Monday, April 4, 2011

Our Pizzas, Ourselves

The other day, I linked to this site in an email to a prospective employer. As with all of those sorts of emails, it felt like kind of a longshot. I don't necessarily know what makes editors say yes or no to a pitch, and I have the track record to prove as much. But one thing that might not help, or which at least could conceivably influence decision-making in one direction or another, would be if the person pitching you an article idea linked you to his professional page and the top item was a series of barf-centric St. Patrick's Day limericks and if the obvious purpose of this purportedly professional page was to air some amorphous grievances with Papa John Schnatter.

I am not unaware of this. But unless and until I can find a paying venue for my musings on our nation's pizza corporations, I'm going to use this site to air those particular amorphous grievances. These particular amorphous grievances. Which is to say that I'd like 1) to remind any and all readers that my grown-up writing work -- which I am proud of and I like to think pretty good at, and which generally has nothing to do with pizza -- is over there in the right hand column and 2) to rap at you about offensive pizza for a minute.

And I don't just mean pizza that tastes bad. That sort of pizza will always be with us. You can go back to biblical times on this -- about the only thing I agree with in the Pauline Epistles is when Paul instructed the Corinthians not to get a slice with toppings on it at the average pizzeria, because (and I'm quoting from memory) "it's just a regular crappy plain pie that they kind of threw some mushrooms on, and is probably like a week old." Which is wise and forward-thinking and generally the sort of thing that makes you surprised at how rigid and sour Paul was on other matters. But my point -- to the extent that such a thing can be said to exist in a post that is (spoiler alert) about stuffed-crust pizza -- is that pizza mega-brands have no kind of lock on wack slices, and that bad pizza is just an irksome fact of modern life, not unlike libertarians or allergies.

It's also easy enough to avoid, if you eat pizza often or have decent eyesight -- pizzerias that display slice pies featuring, like, ziti or salad or sliced breaded chicken cutlets where toppings should be are generally worth avoiding. Pizzerias that do not at least attempt the odd parm-style sandwich are kind of suspect to me. Places with gross-ish names -- there's a Fat Sal's near me, which just sounds kind of unappealing -- are probably worth a pass. Misspellings aren't a good look -- I'll deal with a "calzon" on a menu, but I don't really appreciate "Our Heros" and will not abide a "Sweaty Vin's Pizzaria" on the awning, because come on with that shit. You probably know all this already, or at least know the non-crazy stuff.

And you probably know, too, that nothing good is coming out of a place called Pizza Hut or Papa John's. (You may think nothing good will come out of a Domino's, and you may be right, but for a series of complicated reasons I am not sure I agree with you) Everyone knows this. Papa John's helpfully reminds us of this by actually showing its pizzas in its television commercials, and in so doing revealing those pizzas as less pizza-as-pizza than as garbage fires that were extinguished by six pounds of cheese, and then resold as foodstuff. I don't like looking at Papa John's commercials very much -- and I especially dislike the parts featuring Schnatter himself, which scan like the ads of a Club For Growth-backed congressional candidate from the Indianapolis suburbs -- but they are kind of instructive. This goes beyond Schnatter, although it starts with him: if you can deal with his I-am-the-brand self-seriousness and new fakey Pawlenty-style imitation country voice and strained what-are-my-muscles-doing-this-feels-weird smile, you can deal with the pizza. If you are the sort of person who sees televised images of something called "The Tuscan Six-Cheese Pizza" (or even the meaningless words "Tuscan Six-Cheese Pizza") and thinks "fuck yes, and let me get some breadsticks and a side of ranch with that," then the commercials work for you and of course good luck with your diabetes. If you see those commercials and do not think that, then you just avoided engagement with a Tuscan Six-Cheese Pizza, and also probably dodged a clammy and miserable evening of junior coronary incidents. So maybe I should bitch less about Papa John's, I guess? Pizza Hut, though, deserves no such quarter.

Pizza Hut, as far as I know and can imagine, is no one in the world's favorite pizzeria. Where during my youth the (oddly, Wichita-born) macro-pizza corp dealt in crummy buffets and suspect-seeming deep dish cholesterol supplements, Pizza Hut has responded to the challenges of the current pizza marketplace -- foremost among these, I have to imagine, being a nation of physicians telling patients "never for lunch and dinner, unless you want to be riding around in those sad Tea Party scooters by age 40" -- by first attempting to rebrand as an Italian bistro, and then finally and terrifyingly embracing a strange and high-fat avant-garde. The former didn't work because Pizza Hut is one of those places that would rather pay teenagers as little as possible than pay more for people who can be trusted around a hot oven, and also because no one, ever, has ever been enticed by the words "ravioli from Pizza Hut." The latter... I don't really know about, honestly. The chain is not yet in Chapter 11 -- which is more than bankrupt lukewarm-pizza dons Sbarro can claim -- and continues to run national television ads and loose its horrible pizza-vations on an American public that will apparently eat essentially anything. So I'll assume that Pizza Hut is doing fine. Their frontier-pushing new stuffed crust pizzas, though, are proof that Pizza Hut cannot and will not do good.

Of course, Pizza Hut has been putting cheese into pizza crusts -- where it manifestly does not belong -- for decades now. What makes their new endeavor different is that they're now jamming either pepperoni or what I'm pretty sure the TV ads refer to as "meaty" (full stop), which is a short way of describing a pizza crust crammed with shards of sausage, bacon and "beef." Pigs and cows, in other words, but only the parts of which are choice enough to be cheese-jected into pizza crust. I should mention, I guess, that I eat all those things/animals, and that natural ambivalences aside I imagine that I will continue to do so until a doctor gives me the Tea Party Scooter Speech mentioned above. I don't eat them all the time because 1) what-am-I-made-of-money and 2) is a bit more complicated.

Because at some point -- probably about 600 or so words ago -- it doesn't matter if a bunch of assholes jam sad bacon crumbles into pizza dough to appease a broad and uncool national dedication to high-performance lardassery. It matters to the pig whose body became a punchline, presumably, but I can't really write that particular essay right now. (That is, I can't write it as long as I continue to consume cured pork products with such aplomb) What's a bummer about it, for me, is the whimsification of meat and the dumb carelessness with which (especially) bacon has been turned into some sort of man-status-bolstering bro-condiment. (Note: the gnarled, glib, chuckleheaded bloodlust of upmarket foodie writing is just as gross to me -- my ideal food writing is, I think, a Ted Berg sandwich review) No one really turns to pizza for a monastic, austere experience. The opposite, I know. (Note: I tend to like my pizza monastic, but I am a doofus and have already written like 1200 words on this)

But even if pizza is what we eat when we want to feel like kids, or to remember a time when eating was just a fucking blast -- even then -- I don't know why macro-scale pizzas have to be so dumb and bro-branded and irresponsibly fatful and aggressively un-foodlike. I understand that, nationally and discursively and in an increasingly dangerous way, our nation has had a hard time distinguishing between "better" and "more" for a few decades now. Of late, at least in our politics and also I think in our other smaller life-decisions, that indistinctness has curdled into a sad, babyish nastiness -- alternately an hysterical fear of being asked to make do with slightly less excess and a childish petulance at the prospect of ever and anywhere being told "no." Finding ways to jam more More into everything -- regardless of whether or not grafting a pepperoni roll to the perimeter of your meat lover's pie could possibly taste good -- is no way to go through life. It's a decent enough way to go through second grade, and a popular one. But if you're an adult who understand where food comes from and what effects it has on one's body and environment and economy and so on, this is no way to eat. Which makes it all the weirder and more distressing that our tax dollars are funding this ongoing national extra-cheese order, but which is also another reason to do the one simple thing that will prevent any reasonable person from ordering a baco-stuffed crust meatstravaganza pie. That one simple thing being to think, even briefly, about what you are about to eat, and whether you are sure you can't maybe do a bit better by (for starters) yourself.


  1. My friend Riley worked at a Pizza Hut for a while. He says there is a special canola oil gun they use to flood the bottom of the pizza pan with oil before dropping in the frozen dough puck. This means Pizza Hut is quite literally selling fried pizza. Which is kind of gross.

  2. My grandparents loved Pizza Hut, the only chain restaurant in their town (4 hrs due west of Wichita), and saved it for special occasions (birthdays, Easter).

    They always ordered the deep dish, inedible then too. Which is why to this day I love a good salad bar!

  3. my pizza hut in DC became an off-brand "NY Pizza" and forever changed for the better. They both serve/d beer, which was weird.

  4. What Pizza Hut has basically become -

  5. The canola oil gun is the Rosetta Stone of this whole shit. Also totally disgusting. But any place that makes and uses something like that cannot make a good pizza. And probably should be regulated by the ATF, as opposed to the board of health.

    Still, I think nothing really brings home how gross what we're talking about here is as well as the fact that Russ's MadTV skit is actually germane to the topic at hand. At this point, Pizza Hut is so gnarly and irresponsible as to make MAD FUCKING TV look good. Never thought I'd see the day.

  6. And now, thanks to our congress, is a vegetable!