This is another slightly revised piece from my halcyon days writing for Food Riot. “The definition of pizza” turned out to be one of my most popular posts there, proving yet again that the internet really digs it when one person tells another person to shut their piehole.
A friend and I once had a little tiff, culinary in nature, but which quickly expanded into the etymological and the historical. Our fight was about pizza. Everyone loves pizza, rightly so. But because pizza love is so intense, it sometimes falls victim to the sort of stridency commonly applied to questions of morality and which of the Backstreet Boys was sexiest (answer: none).
This cranky, almost hysterical, pizza fight with Dr. Stubborn McKnowitall went something like this:
Dr. McK: Whatcha eatin’?
Me: Pizza—the pizza place down the road now makes three kinds of vegan pizza!
Dr. McK: It’s not pizza.
Dr. McK: It may be delicious, but unless it’s got salami, pepperoni, and mozzarella cheese, it’s not pizza.
Me: SHUT YOUR PIEHOLE. Even shitty chain pizzerias have all kinds of different pizzas!!
Dr. McK: No. Again, it may be delicious, but unless it comprises the ingredients I have already enumerated, it is not pizza.
Upon which proclamation, he crossed his arms in a way indicating that an otherwise reasonable person had become immovable about something that didn’t matter very much.
I kid—of course it matters. It’s pizza for gawd’s sake. There was naught to do but consult History professor Carol Helstosky’s Pizza: A Global History. This is some of what I learned:
- It has antecedents in ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, but pizza as we know it now was invented in Naples, Italy. Pizza was eaten primarily by the poor and working classes, and for any meal of the day. This is proof that nineteenth-century Naples was a hotbed of culinary awesomeness.
- Toppings on these early Italian pizzas generally included oil, lard, fish, tomatoes, basil or other herbs, salt, onions, and sometimes grated hard cheese (for those with extra cash). It was common for pizza to have only one topping.
- Pizza became popular outside of Naples after the second world war, but a royal visit in 1889 began its inevitable globalization. Queen Margherita of Savoy, sick of the Frenchy French cooking royals felt compelled to eat at the time, decided to try some local fare. Presented with several types of Neopolitan pizza, she declared that the pizza al mozzarella (now pizza margherita to you, bub) was the hot-damndest of them all. With its basil, mozzarella, and tomato combo, it is still the most popular of pizzas.
Margherita began the process, but the globalization of pizza was really accelerated by Italian immigrants who took the delightful dish everywhere they went—especially North America, bless them. Pizza has been welcomed pretty much everywhere in the world.
Pizza is whatever you and your beautiful culture want it to be, as long as it comprises flatbread, sauce, and at least one topping. I will not brag any more about how very right I was, or how very wrong Dr. McK was, because pizza should only be used as a force for good.
Pizza is so powerful, in fact, that it can cure extreme culture shock. In 1999, I ran away to South Korea, never having been anywhere. I grew quickly to love Korean food, but knowing I could have pizza anytime—even if it was sometimes topped with butterfly chrysalis—helped make my new life as a circus freak manageable (I mean, people would just touch me, usually my hair, as I was walking down the street. Like every day.).
In 2007, I tested pizza’s life-saving powers again, journeying alone to Rome as a non-Italian speaking vegan. The first four days, I ate only cherry tomatoes, bananas, and almonds; I lost 10 pounds and cried a lot. Day five: As I wandered lonely as a dumb tourist, I smelled the unmistakable bouquet of fresh-baked pizza. I went in to this little restaurant, expecting to find nothing. But I found four types of pizza, THREE OF WHICH WERE VEGAN: one topped with cheese, one with mushrooms, one with tomatoes, and one with tomatoes AND mushrooms. I got a slice, went outside, and burst into tears.
The official definition of pizza then: a delicious meal made of flatbread, sauce, and toppings reflective of both its southern Italian origins, and the local culture that’s adopted it. When combined these elements save lives and create immeasurable happiness.