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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Bad Food

February 14, 2024

It took me 60 years to start eating like an adult. I am 62 so I’ve only been eating responsibly for a couple of years.

It’s not that I wasn’t eating well and dining out. My family dines out a lot. It’s what we do. It’s my business. It’s just that most of my adult life I have eaten like an 18-year old college freshman with no regard for health. I got away with living that lifestyle in my thirties, but when I hit my forties, my metabolism slowed, yet my voracious eating habits did not. In my forties and fifties, I was shopping in the Big & Tall store, and as soon as I walked through the door, they knew I wasn’t tall.

There are still some bad foods that I enjoy.

When I say “bad foods” I’m not speaking of foods that are bad for me, health wise. I’m speaking of foods that are just bad. And, in the end, most of those are bad for me, too.

My elementary school had a line-‘em-up-at-the-lunchroom-door-and-fill-your-tray-with-whatever-the-cafteria-cooked-that-day dining plan. Those meals were fairly balanced. Not very good, but balanced for the most part. The food pyramid of that era was well represented. Though in my junior high and high school, the cafeteria served pizza, cheeseburgers, microwaved steak-burgers, fries, and chips and such from a vending machine. Those were my options every day for six years.

If my mother had prepared boiled shrimp the night before I usually brought the leftovers in a thermos and had boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce for lunch. But those were rare occasions. I ate a microwave pizza almost every school day from sixth grade through high school graduation.

It was only pizza in the loosest form of the word. It was one of those convenience-store products that was microwaved to order in the school kitchen. This was the mid to late 1970s and microwaves weren’t a common appliance in homes yet. But even though they are commonplace now, one should never be used to cook a pizza.

I have always been a firm believer that even bad pizza is pretty good. I probably developed that philosophy during my schooling because that school pizza was bad. Really bad.

Yet I ate it every day.

It was a personal-size pizza, and the entire pizza was around six inches in diameter, it came packaged in plastic and was nuked in the microwave which made it steam inside the plastic. The cooking process yielded a soft, wet, rubbery, doughy crust that had no inkling of crispness. It wasn’t even crust. It was more like a soggy, thick, pita bread. The tomato sauce was probably straight from a can. The cheese was cheap and minimal, and the pepperonis were a case of indigestion waiting to happen.

And I loved every bite.

Seriously, it was bad. But it was good-bad. And I don’t think it’s because it had sentimental value and makes me think of having lunch with childhood friends. It was bad.

I know a little about pizza. I own two Italian restaurants and have a third non-Italian restaurant that serves pizza. On top of that I spend around 12 weeks a year working in Italy and frequent places that serve amazing pizza with high quality, fresh ingredients, and thin, extra crisp crust. Yet, if someone offered me that exact microwave pizza I ate in my school lunchroom, I would eat it while I type this column. I would feel bad for two hours afterwards, but I would eat it, nonetheless.

Sometimes bad food is good.

And owning a business that serves quality versions of perfect examples of food items doesn’t matter. I own a bakery that bakes fresh French-inspired pastries from scratch every morning. Yet I occasionally eat those whop-‘em-on’-the-counter orange sweet rolls, and have done so since I was a kid eating crappy pizza at school.

As a kid, my across-the-street neighbor baked excellent homemade orange sweet rolls. If those were in the house, I never would have chosen the store-bought sweet rolls over hers. But hers only arrived for holidays and special occasions. The rest of the year I was whoppin’ that tin on the counter.

In my college days I lived in a one-room apartment above a garage and had no money. In those days one could buy a small frozen chicken pot pie for less than a dollar. They were bad. They are an example of a bad food from my past that I have no longing for— or fond memories of— today. You can keep the frozen chicken pot pies.

As I waddle towards my seventh decade on this planet, I’m doing my best to make wiser choices on the food front. I stopped with the fad diets and came up with a eating plan based on a breakfast conversation I had with Julia Child years ago. I asked Mrs. Child, “How do you eat all of that rich French food and stay so fit?”

“I don’t deny myself anything,” she said. “I just take a few bites and leave it at that.”

Based on that conversation, I developed my eating plan that doesn’t involve pills, calculations, journaling, or anything like that. My son asked me what my new plan was, and I replied, “Half.”

He laughed and said, “What?”

“Half,” I said. “I just eat half of what I am served.” It doesn’t matter if I’m at a restaurant or home. I immediately cut my portions in half and eat one of those halves. I favor protein, fruits, and vegetables, but I’ll have a bite or two of dessert. It may be unorthodox, but so far, so good.

Though if someone put one of those bad pizzas from my school days in front of me, I might call an audible on my plan and eat the whole thing just for old time’s sake. I’d feel like crap for several hours after, but sometimes bad is good.


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