In my darkest hours, my friends deserted me. Betrayed and abandoned, I was alone. Well, almost alone. There was someone I could call. It was Ahmed. He took the orders at Dominos. During my miserablest year, he gave me Pepperoni Passion (large) almost every night. It was that which got me through it. It certainly got me fat.
On July 28th, its 20 years since Domino’s opened their first outlet in the UK. The first to bring the systemised, franchised, American pizza delivery concept to old fashioned Britain. A date that marks the beginning of modern Britain. Previously, it was an exotic mysterious thing – glimpsed in ET, it seemed as un-worldly as UFOs, aliens, flying bikes, and trick or treating. A character in Douglas Adams’ ‘The Endless Teatime of the Soul’ characterised pre-Dominos London like this: ‘Why would no one deliver pizza? Why did no one understand that it was fundamental to the whole nature of pizza that it arrived at your front door in a hot cardboard box? That you slithered it out of greaseproof paper and ate it in folded slices in front of the TV? What was the fundamental flaw in the stupid, stuck-up, sluggardly English that they couldn’t grasp this simple principle?’
There are some who claim that only Italian pizza is worth eating. What they don’t realise is that biting into a Dominos pizza is like sinking your teeth through the history of the whole world. Forget Simon Schama. Get yourself a large Mighty Meaty instead. It’s 3000 years of culture topped with olives. Like western architecture, the pizza can be traced back to Classical Greece. This is where its essential concept was established: a round flat bread with stuff on top. Through Roman occupation and usurpation of classical culture, the Pizza arrived in Italy – There’s a lava-covered pizzeria in Pompeii. When Italy broke up into mini states, herb-and-spice-covered circles of baked dough grew exceptionally popular in Naples. By the late 1600s Neapolitan peasants were adding New World tomatoes to this focaccia-like base. Modern pizza became formalised by baker Raffeale Esposito after experimenting with cheese/sauce/bread combinations. His patriotic red (tomato)/white (cheese)/green(basil) topped pizza was made in honour of Queen Margherita. History does not record his meeting with Princess Chicken Feast.
Italian immigration took Pizza to the US. But it was the taste that
demobbed GIs had developed during WWII that took the pizzeria out of Italian neighbourhoods and onto Main Street. As it did, it became American: bigger, fatter with more stuff on top. It started to mutate, sprouting German sausage, Hawaiian pineapple and ham through its deep pan base.
This new Americanised pizza was exported around the world. Toppings began to reflect local culture: Tandoori in the UK, Shwarma in the Netherlands, pickled ginger, minced mutton and tofu in India; squid and mayo jaga in Japan; green peas in Brazil; bacon, onion and fresh cream in France; red herring in Russia; coconut in Costa Rica. These endless perversions of the original Italian vernacular show that pizza is perhaps the only global food. It’s a kind of open sauce design.
More fundamental alterations to the Pizza are plotted in the product development teams of companies like Dominos. Its here that they attempt to engineer pizza perfection: editing out the bad bits, amplifying the good. The big problem is the crust – a too-chewy side effect of a baked base. Pizza Hut try to turn the negative into a positive by stuffing it with a ring of cheese. Dominos have gone one further with ‘Double Decadence’: more like edge to edge topping on a double skinned base. The base is actually more like wafer disks than bread – sandwich a garlicky emulsion. When you munch them, the top disk slides over the bottom disk, lubricated by the garlic gunk. It feels like something mechanical made out of dough. It’s disconcerting to feel the base moving – unstable, like plate tectonics.
Suburban living, car culture and technology transformed pizza into fast food. The pizzeria was equally transformed. Logistics, infrastructure and food technology exploded the idea of the restaurant, scattering its programme over the suburbs: the waiter taking your order over the phone and serving you by scooter. The kitchen and dining room joined by miles of tarmac.
For Pizza Porn, you only need sit by your letterbox. You’ll soon be submerged by flyers. They will combine close up photography of, melting cheese. You’ll see moist ingredients: plump tomatoes, peppers beaded with sweat anticipating digestion. You’ll see American flags fading like the closing credits. You’ll see Italian flags. You’ll see the Statue of Liberty punching her torch hand through pizza base. There will be many special offers.
For those who bemoan that they are no longer Italian they should realize that there is no such thing as Italy anymore. Patriotic nationality is a nostalgic dream. Modern identity is fluid – like ideas and capital. Culture mutates pizza, stretching the vernacular like mozzarella into weird new forms. Pizza tells us more about modern geography than maps.
At the time, I felt alone. I didn’t think that I was part of a huge, lonely global community, phoning our orders and eating our way through acres of pizza. Imagine if we had laid down our slices together, we could have formed a gigantic landscape – A republic of pizza, safe from harm. Imagine a pizza-faced planet spinning in space, with bite shaped shadows around its rim like mini-eclipses.
I think my relationship with pizza was sublimated violence. My mouth was like a masticating Death Star destroying pizza planets. Munching destruction through that circular symbol of harmony and unity. I ate until I felt my stomach walls stretch, till my insides were filled with numb product. Until that perfect disk was well and truly torn apart. It was revenge fantasy delivered piping hot to my door.
first published in Icon