The Epic Tale of How Pizza Invaded America
Pizza is one of the most popular foods in the United States.
But go to almost any other country in the world, and there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to find a slice of pizza.
So how did this regional Italian dish go from being local street food to a worldwide phenomenon?
Well, it involves the some of the greatest conflicts in human history, some volcanoes, a princess, but most of all, an ingenious business strategy.
In the spring of 1943, while the combined militaries of Britain, France and the United States sat on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, supplementing their field rations with Tunisian cuisine, allied forces got their first taste of victory.
They had just pushed the Germans and Italians off the African continent, dealing the axis powers their first major defeat on the western front of World War II.
Now allied commanders were contemplating an invasion of the soft underbelly of Nazi-occupied Europe.
To get there they would need to scale the whole leg of Italy — which was just a mere amphibious assault across the Mediterranean.
So the troops wouldn’t have much time to savor their victory. There would be plenty more cuisine waiting for them on the Italian peninsula. Some of the Americans had even sampled it before.
In 2017 pizza was voted the number one comfort food in the US. Yet just 75 years earlier, nary an American could say they had even heard of the dish — much less tasted it.
The first pizzeria in the US opened just after the turn of the twentieth century — either in Chicago or New York, depending on the source. It had followed a wave of Italian immigrants who had carried the dish from their homeland all the way across the Atlantic.
But it didn’t catch on right away with the greater american public. For the next half century, pizza would stay a cultural secret, kept cloistered among an archipelago of Italian communities scattered across the country.
It would take a world war to finally uncover it.
Before pizza made its first tentative landings on America’s beachheads, it was mostly relegated to a small corner of southern Italy in the countryside surrounding the Bay of Naples. While pizza-like flatbread dishes can be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire and flatbread itself first appears shortly after the invention of agriculture nearly 11,000 years ago, the oldest known use of the word pizza doesn’t appear until the first millennium — in what might be considered the first pizza delivery order.
A thousand years ago, a bishop in the small Italian village of Gaeta ordered 12 pizzas.These pizzas were to be delivered every Christmas and every Easter. Why the bishop needed so many pizzas on a recurring basis is lost to the sands of time but one thing is certain: pizza was popular even in the middle ages.
But pizza wouldn’t become the dish we know today without one crucial ingredient.
And it lay across a thousand miles of unexplored ocean, on a continent no Italian had ever set foot upon.
That is, until 1492.
Although Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, led Europeans to the tomato, it was the Spanish Crown that eventually conquered the areas of Central and South America where the tomato was indigenous. After sacking the island city of Tenochtitlan and overthrowing the Aztec Empire, the conquistador Hernán Cortés claimed all of Mexico for Spain — including its lavish store of tomatoes.
The tomato plant grew easily and abundantly in Italy’s Mediterranean climate — its success abetted by the rich soils at the foot of the region’s numerous volcanoes.
It slowly infiltrated the local cuisine until one day in the late 18th century, the tomato joined forces with a local flatbread dish — a merger that resulted in pizza as we know it today.
But for another two centuries, pizza would lie in wait — content with a single region in southern Italy as the whole extent of its territory — waiting for the invasion to come to it.
In September of 1943, the allied invasion of Italy commenced. Almost immediately, things did not go as planned.
Over 300,000 soldiers would be dead or injured before the Germans were driven off the peninsula. It would be one of the most costly operations of the entire war for the allies in terms of human life.
On top of it all, the soldiers had almost nothing to eat but government-issued combat rations.
Designed for caloric density over palatability, the combat rations soldiers carried into battle weren’t meant to be eaten for more than a few days. They didn’t have the vitamins nor the nutritional content necessary to sustain a person indefinitely — much less soldiers fighting their way through mud and scaling mountains. But the circumstances in the Italian theater often didn’t give American soldiers much of a choice.
They lost weight. Their muscles wasted away. They got scurvy and suffered from malnutrition. Not to mention they were stuck in some of the heaviest fighting in the largest war in human history.
But the same rugged geography that was keeping allied forces pinned down and slowing their advance also provided a relatively simple, calorically dense and nutritionally sound alternative to their abysmal combat rations.
Most notably, pizza.
When — a millennia since the word pizza was first writ — American soldiers entered these newly liberated towns and villages, the civilians rewarded them with what little they had. But for a soldier who had been tolerating rock hard biscuits and tin can cheese for weeks, racked with scurvy and miserable with hunger, a pizza must’ve seemed both ludicrous and glorious.
The Italian Campaign wasn’t over until the spring of 1945.
To the soldiers who were there, victory tasted suspiciously similar to pizza.
When these soldiers finally returned to their homes, they came back with that taste forever seared in their memories. As they went to school and got married and bought houses and acclimated to a life devoid of war, these former soldiers never forgot about what happened on the other side of the ocean.
In fact, they sought it out.
And so another invasion commenced.
Pizzerias popped up all over the country, filtering out of their strongholds in the Italian neighborhoods of New York and Chicago, and infiltrating communities all across the nation via a newly-minted interstate highway system.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. For the first time, the United States would be connected by a network of dedicated roads, allowing for unimpeded and rapid transit to all parts of the country. Ostensibly, the highway system was built to facilitate the transport of the nation’s military defenses in the event of war but it would ultimately play a crucial role in pizza’s eventual takeover of the US.
This new highway system combined with the widespread use of refrigeration and flash-freezing made it practical to transport food from one end of the country to another, allowing the newly developed frozen pizza to reach the even the farthest corners of the nation.
And as the US population retreated into automobile-dependent, suburban enclaves, pizza followed.
But the greatest post-war development pizza had in its arsenal was the rise of the restaurant franchise.
Franchise businesses date all the way back to the middle ages but the modern fast food industry didn’t really take off until after World War II. Fueled by a much more mobile populace and an unprecedented demand for fast and cheap food, restaurant chains began popping up everywhere in the 1950s and 60s.
Through consolidation of technique and design, a fast food franchise could satisfy the customer’s urge for speed and familiarity while assuaging a business owner’s aversion to risk by providing both with a well-recognized, popular product that could be reliably mass produced on the cheap and sold at low prices. The fast food joint seemed tailor-made for WWII veterans accustomed to subsisting on identical tins of ready-to-eat combat rations.
At the beginning of 1950, less than 100 franchised companies existed in the US. By 1960, less than ten years later, there would be over 900, with over 200,000 franchises across the country. By the end of the 60s, there would an estimated 100,000 new franchised companies.
With the success of fast food chains dealing in burgers, fried chicken, and soft serve ice cream, the appearance of the pizza franchise wasn’t far behind.
Soon cities all over the country would see the familiar blue and red logo of a Domino’s or the unmistakable roofline of a Pizza Hut, each business promising pizza made to order, at all hours of the day, delivered to your doorstep in 30 minutes or less or your money back, and in the process, solidifying pizza’s hegemony over the American dinner table.
But its greatest strength wasn’t mobility or speed or even its unerring capacity to win over the hearts and minds of the societies it infiltrated. The key to pizza’s victory was its uncanny ability to blend in. It could assimilate into a wide assortment of communities, adapt to a mix of customs and tastes, insinuating itself into every corner of the American landscape.
And so as much as pizza spread and conquered America, it changed to accommodate america’s patchwork of regional identities and ethnicities — adopting aspects of the local cuisine as much as it influenced them. Soon there was a style of pizza for every flavor of American.
New York style, Chicago deep dish, Hawaiian, California-style, Detroit-style, Greek, BBQ, dessert pizza. There was no limit to pizza’s cultural subterfuge.
And so the stage was set for pizza’s eventual world domination.
As the world’s superpowers flirted with another world war, pizza was again on the frontlines. This time it was armed with the financial resources of multimillion dollar global franchises.
In the 1970s, pizza returned to Europe, expanding its influence on the continent far beyond the Bay of Naples. It marched up and down the length of the European peninsula, penned in by the Strait of Gibraltar at one end and an Iron Curtain at the other. Eventually it jumped the English Channel into the United Kingdom, managing to do what the Nazis had failed to do decades earlier.
But its invasion didn’t stop there.
Soon a flotilla of pizza franchises made landfall in countries as distant as Indonesia and Japan.
For nearly 50 years, the expansion of multinational fast food franchises kept the western half of a global cold war warm by the light of an ever-growing number of pizza ovens.
But it wasn’t until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving the US as the only remaining superpower, when pizza was finally free to conquer the entire world.
In 1990, the first pizza franchise entered China. In just a few years it would be in India. Then Southeast Asia. Soon it would reach most of the population on Earth, buoyed by the nascent currents of an increasingly globalized economy.
In 2009, the first pizzeria even opened in the capital of the notoriously isolated nation of North Korea. It was authorized by the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jung-il.
Pizza even broke the bonds of Earth and boarded the International Space Station.
Today, no place on Earth (or within near-Earth orbit) is safe from pizza.
Its territory stretches from the frigid heights of the Himalayas to the low-lying Pampas of South America.
While it maintains the same basic body plan and design — a flatbread topped with seasonings and sauces — its toppings are almost infinite in their variety, spanning the gamut from typical fare like tomatoes and pepperoni to Vegemite and grasshoppers. Since its meteoric rise to power, pizza has become as diverse as the cultural palates it now occupies.
In 2016, pizza was worth more than $120 billion dollars on the world market. If it were a person, pizza would be far wealthier than Bill Gates, the richest person in the world.
While the US still accounts for the most pizza sold on the planet, according to a 2004 AC Nielson survey, the people of Norway eat the most pizza in the world — mostly frozen pizza.
But in an effort to save pizza’s Italian identity from rapid globalization and assimilation, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, or True Neapolitan Pizza Association was formed to “promote and protect” the purity of true Italian pizza.
Under the strict rules dictated by True Neapolitan Pizza Association, a true pizza can only use San Marzano tomatoes grown in the plains at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. A real pizza uses dough rolled by the hands of a trained pizzaiolo and mozzarella cheese acquired from untamed water buffalo living in the marshlands of the Campania and Lazio regions of southern Italy.
According to the True Neapolitan Pizza Association, the original pizza, the genesis of all pizza, was in 1889.
As the legend goes, in an attempt to impress Queen Margherita — the sole heiress to the Italian royal family — an Italian Neapolitan pizzaiolo made her a pizza decked out in the colors of the Italian flag. Tomato sauce for red, mozzarella cheese for white, and basil leaves for green. The new queen was so pleased, this pizza was forever known as Margherita pizza. And all true pizza is descended from this royal lineage. Anything else is but a pretender to the throne.
Anyway, that’s how the legend goes.
The true story of pizza is more complicated.
Its success isn’t as much about impressing royalty as it is due to victorious armies and shrewd business practices. And if we really boil it down, much of human history — much of the reason the world is the way it is today — is due to those very same factors.
But like Queen Margherita, pizza’s almost universal popularity relied on its ability to fit in.
When the queen was just a princess, she traveled the Italian countryside, meeting with the people she would one day rule over.
Italy’s unification had been hasty and recent. Just a few decades before the entire peninsula had been a patchwork of diverse dialects and competing principalities and city-states. Now it was supposed to be a single nation, united under a single monarchy, of which Princess Margherita represented. But those deep-seated and culturally-ingrained differences still remained on the Italian peninsula and no amount of political power or military might would change that.
Yet as she toured this new nation, Princess Margherita adopted the customs of the local people, wearing the clothes they wore and eating the food they ate — like pizza. This ingratiated her to the public and made her one of the most popular monarchs in Italian history.
So if pizza is to have any royal blood, it should be that of a savvy princess who had no qualms incorporating and accepting the customs of the people she was meant to rule.
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