March 31, 2023

Pizza is American (Midwestern), not Italian, not East Coast

Lone food post here as I'm investigating other topics in greater detail. But my comment about Pizza Hut providing a public space back in the good ol' days got me thinking -- what is the role of pizza in American ethnogenesis? I'm really trying to avoid the topic of food for now, but I couldn't help it.

Everyone knows the hamburger is an American invention, and so distinctive of us that foreigners call us "burgers". I already reviewed (perhaps in a comment) that burgers fit the usual pattern of American cultural creation -- belonging to the out-West region (from the Midwest to the West Coast), and taking shape after the Civil War & Reconstruction era.

If either sub-section of the back-East region were the definers of American standards, we would have nationally adopted either fish / seafood or chicken as our national meat, instead of beef (and hamburgers specifically).

But what about pizza, which ranks right up there with hamburgers in defining American tastes? Doesn't that have an Italian name, and wasn't it brought here by immigrants from Italy? Doesn't it stretch back into time immemorial, at least in the Olde Worlde, and we are just the most recent group of people to enjoy this ancient meal?

Not at all -- this is America we're talking about here. But it's really true of every empire, whose expansion accompanies (is driven by) a rise in collective cohesion (asabiya), which has been raised so high by the people finding themselves on a meta-ethnic frontier. In banding together and cohering so intensely, they produce a whole new culture, no longer the culture they used to be before they had been tested and transformed by their engagements with the meta-ethnic Other.

Claims about the invention of pizza go back no earlier than the 1800s, which is not even Early Modern. And because none of the claimants can agree, it means they're mostly making it up, to boost their regional hometown pride. Otherwise everyone would know where it came from, and perhaps even when -- like haggis being Scottish rather than from southern England.

The one specific claim of which individual or which establishment is Raffaele Esposito, who supposedly invented it in 1889 in Naples. If it had an older provenance, no one -- not even a southern Italian -- would have the gall to try and claim personal credit for its invention. So, something like pizza was being made at least by one guy in one city in Italy in the very late 1800s.

But the first pizzeria in America was opened in 1905 (Lombardi's in NYC), and several regional styles were already under way by the 1920s (such as New Haven style). Because pizza was not even widely established in Naples circa 1900 -- having been invented by one guy, or at least being a new trend, just 10 years earlier -- it makes no sense to treat it as an origin, and the American styles as derivatives or carry-overs.

They were contemporaries, or siblings, or peers -- not parents and children. It's just that some of those siblings were growing up in southern Italy, and other siblings were growing up in America (by people genetically related to the former, but becoming culturally assimilated into their new country, like dropping their Romance language).

And much like other forms of sibling rivalry, some siblings excel more than others, are more popular, and so on. Ultimately, by the mid-1900s, American pizza won over its southern Italian sibling. The whole world treats American pizza as the standard, for the unqualified term "pizza", and its former rival has to be qualified with "Neopolitan" or "Sicilian" or whatever. Americans are responsible for spreading pizza around the world by now, not anyone from any region of Italy.

We can go further than that, though, and trace the triumph among varying styles of pizza within America. Neither of the East Coast styles became the standard, and both are closer to the Neopolitan sibling style.

New Haven pizza does not require cheese -- and spiced tomato sauce on a baked flatbread is not pizza. It does not require meat or vegetable toppings of any kind. And the crust is thin, chewy, and easily foldable, similar to New York pizza.

New York pizza does require cheese, and it is spread over most / all of the surface -- unlike Neopolitan pizza, where spaced-apart hunks of mozzarella are treated as a topping rather than a base layer. But it also tends to avoid meat and vegetable toppings. The crust is very thin, chewy, and foldable -- and indeed, that is how it is actually eaten, folded over into what is actually a kind of two-faced sandwich. The mouthfeel is bread on the top of your mouth, bread on your tongue and lower mouth, with the tomato sauce and cheese oozing out of one side like a filling.

It's like a calzone, with some assembly required by the user. Literally nobody else eats pizza that way, and no one bakes the crust to accommodate that form of eating it. This is also why their slices are so huge -- they're meant to be folded in half, so they aren't so unwieldy in the hand, unless you mistakenly eat it like standard pizza (without folding, trying to hold up the entire lower crust with one hand).

Just like their low back rounded vowels that they refuse to give up after a national -- and by now, international -- standard has been settled upon, New York pizza eaters refuse to give up their "calzone with some assembly required" model of pizza. And they refuse to cover it with meat and/or vegetable toppings, preferring it with the base layer of cheese only.

Also in the first half of the 1900s, getting started sometime between the '20s and '40s, came the Chicago style. The timing makes it another sibling of the early period of innovation, not a derivative from another preceding style. Although not quite the national standard, this is much closer to what became the standard, and if any single style is the origin of the standard, it's Chicago style.

It's circular, cut into wedges, has a thick enough and solid enough crust that it doesn't bend or fold much in the hand, the perimeter has a noticeable height to it (helping to grip it), it's more of a deep-dish or pan thickness, and indeed it is baked in a pan (with walls to shape the outer crust upwards) rather than on a totally flat sheet. Most importantly, though, it added whole new categories of key ingredients -- meat and/or vegetable toppings, like pepperoni.

Pepperoni is so necessary for pizza, that it's hardly pizza without pepperoni -- or some other meat in its place, but ideally as close as possible, like Italian sausage, not ground beef (fine for burgers, but totally out of place on a pizza). And vice versa -- Americans almost only eat pepperoni on pizza, not as an all-purpose lunch meat (that would be salami).

The incredible thickness of Chicago pizza must be linked with the appearance of loads of meat & veg toppings, since it can withstand all that extra weight, and the perimeter is walled, so they're less likely to spill off over the side.

You simply can't pile toppings onto New York pizza, given how flimsy the crust is. You could hypothetically pile toppings onto one half of the slice, meant to be the lower side of the eventual calzone, and then leave the other half with no toppings, which would fold over the topping side like a blanket. If toppings were on both halves of the slice, they would spill off of the top half of the calzone when turned upside down to fold over the other half. Toppings on only half of each slice requires too much fussing around when spreading the toppings -- you'd have to slice it first, then spread toppings on half of each slice at a time, instead of spreading the toppings over the whole surface at once, then slicing it.

Similar to Chicago style is Detroit style, invented in the '40s, which is rectangular (and cut rectangularly), but also baked in a pan with high walls, making it deep-dish, the crust is not flimsy, and requiring meat / veg toppings. The only difference is the cheese is spread from edge-to-edge, forming a hard crispy edge of cheese around the perimeter where it's contacting the baking pan. Other than the lack of a familiar un-cheesed perimeter, it's close to the standard.

Quad Cities style, on the Iowa / Illinois border, and invented in the '50s, is another type close to the standard. It has a dense enough crust to support ample toppings, requiring meat (such as sausage), there's an un-cheesed and raised lip of bread around the perimeter, and the only notable difference is the cheese going on top of the sauce and meat, rather than between those layers. It's circular and cut into strips, not wedges.

St. Louis style is similar to the standard as well, only having a much harder and crispier crust, like a cracker, since the dough is unleavened. And so, despite being thin-crust, it's still sturdy enough to carry tons of meat & veg toppings without folding and spilling them. It's circular and cut into strips or squared-off pieces. I can't easily find when it first came out, but the main chain for this style -- Imo's -- was founded in '64, so no later than then.

There is still enough variation in pizza that it can be thin-crust or deep-dish, as long as the crust is strong enough to support lots of toppings. Even Chicago, famous for the deepest-dish style, also has a thin-crust style, but it too is sturdier and piled with toppings, unlike the East Coast and Neopolitan styles.

* * *

To recap -- it's all about the meat (and possibly vegetables). Neopolitan pizza does not require meat toppings, nor do New Haven and the usual New York styles (at most, New York style has some sparse pepperoni, not multiple / piled-high toppings). This transforms what would have otherwise been a mainly bread meal into something with animal protein and fat (some of which renders out into the cheese and sauce -- mmmm). It gives it a savoriness, crispiness, and well-roundedness that would not be there without the meat.

Sicilian style comes somewhat close to this concept, since it often (but not necessarily) includes anchovies -- yes, that's where this strangest of toppings came from. There's nothing more non-standard than putting fish on pizza, even though it is a meat. It's not the right kind, because it wasn't created in the right region of the world for pizza innovation -- the American Midwest. Perhaps related to the Midwest not having tons of seafood available, marking anchovies as suspiciously East Coast -- and by that mere fact, not feasible as an all-American standard.

Neopolitan pizza doesn't even cover most or all of the surface with a single vast expanse of cheese -- even New York pizza manages that!

Claiming that American pizza is merely Neopolitan pizza "with meat / veg toppings", as though it's a slight variation on an existing theme, is like saying a slice of bread with onions, lettuce, and tomato, and ketchup & mustard, is a "hamburger" -- the American hamburger merely adding the beef patty onto the existing, traditional "hamburger" that had no meat at all. Yeah sure. No meat, no burger. No meat -- especially pepperoni -- no pizza. And if there's no meat, it had better be loaded with olives, onions, and other vegetables to make up for it -- not a lack of toppings altogether!

* * *

Having established what makes pizza pizza, and roughly when and where it was invented, let's take a quick tour through the biggest pizza chains today, some of which are internationally dominant, and see where they're from.

Pizza Hut is by far *the* American pizza maker, and it's not from any of the 4 major Midwestern pizza regions -- but Kansas! Even further out West. But still resembling the other Midwestern styles, not the East Coast or southern Italian styles.

It was founded in 1958 by Dan and Frank Carney -- doesn't sound like their ancestors brought a recipe with them from Italy. Pizza is American, anybody can innovate on the basic concept, regardless of where their bloodline traces back to. And of course even with Italians, it isn't their genes that cook the pizzas, since their genes have been there forever, and Neopolitan pizza only showed up around 1890. But even broadening "family background" to mean culture, not genes, pizza is still open to anyone, even if your ancestors were culturally Irish.

Next is Domino's, hailing from Michigan, although not reflecting the Detroit style very much. It's similar to Pizza Hut, but with a less thick crust. Founded in 1960 by two brothers whose last name is Monaghan -- not very Italian, again. They did, however, acquire their first store from Dominick DeVarti, who is of Italian background.

Third by number of US locations is Little Caesars. Perhaps you thought of this chain when reading about the Detroit style, and in fact they were founded in Detroit in 1959, by Mike Ilitch -- a first-gen American whose parents were Macedonian (i.e. southwest Bulgarian). Although they do offer the standard style, they have usually included a Detroit style as well -- Big! Big! Cheese, Pizza by the Foot (some of the best pizza I have ever eaten), Pan! Pan!, etc. Their standard style was good, but their Detroit style rivaled Pizza Hut for deep dish goodness, without the "grease sponge" texture that Pizza Hut was known for. And that crispy caramelized ring of cheese around the perimeter really does add something crunchy and burned-y that standard styles don't have.

Next-biggest chain is Papa John's, founded in southern Indiana (on the border with Louisville, KY), much more recently than the others, in 1984, by John Schnatter -- not an Italian-American. It's in the standard style, with a pronounced lip of dough around the edge, mimicking the look and feel of a deep-dish style (which they do offer separately).

After them is Papa Murphy's -- another non-Italian name -- which hails from all the way out West on the Pacific Coast, originating in a 1995 merger of one store from the Portland area and another from the San Francisco area, now headquartered in Vancouver, WA. They offer a standard array of styles, and their distinction is the take-and-bake model instead of baking them in-store with ovens and equipment that only a specialized pizzeria could afford (you use your own oven and sheet).

The last chain with over 1,000 stores is Marco's, from the Toledo, OH area. It was founded by an Italian immigrant, Pasquale Giammarco, somewhat earlier than Papa John's (1978), but looks pretty similar to it or Domino's. Standard style.

Several rungs below in the ranking is Sbarro, with about 300 locations in America, which is the only East Coast style pizza that most Americans have ever had, due to its staple status in mall food courts. It was founded by immigrants from Naples to New York City, who opened their first pizzeria in 1970 in Brooklyn. It's more likely to have meat toppings, and less flimsy in its crust, than the typical New York slice, but it's still squarely within that style. Even when we were at the all-American food court, at an all-American mall, we could still tell that this was not all-American pizza -- it had to be qualified with "New York style" or whatever.

Americans treat New York pizza like a curious and amusing novelty, not as the ur-form to be revered as sacred -- much like how we treat New York accents (or Southeast accents, for that matter).

Ranking right up there with hamburgers, the most all-American of foods -- pizza -- is not an Italian creation, not something that originated on the East Coast and spread out from there, not something even created by people of Italian genetic or cultural ancestry. The inclusion of meat and/or vegetable toppings, especially the practice of piling on multiple toppings, and the requisite durable crust (thick / deep-dish, or cracker-like thin-crust), marks this as an entirely distinct meal from the flimsy flatbread + tomato sauce + scattered hunks of mozzarella.

It is fundamentally Midwestern American, particularly near the Great Lakes, but extending through the Plains all the way out to the West Coast. And it was invented in the early-to-mid 1900s.

This all lines up with the ethnogenesis of the Americans -- strongest where the frontier with the Indians had been most intense (including the Old Northwest, where Indian Wars were still being fought post-Independence), and taking place after our Civil War & Reconstruction, i.e. from the late 19th C. onward. That determined which Americans were the most American of all Americans, to set a national standard -- those out West, including the Midwest, not those back East.