How Pizza Became The King Of Junk Food

From trashy food for poor Italians to a (still trashy) billion dollar industry.
How Pizza Became The King Of Junk Food

We, like everyone, love humankind's crowning achievement: pizza. So this week, Cracked is dishing out pieces of pizza history and deep-dives into the food G.O.A.T.

Pizza makes no sense. When you think about it, it's kinda weird that we still carry around (well, make other people carry around) big boxes containing oversized pies topped with precarious assortments of food items that are always one tiny bump in the road away from total disaster. Surely there's a more efficient configuration for these ingredients, like maybe a big block of dough stuffed with cheese and olives and such. How did pizza get so popular? Why did it become the world's preferred method of cramming cholesterol into our veins? Can we get to the end of this article without breaking down and ordering some? Let's find out ... 

It Started As Joyful Trash Food For Poor Italians


If you go to Wikipedia, you can find a long list of ancient dishes that vaguely sound like pizza dating back to the Neolithic Age, but as for food that we could actually recognize as pizza? That was born in 18th century Italy when slapping cheese, and other cheap ingredients (such as those newfangled "tomato" fruits from the New World) on flatbreads became a popular way for the poor masses of Naples to get some quick chow.  

The upper classes were grossed out that anyone would put such dreadful food in their mouths; Samuel Morse described the pizza as a "species of the most nauseating cake" that "looks like a piece of bread that has been taken reeking out of the sewer." Carlo Collodi, author of Pinocchio, wrote that all those scattered ingredients made pizza look like "a patchwork of greasy filth that harmonizes perfectly with the appearance of the person selling it." But the poor didn't give a flying focaccia what pizza looked like and ate it up.

Drawing of 19th century Italian pizza vendor.

Wikimedia Commons

It was customary for Neapolitan vendors to wear their undies on their heads. 

Pizza was sold only on the streets and market stalls until 1830, when some all-time genius came up with the idea of starting a restaurant just for it. The Pizzeria Port'Alba was a hit and became a loitering spot for students, starving artists, and anyone running low on cash during lunchtime. The place even inspired verses calling pizza "the yeast of life," "the talisman of happiness," and "the soothing unguent for the weak of stomach" -- artful ways of saying "cowabunga, dudes." Even then, pizza was associated with lighthearted fun. 

So, when the struggling people of Naples began jumping on ships in search of the land of opportunities, they made sure to bring this part of their culture along for the ride ... 

War And Immigration Brought Pizza Out To The World


The earliest pizzerias in America were opened by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, but it took decades for the idea to make it outside their neighborhoods. Part of the problem was that the coal ovens used back then produced delicious hot pizza that would become about as edible as a shoe sole upon cooling down. Your only options were buying a whole pizza and stuffing it into your mouth, like, right away or nothing. Luckily, in the 1930s, someone came up with a gas-fired oven that made it possible to start selling single slices with a longer shelf life than 25 minutes, and that's when pizza joints really started taking off. 

Pizza's spread accelerated pretty dramatically when a whole generation of able-bodied Americans was suddenly shipped off to Italy, where they got to taste the original item (in between shooting up Nazis and stuff).

In 1944, the New York Times wrote about this "pie made from a yeast dough and filled with any number of different centers" that was driving the G.I.s in Italy crazy and informed their readers that they could actually buy the very same thing in their own town. Three years later, the same paper predicted that "pizza could become as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew more about it." That was true, but pizza still needed one extra ingredient to go from exotic dish to successful mass product: adding more America. 

Pizza Changed America (And America Changed Pizza)


In 1943, Italian-American entrepreneur Ric Riccardo convinced his partner Ike Sewell to sell pizza instead of Mexican food in their restaurant, but they took some ... liberties with the recipe. The result: they unleashed the very first deep dish pizzas upon Chicago, and the city never looked back. This set the important precedent that restaurants could do whatever the hell they wanted with pizza and still be successful.  

As more and more pizzerias opened across the U.S. to capitalize on the returning G.I.s' new tastes, our very conception of pizza started to change. The flatbreads of the old continent became thicker, bigger, and less spicy to appeal to American palates. In 1953, President-elect Dwight Eisenhower was innocently handed a slice of pizza in Manhattan and remarked that it was better than the one he tasted in Naples during World War II. This started a bit of an international incident, but it also served as the moment when American pizza officially became its own entity, separate and (according to Americans) superior to the foreign dish that inspired it. 

Once pizza was assimilated as part of the American identity, it was impossible to resist: the U.S. went from having 500 pizzerias in 1934 to 20,000 in 1956. In that same year, both I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners had their own pizza-themed episodes -- as if pizza was the hot celebrity everyone wanted for a guest star spot. 

Like in old-timey Naples, pizza gained a reputation as a fun food that often served as a mere excuse to hang out with pals. Pizza's popularity in America meant it also became a sensation in other parts of the world -- including, finally, the non-Naples parts of Italy. As food critic John Mariani put it, "Like blue jeans and rock and roll, the rest of the world, including the Italians, picked up on pizza just because it was American." Two important advancements helped ensure that pizza-mania wasn't just a passing fad: the first was the invention of frozen pizza, which made it so even the culinarily challenged could prepare some at home. And the second one was ... 

Fast Delivery Made Pizza Indispensable (Even If It Sucked)


In 1954, WWII vet Sherwood "Shakey" Johnson opened a pizza parlor in Sacramento, California, which did pretty well, so two years later, he opened another one in Portland, then one in Albany, then more in literally hundreds other places. Shakey's idea was imitated by other pizza chains like Pizza Hut (1958) and Little Caesars (1959) -- even Popeye got in on the action in a 1960 cartoon. (As if a fast food restaurant named after animation's most notorious spinach eater could ever take off.)

Also, in 1960, Michigan resident Tom Monaghan took over an existing pizzeria called DomiNick's and came up with the idea of delivering the product himself in his Beetle car. Eventually, he became obsessed with producing and delivering the pizzas as fast as possible ... even if it meant cutting corners when it came to the actual quality of the product. His pizzas weren't the tastiest or the healthiest, but they were the most convenient, and that counted for a lot. In fact, when he decided to open more locations, the actual Dominick refused to let him use his name because he was "besmirching" it with his inferior product. So Monaghan switched a couple of letters and changed it to "Domino's." 

Other chains copied Domino's business model, some with even more success. Once we got to the point where you could have a pizza in your home in 30 minutes or less, there was no turning back. At this point, it doesn't matter if the pizzas are made out of actual shoe soles -- we'll still continue eating them because by now, they are an unavoidable part of our culture. Hence Papa John's continued existence. And to answer our own question at the end of the intro paragraph: no.

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Top image: igorovsyannykov/Wikimedia Commons 


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