pizza in East Peoria, IL. To be sure, the pizza is different from what I am used to, but I liked it a lot.

 

Pizza Pot Pie

Some (like Steve Dolinsky) would argue that pizza pot pie isn’t really pizza, but I’ve included it because 1) I’ve had it and liked it, and 2) my friend, Faith Morley, who was like a second mother to me when I was growing up, loves it. So, let’s talk about pizza pot pie.

First, you can only get it at one place that I know of, and that’s The Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company on North Clark. The restaurant is housed in an old building right across the street from where the infamous St. Valentines Day Massacre took place.

The pizza pot pie was dreamed up in 1972 by Albert Beaver, a Chicago attorney who wanted to open a restaurant. Beaver’s creation is an individual serving entrée (half-pounder or one-pounder) and consists of a bread-type crust made into a bowl, a sauce of olive oil; fresh garlic; onions; green peppers; whole plum tomatoes; sausage made from Boston butts; large, whole, fresh mushrooms; and a gob of different cheeses.

The pizza pot pie is cooked in a bowl and flipped table-side by the server. Plunging a fork into the pizza pot pie creates a delicious, oozing stream of cheese, sausage, mushrooms, and all of the other ingredients.

Pizza pot pie may not technically be pizza, but Faith likes it, and that’s good enough for me.

Pizza Puff

In the 1970s, deep-dish pizza was all the rage in Chicago. It was new and different, and places like Gino’s East, Lou Malnati’s and Connie’s were doing big business. All of the business going to deep-dish pizza joints cut into the revenue of Chicago-style hotdog carts and restaurants around the city. They needed something new to compete with the pizzerias.

Enter Elisha Shabaz.

Shabaz was an immigrant from Iran who came to the U.S. in 1898 as a 14-year old, and landed in Chicago a few years later. As an adult, Shabaz went into the tamale business, first hand-rolling tamales for another business, and then starting his own tamale company, Iltaco Food Company (IL-TA-CO).

In the 1960s, Elisha’s grandson, Warren Shabaz, took over Iltaco, and expanded the business. He delivered tamales to many of the hotdog carts around town, and in the 1970s when the second pizza wave hit Chicago, the hotdog carts approached the younger Shabaz to find a solution to the business they were losing to pizzerias.

Almost all of the hotdog carts already had deep fryers, so Shabaz created a phyllo dough-wrapped “puff” that was stuffed with pizza sauce, cheese, and sausage, and could be quickly cooked in a deep fryer. This new creation was a bit like a mini-calzone or panzerotti, weighing in at six ounces and filled with flavor.

The pizza puffs were a hit, and Shabaz and his sons have ridden their popularity to the point where they are now available in 42 states. To this day, the pizza puffs are still hand-rolled at Iltaco’s West Town location, and are available in several different flavors including pepperoni, four cheese, spinach and cheese, and even a breakfast pizza puff.

Like pizza pot pie, pizza puffs may not technically be pizza, but they are uniquely Chicago, and they’re delicious.

Conclusion

At one time, I thought pizza was pizza was pizza. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I now know that my favorite pizza is a Chicago thin (or tavern thin). I love deep dish pizza, and now know the difference between deep dish and stuffed, which I also love. I’ve never had a Roman pizza, have only had Neapolitan pizza once or twice (I like it), and I’m sad to report that I’ve never had a Detroit-style pie that I liked. I’m a big fan of St. Louis-style pizza, I get a little weirded out by the gourmet ingredients used on many artisan and California-style pizzas, and I have to admit that a New York-style pizza can be absolutely delicious.

What’s your favorite?

* I have learned a tremendous amount from 13-time James Beard Award winner Steve Dolinsky, the Chicago-based food critic, writer, podcaster, and TV personality, about the history and intricacies of pizza. Steve runs a fantastic Chicago pizza tour business, works for NBC in Chicago, and has written two fantastic books about pizza (particularly the Chicago pizza scene). Pizza City USA is a listing and description of the 101 best pizzerias in the Chicago area. The Ultimate Chicago Pizza Guide is a bulked up, updated version of Pizza City USA, giving more history of pizza, more history of the pizzerias covered in the book, and a more current listing of Chicago’s best pizzerias.

NOTE: Recommendations for pizzerias in this essay are my own, or were made by Steve Dolinsky in one of his great books.

Addendum: The aforementioned Steve Dolinsky has created a show about pizza in Chicago that he is currently pitching to cable channels and streaming services. Here’s the pilot he created to generate interest:

 

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The Art and Science of Ice Cream

I love ice cream. Ever since I was a kid, ice cream has been my “go to” dessert. My mom usually bought vanilla or French vanilla (I’m convinced we got French vanilla because my mom picked out the wrong carton by mistake), or on rare occasions, Neapolitan, that fancy ice cream with three different flavors in the same carton. It was a simpler time.

As I grew older, my palate matured and I started craving more complex flavors, including ice cream mixed with candy or fudge or brownies. The 1980s and 90s saw a boom in inventive ice cream flavors. My personal favorite: Denali moose tracks (vanilla ice cream, peanut butter cups, swirled fudge).

But to be honest, as much as I loved ice cream, I took it for granted. There was a whole range of different types of ice cream, but in my mind, I lumped them all together. To me, ice cream was ice cream was ice cream.

A few years ago, I began to open my eyes to various types of ice cream and what made them different. I’m not talking about different flavors. I’m talking about butter fat content, air percentages, creaminess, and base ingredients. There are big differences between various categories of ice cream.

This is by no means a comprehensive dive into all of the different categories of ice cream, but I hope it does provide a basic understanding of what you are eating the next time you scream for ice cream.

Let’s start with the term ice cream. So far in this essay, I’ve used the term incorrectly. For the most part, we in the United States think of the various different categories of frozen desserts as ice cream, but the truth is, ice cream is just one type of frozen dessert.

One of the main differentiators of frozen desserts is the amount of butterfat content it contains. Let’s start with the lowest butterfat content and work our way up.

Sorbet

In days of old, royal courts and wealthy elites would enjoy a dessert known as water ice. This was in the days before refrigeration, so water ice was a rare treat. It consisted of ice and sugar syrup for flavoring, then was whisked, to make the concoction scoopable. It was a simple, yet exotic dessert.

Sorbet descended from water ice, and to this day, contains no milk or cream, so it’s the perfect treat for those with dairy intolerances or vegans. In addition to ice and sugar syrup (a mixture of table sugar and corn syrup), sorbet also is made with fruit juice or fruit puree, and occasionally fruit pieces. Of all the different types of frozen desserts, sorbet has the lightest, iciest texture, and is often used as a palate cleanser rather than a dessert.

Sherbet (or Sherbert)

Sherbet originated in Turkey and Persia, and was introduced into Europe in the 17th century. By law, Sherbet must contain milk ingredients and milk fat, normally bringing the butterfat content in at about 1-2%. Fruit juice or whole fruit chunks are also normally added, giving sherbet a tart, tangy taste.

Sherbet (as well as sorbet) is normally served at 10 to 22 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than frozen desserts with a higher butterfat content, because colder temperatures would tend to make sherbet too dense and difficult to eat. The higher temperatures make sherbet much creamier than sorbet.

Frozen Yogurt

True to its name, frozen yogurt often has the same live cultures as regular, refrigerated yogurt. Frozen yogurt, also call “Froyo,” is often marketed as a healthier alternative to ice cream or other frozen desserts, since it normally contains around 2-4% butterfat.

Although yogurt has been around for thousands of years, it didn’t enter the dessert category until 1970, when entrepreneur H.P. Hood introduced “frogurt” soft-serve. Capitalizing on consumers’ desire for healthy foods, companies like TCBY took frozen yogurt mainstream in the 1980s.

Flavor-wise, frozen yogurt does have its perks. Tartness makes it one of the best dessert options for frozen berries and fruit flavors. Frozen yogurt ingredients and processing is not stipulated under the Code of Federal Regulations.

Gelato

Gelato is a frozen dessert made from a mixture of milk, cream, and sweetener. It originated in Italy and is widely sold in Italian shops called “gelaterias” around the country. Gelato means ice cream in Italian and is thought to have been born during the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century.

Two types of gelato were introduced to the United States in the late 1700s: one made by combining water with fruits and the other by mixing milk with cinnamon, chocolate, or different flavors.

While gelato does have a custard base like ice cream, it also contains less milk fat. Both gelato and ice cream contain cream, milk, and sugar, but gelato uses more milk and less cream than ice cream. Gelato contains 4-9% butterfat, while ice cream contains 14-25%. Also, gelato is traditionally served at a slightly warmer temperature (about 7 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to ice cream, which gives it a bit softer feel and why it looks glossier.

Gelato is churned, very much like caramel, which reduces the air content during freezing, creating a very dense & creamy end product. Unlike other frozen desserts, there are no laws concerning the ingredients or process used to create gelato in the United States. Because of this, products marketed as gelato can vary wildly.

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FUN FACT:

The higher the butterfat content of a frozen dessert, the less chance there is of suffering from brain freeze

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Ice Cream

America had its first accounted taste of ice cream in the 1740s, according to a letter dated 1744. The dessert went on to impress some of the most recognized figures in American history, including George Washington, who purchased $200 worth of ice cream in 1790, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.

Ice cream’s popularity and accessibility increased as technologies evolved. But as the base of ice cream fans grew, so did the number of fakes. That’s why the government standardized the dessert as part 135.110 in the Food and Drug Administration’s Code of Federal Regulations, which includes stipulations on ingredients, production and composition.

Today, about 16.3 billion liters of ice cream are produced worldwide each year. By country, the United States leads in ice cream production with an estimated 4.4 billion liters per year.

The core ingredients for ice cream are milk, cream, sugar and air. Eggs are often used in higher quality ice cream, as well. Air can make up between 30 and 50 percent of the ice cream’s volume. The higher quality the ice cream, the less air it will have.

Ice cream is served at the coldest temperature of most frozen desserts, between 6 degrees and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This affects its flavor, as the cold temperature numbs the taste buds and doesn’t allow intense flavors to come through in ice cream as well as they do in gelato, sherbet, or sorbet. Ice cream is incredibly versatile in flavor and can include anything from caramel to strawberry to pistachio to chocolate.

Soft Serve

Soft serve ice cream came about in the 1930s. It was very popular at fairs, carnivals, amusement parks, and even restaurants. But as you probably suspected, there are a couple of differences between soft serve ice cream and regular ice cream.

First, soft serve generally contains less milk fat than its harder, denser counterpart. It also contains more air than regular ice cream, which makes it less dense and less expensive to produce. Otherwise, it has a minimum of 10% butterfat, and like regular ice cream, can often be between 14-25%.

Other than that, soft serve ice cream is actually the exact same thing as regular ice cream. The machine that is used to make soft serve ice cream keeps it soft, with a smoother texture. The machine is also responsible for not allowing the ice cream to harden very much by keeping it cool enough, but not too cool.

Frozen Custard

Frozen custard was first seen in France in the middle of the eighteenth century and termed “fromages glacés,” which translates to “cheese ice.” Frozen custard had its commercial debut in the United States in New York City, but really came to prominence in Wisconsin, which is now considered the Custard Capitol of America.

Frozen custard is similar to ice cream in ingredients and flavors, but according to the Code of Federal Regulations part 135.110(f), specifying that it must contain at least 10 percent butterfat (usually 14-25%) and more than 1.4 percent egg yolk by weight of the finished food. Anything less, the dessert cannot be called frozen custard, and instead, it would fall under the ice cream category. The egg lends the custard-like flavor, while also supplying an emulsifier called lecithin. This gives custard its distinct smooth texture compared to ice cream.

Frozen custard has a chewier mouthfeel because of the addition of egg yolks. This thick, creamy and eggy dessert pairs well with flavors and add-ins like caramel, chocolates, cookie dough and peanut butter. And, frozen custard often has a lower overrun percentage than ice cream, meaning it contains less air.

Frozen custard is frozen at 16 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit as it churns through the barrel freezing faster and creating a much smoother product. It is then stored at 18 degrees Fahrenheit, maintaining the soft, dense, and creamy texture until it is served.

Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream

Never heard of liquid nitrogen ice cream (LNIC)? You’re not alone. LNIC is a relatively new concoction which incorporates a delicious frozen dessert with a science experiment.

Technically, LNIC is ice cream, but it’s made differently. The ingredients are still milk fat, sweeteners, cream, sugar, stabilizers, and eggs. And the butterfat content is still at least 10% by law, and often 14-25%. But rather than churning and freezing, liquid nitrogen is added to the mix to produce the frozen end result.

The process begins by taking a molten mixture of cream, full-cream milk, sugar, and flavoring of your choice and churning it with liquid nitrogen at an exact temperature of -195 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to the well below freezing temperature of the nitrogen, the mixture freezes instantaneously. It is a quick process, but unlike ice cream and gelato, which contain around 30% to 50% air after the churning process, it is essentially air free. This results in a creamy, dense texture.

Part of the allure of LNIC is the showmanship that goes into creating it. Employees of LNIC shops are trained to make a performance out of mixing and freezing the ingredients that go into your cup of goodness.

Here’s what it looks like to create a cup of LNIC, courtesy of LNIC franchise, Chill-N‘:

 

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Thank You, Dr. Who

When my ex-wife and I split up, our son was 14-years old. He was just starting high school and was at an age where he was moving from being a momma’s boy to having more interest, and more in common, with his dad.

At the time, it was heartbreaking on several levels. Not only was my marriage breaking up, but my kid’s family was being torn apart. I felt horrible that I wasn’t able to keep our family together and to provide my children with the stable family life they were used to and which they deserved.

Because of the split, I didn’t get to see either of my kids as much as before. My daughter was off at college and was old enough to view her parent’s separation from a more mature perspective. But my son was at a tender, impressionable age. He didn’t yet have the maturity to adequately deal with the split. That fact haunted me.

Thanks to modern technology, I was able to stay in touch with my son even when I wasn’t physically with him, but it wasn’t the same. I could feel us drifting apart, losing the bond that we had been building, and which had been interrupted by the divorce. I was desperate to find a way to connect with him, to share a common interest, even during those times we weren’t together.

Enter Dr. Who.

In case you’re not familiar, Dr. Who is a BBC TV series that has been airing since 1963. It’s about a Time Lord who travels through space and time, righting wrongs and protecting the innocent from evil villains like daleks, cybermen, Weeping Angels, and other assorted bad characters.

I became aware of Dr. Who when I was about 13-years old. Several of the smarter kids in my middle school were fans and they encouraged me to watch the show, which aired on the local PBS station on Sunday nights. I was not one of the smarter kids, and I was afraid I wouldn’t understand the show. I know that sounds foolish now, but I didn’t want to prove my ignorance to my friends. Instead, I refused to watch the show and voiced my opinion that it was only for nerds. (I was a precocious young lad, wasn’t I?)

Years later, Dr. Who came to Netflix, and my son became a fan. I’d find him binge watching several episodes at a time, and he’d try to explain to me what the Doctor and his various sidekicks were up to. I rarely understood what he was talking about. What was a dalek? Why was the Doctor using a sonic screwdriver? What’s the deal with that magic paper? I didn’t have a clue.

But when my marriage broke up and I was desperate to connect with my son, I started watching Dr. Who. I was surprised that I not only quickly came to understand the show, I actually liked it. The Doctor wasn’t human (He was a Time Lord), but he embodied the best human qualities, like empathy, charity, generosity, and, dare I say, love. The shows were campy science fiction, but they spoke to the deepest hopes and fears and dreams and shortcomings we humans here on earth share.

When I was away from my son and the conversation wasn’t coming as easily as I’d like, we’d talk about Dr. Who. We began mirroring each other’s watch schedules so we could talk about the last show we had each seen. Somehow, through space and time and the magic of television, Dr. Who helped me save, and build, my relationship with my son.

One of my favorite episodes is called “Vincent and the Doctor,” and involves the painter, Vincent Van Gogh. The plot of the story is that the Doctor notices an alien creature in a Van Gogh painting (“The Church at Auvers”), and travels back in time with his pal, Amy Pond, to investigate. They meet Van Gogh, who is the only person who can see the creature, known as a Krafayis (Which might explain Van Gogh’s mental illness), and they ultimately save the day. But the end of the episode is the most touching part of any episode I’ve watched.

The Doctor realizes that Van Gogh dies without ever knowing how popular and respected he would eventually become. He lived a miserable life, full of pain and mental illness, convinced that his art would never amount to anything. So, the Doctor whisks Van Gogh through space and time to an art gallery in Paris that features many of the artist’s paintings. Here’s how the episode ends:

Thank you, Dr. Who, for saving the universe over and over again, and for saving my relationship with my son. I am forever grateful.

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