Deconstructing a Pizza and a Place

Deconstruction in the culinary world is about division: a familiar dish is broken down into its discrete flavor components, which are served in an unexpected way. It’s about assembly: the separated components meld in each bite, surprising in their newfound unity. It’s about departure: the eater is asked to readjust what they know and what they think they know. It’s about coming home. It’s about the moment when all the flavors suddenly make sense as a recognizable whole — maybe as a dish you’ve had a taste memory of since childhood, but didn’t expect to meet in this new form.

During my parents’ anniversary dinner, I took the classic dishes they’d grown up with and reinterpreted them. Diner pizza became these deconstructed pizza bites, cold and salty, bold and mellow — and surprising in their transformation from discrete bits of flavor to a unified, familiar experience.

View of the Bay Bridge from Alcatraz

San Francisco was also deconstructed for me this past weekend. I attended the Foodbuzz Food Blogger Festival and after a weekend of crowds, taxis, food, lights, friends, laughter, food, cameras, trolleys, hills, and food, I’m sitting alone in Charlotte trying to process the experience.

It’s quiet here — just the sound of airplanes in the sky above my apartment, the road noise beyond the woods, the determined hum of my recently reemployed heater. When I look to the west from this vantage point, pretending my vision reaches the 3,000 miles and 96 hours back in time to my trip, I see fragmented moments: a deconstructed city, a deconstructed experience.

Maybe if I offer these bits of memory to you together — no toothpick to assemble them on, so a blog post will have to do — you’ll taste the flavor of the weekend.

A gull looks toward San Francisco


Bursting, juicy pork sandwiches with crispy pork skin. Cupcakes like coconut clouds. Adorable quail eggs. Agave-sweetened gazpacho. The burning rush of juice from a garlicky escargot pop. Sultry corn tortillas around shredded beef. A tongueful of flaming mushroom soup. Tart cranberries nestled in goat cheese. Lamb resting peacefully on a bed of butternut. Gruyère tucked inside a fat croissant.

Mini-doughnuts by the bay


I presented my Blueberry Stuffed French Toast Bowl recipe to a room filled with sweet, hungry people. Before the demonstration, my shaking hands were trying desperately to set each kitchen utensil and bowl in its rightful place, taking aimless photos, and failing to fasten my apron properly. During the demonstration, I might have been a little silly. Maybe. And after the demonstration — pure joy. What fun! What supportive friends!

Doing my Nature’s Pride demonstration at the Foodbuzz Tasting Pavilion


On Saturday night, Foodbuzz hosted a scavenger hunt around the city. I joined a group of relative strangers to romp around San Francisco being silly. I was so exhausted before we began that I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision — but being a part of Team Tony & the Gold Dust Gals (as we dubbed ourselves) was a highlight of my trip. Here are the tasks we had to complete (photos in this section are by the super-sweet Laura Flowers except the business card photo by my lovely roomie Diana):

1. Dance with a stranger (I totally stepped on his foot).

2. Late night exercise: 10 synchronized jumping jacks.

3. Exchange business cards with 10 people.

4. Photo with the hippest person you can find (the dude in the bowtie, OBVIOUSLY!)

5. Late night toast at the Gold Dust Lounge (I don’t drink, but water works!)

6. Late night snack (of brightly colored, flagrantly artificial drugstore sweets!)

It was beyond absurd scavenging around San Francisco with these wonderful, crazy people. I started out so tired I could barely move, but once we finished our tasks, I didn’t want the night to end.


Even as we were running around San Francisco through bouts of laughter and chatter, something was very wrong. In fact, something had been wrong throughout my trip. On my first night in the city, I walked out to the drugstore to purchase a few supplies. A homeless man stood outside and asked if I would buy him a tuna sandwich and some orange juice – something I happily did. As the weekend stretched on, though, I saw a different man or woman on every corner. Every few feet. In every other doorway.

During the scavenger hunt, we passed a man with no shoes and only a thin sweatshirt sitting in an alcove. He was unable to make eye contact, and seemingly unable to modulate his voice. In a quiet monotone, he was repeating, “Help me — somebody help me.”

San Francisco sunset through the dirty hotel window

I don’t know what to say except that I’m haunted. We have homeless in Charlotte, but I encounter them at a rate that I feel I can manage, and offer them a warm lunch or dinner. In San Francisco, I was overwhelmed. What can I do for this person? And this one? And this one? Each individual deserves a meal, deserves clothing, deserves love, deserves a kindness. But I don’t have the money to provide for them. I prayed as I passed, but was confronted with a scripture from James: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

I’m reading through the article series, Shame of the City from 2003 and still wondering, wondering, wondering: what can I do?

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz


Despite traumatic moments, Sunday was a balm on my nerves and heart. My beloved college roommate, Martha, drove an hour and a half to spend the day with me. We walked through the sometimes-rain and sometimes-mist in Chinatown, then took a trolley out to the water. We devoured croissants and muffins at Boudin Bakery, home of “mother sponge,” the starter of San Francisco’s famous sourdough.

The sea lions of Fisherman’s Wharf had us in stitches — especially the particularly bulbous ones. I made Martha pose like a tourist in front of random ferries and Ghirardelli square. We rounded off the night with In N Out fries and a crazy drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. Staring out at the lights of Sausalito and San Francisco with someone I truly love to pieces was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Me and Martha

From random bites to random dances, from boisterous sea lions to giant bay bridges, San Francisco was full of magic. I’ll continue to process the experience and break it down into bright bite-size pieces. In the meantime, have a Deconstructed Pizza Bite.

Do you have suggestions for how to get involved in the plight of the homeless? Have you found a way of serving underprivileged citizens? Let me know.

Deconstructed Margherita Pizza Bites

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: about 12 pizza bites

2 1-inch thick slices of crusty Italian bread, toasted
12 pieces of pepperoni
1 tomato, chopped into cubes
24 mozzarella pearls (or small hunks of mozzarella)
about 4-5 large basil leaves, torn into 3 pieces each

On a toothpick, assemble the following: one hunk of bread as your base, a pearl of mozzarella, a hunk of tomato, another pearl of mozzarella, a piece of pepperoni folded into quarters, and finally, a piece of basil leaf. Refrigerate until ready to serve, and serve cold for a fresh, bright flavor.

Sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf

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32 responses to “Deconstructing a Pizza and a Place

  1. Julie I love this post. It made me happy and broke my heart. I am not used to not being able to feed everyone, hug everyone, and give everyone words of encouragement.

    The homeless issue in big cities always stabs at my heart, and the homeless in San Francisco were the nicest I’d never known. I wanted to help them all and know how you feel.

    I wish I had an answer. I wish I could save the world.



  2. Julie, I just love love love reading your blog. I love that you got to go to San Fransisco.

    In my field of work (non-profit mental health), we get told all the time that we “can’t save everyone” and I get it. I am not a bleeding heart and that’s probably why I can do the job I do. BUT, I’ve seen the difference it can make to care about people, to develop a relationship with them. And I have a passion for that. For connecting with people in my community and breaking down stereotypes and developing a symbiotic relationship with them. Because that’s what it becomes. We offer one another what we have, and it makes such a difference for both.

    It’s been on my heart since I’ve been out of the field and in the office more as to how I can achieve this outside of work. I actually just spoke with the pastor at my church yesterday about developing some kind of thing where when someone calls the deacons for assistance who is a non-church member, they are asked if they want a church contact person and then have someone within the church to build a relationship with. Not so much that that person will come to the church, but that the church person will come to them…and go from there to build a relationship and help as a fellow human being, not as part of an organization or program…we just started brainstorming it…so that’s all I’ve got for now πŸ™‚

    So anyways, the point is that I don’t really know what would be YOUR way, but I do know that opportunities abound and if you are seeking, you will be shown πŸ™‚

    • I love this idea, Becca! I was actually thinking about trying to start something with the church — it seems like they should be intimately involved. I have to see what they already do. I’ve participated in Room in the Inn before, which was really a blessing, but I like the idea of building relationships (something I wish I were better at).

  3. Wow, I am stunned by the eloquence of this post. I read it twice and I know I’ll revisit it. You’re a very special gal…seemingly carefree and joyous on the surface, yet so thoughtful and many layers deep.

    I’m so glad we met and that you’re now part of my blogging family.

  4. Wish I could’ve been there because (a) I love SF, (b) this looks like fun, and (c) I missed the opportunity to meet you in person. Better luck next year!

  5. Caitlin

    I feel exactly the same way. The homelessness in San Francisco and Berkeley is soooo overwhelming that I feel totally lost. Like, sometimes I give away my leftovers and I try to scrounge up money, but I only have so much available.

    As of now, the best thing I have done is choose jobs that directly affect and help those in need. I hope to someday find a way to do MUCH more.

  6. hep

    i love your post! however, in your top pic, that is the bay bridge, not the golden gate. the golden gate is a full suspension, the bay bridge has a suspension holder in place (that giant concrete block in the middle).

  7. hep

    also, dont worry so much about the homeless in sf. because of the mild climate of our city, and the incredible abundance of social services programs compared to other us cities, and because all of those social services programs are usually located within a 10block radius right down where your hotel probably was, there can seem to be a huge homeless epidemic. however, there are tens of daily feeding programs, hundreds of shelters, and most of the people who you saw as “homeless” were probably not homeless because that is also the area where the SROs (single resident occupancy) are located. those people who live in SROs, because their residence is only one tiny room, have a tendency to congregate on the streets to socialize. this can add to the air that there are thousands of people just living on the streets with no care. however, i work at one of those feeding programs, and we give out 3 square meals a day, to all comers, as many times as you want to go around the line. so i know that the homeless in sf have many many options for food and substance, and perhaps not as many options for shelter, however due to Care not Cash, they do have options there as well. i totally understand the feeling of being haunted by it, before i started volunteering regularly at Glide serving meals as a teenager, I was also haunted by my city’s tragic homeless secret. However I have come to realize that many of those people aren’t as poorly off as my initial thinking had them, and they really do have a variety of options if they choose to pursue them. I also realized that the reason our homeless issue is so large is BECAUSE of all those options (and actually, since they stopped giving just cash benefits, and started doing Care not Cash, the visible homeless issue has greatly decreased). if you would like to do something to help, or help raise awareness, publicizing, or somehow helping to fundraise for organizations like Glide ( can be a huge help. but don’t feel like those people are totally forgotten with no care, many of them will cultivate that air because tourists are generous, or will be once they have had their heartstrings tugged on (you often see homeless people panhandling with animals. this is another heartstring pulling tactic). having regularly volunteered now in social services programs in the city for over 20yrs, i know things aren’t nearly as bad as they appear to the uninformed visiting observer. so don’t beat yourself up too much for not being able to help every soul, and if you do want to help, like i said before, places like glide, or the homeless prenatal services clinic, and other such programs are a very worthy way to do so.

  8. Meg

    I know it seems a little heartless to look at it with hep’s view, but I agree completely. I live in NYC and homelessness is always a problem. Every single day of my life here I am confronted with a heart pulling story. The fact is, these people do have options and the best way to help them is through programs. This way of helping also ensures that your money does not go towards drugs and alcohol (that’s NYC’s biggest problems with homelessness).

    I remember the first time I visited New York when I was 10, and feeling exactly how you described. It would be so great if you could develop something that combines both your love for kitchen creations and helping people!

    • I never give money for the reason you describe — always food.

      I figured there were options (I know here there are), but some of them are mentally disabled or so deep in addiction that they would still choose their addiction over help — and it’s hard there. I feel like those people deserve food and shelter too. That’s kind of where the tough choices come in, because there are so many.

  9. Sue

    I know I can’t help everyone, but we do sponsor a child in the Philippines through Children International. Though not homeless, her family is a few dollars and a tin roof away from being so. We can, at least, help one.

  10. Great photos roomie! I’m sure you’ll come up with something great to help those in need. πŸ™‚

  11. Robin

    Hey Julie, I think I have a bit of a different take and philosophy about homelessness and hunger in the good old U.S. I feel that if someone needs my help and I can give it I do, no questions asked. I don’t feel it’s my place to judge what someone does with the money I give them. I would rather an alcoholic or addict buy what they need to get them through another night or day than to judge and let them suffer, or worse yet, resort to violence against others or even themselves. We live near a major bread bakery and three times a week we go over and ask them for their “imperfect” bread which we take to the food bank. We have a homeless man who lives outside of our office building, and we among many are his “patrons or sponsers”. We give him clothes, shoes, money, food, bottled water, the code to the restroom in the building so he can wash up or just get some air conditioning when it’s hot. Several different people at different times of the week bring him meals. We don’t have garage sales. I take all of our used clothing to the missions. Sometimes we take blankets and coats downtown when it gets cold and just give them out randomly. I know I can’t help everyone, and I don’t let it get to me. I, my husband and my kids help who we can, when we can. The worst thing you can do is to look away and pretend you don’t see these people like so many people do because it makes them “uncomfortable”. Sometimes just a kind word and an aknowledgement is all someone needs from you. I know you are a teacher. Have your class sponsor a family in need this holiday, maybe anonymously. It’s such a great lesson for kids (and adults) to learn to be charitable of their time and resources and to give those things freely in the true spirit of charity.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Robin! My school is actually so involved in service — the 7th grade’s focus is “Perspectives on Poverty” and they do a lot of volunteer work and donations. I want to get more involved with them. Right now, my focus is on 6th grade’s service (which is also dear to my heart), animal advocacy. SO many things that need our attention!

      I love all the ways you’ve found to get involved!

  12. oc2seattle

    So nice meeting and scavenger hunting with you last weekend, sweet girl. Homelessness is a growing and overlooked issue in most cities these days and it’s so uplifting to see people like you notice and want to help. In Seattle two lovely food bloggers put together “Will Bake For Food” ( 60 bloggers baking treats next Sat. People bring food and cash donations in exchange for tickets to “buy” the treats and the proceeds go to Northwest Harvest. Maybe you could organize something similar in your town.

  13. Julie,

    I love this post because I see the real you through your words. You are so kind and sweet and I am so grateful to have been able to meet you this weekend. You are a gem, my dear.

    As far as the homeless go, my heart broke for them. They were everywhere and it was hard to ignore them, as many do. I wish there was a way to “fix” the problem, and feed the world.

  14. thanks for sharing this with us . i will try this recipe tomorrow .


  15. What a pleasure to have met such a young talent and your personality is so uplifting.

    Looking forward to more of your posts.

  16. Wow great pics. You must have had the fun of your ;ife.

  17. I’m glad you had a great time! I love to see the video and all the pictures of you.

    That makes me so sad and gave me chills to read about those poor homeless. I do wish there was more we could do. If you find out, I hope you will share.

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