The Who, What, When, Where, and Hawaiian

Since this is my first post, and first impressions pushed to the bottom of a page by new posts are the most important, I’d like to take a minute to discuss something dear to absolutely no one’s heart: Hawaiian pizza.

It’s an ignominious pie, the target of the kind of pop culture derision reserved for a select group of outsider obsessions like the word “moist,” dad jokes, and political centrism. In The Good Place, it’s the official pizza in Hell, and even the President of Iceland took a break from his busy schedule of declining nouns in early 2017 to declare that he was “fundamentally opposed to putting pineapple on top of a pizza,” and that he would forbid it with the power of his office if he had the authority to do so. And of course there’s nothing wrong with disliking, or even hating, Hawaiian pizza on a personal level. To each their own, and if you’re going to make questionable dietary choices, you might as well be certain about them. But why the cultural pile-on in an age when pizza has long since shed the dictates of salami and shredded cheese, when one can encounter autumn squash pizzas, or Indian-themed pies with potatoes, chickpeas, and collard greens (it was delicious)? What’s so wrong about pineapple and ham? If the experience of wearing a Halloween costume when no one else is dressed up were a food, it’d be Hawaiian pizza, and because I apparently having nothing better to write about, and you obviously have nothing better to read about, let’s pick this apart, shall we?

So, why is the Hawaiian pie so maligned? Because no matter what you do to it, at the end of the day it’s a pile of canned pineapple and ham. The Hawaiian pizza is hated because, more than anything else, it’s honest about what it is and indifferent to what it is not, and because we’re embarrassed by the fact that it isn’t embarrassed about itself.

And I get it: even the most ardent pro-Hawaiian pizza partisan would have to admit that it’s inherently unsexy, this pile of water-packed ham and nigh candied fruit perched on a lava cap of cheese of questionable provenance. It possesses a guileless, proletarian directness that’s almost tragically out of step with an American food culture obsessed with sustainability and fork-to-table, ideas that have become so ubiquitous in the way we talk about food that massive corporations throw around words like “artisan” and “small batch” the way a first-semester graduate student shoehorns “epistemology” into sentences at a mixer: they want to get laid so badly, and the right lingo is the first step toward an unlonely day. And let’s face it, there’s nothing beguiling about ham, and even less about canned pineapple. You can slap fancy cured meats on a pizza to give your pepperoni pizza a price tag and conspicuous decadence that would make a gangster rapper nod in approval. Cheese pizza? No problem: add buffalo mozzarella that melts into a shimmering silk dress and maybe a hard cheese from a cave on the Iberian peninsula and you have a calorie bomb worth writing home about. But ham? No. Ham is ham.

Sure, Italy, Spain, and Germany make some cured hams that would make a vegan pitch a tent in a moment of weakness, but that’s not the kind of ham that finds its way onto Hawaiian pizza. No, that honor is reserved for the kind of processed log of featureless meat that spiced up the entrées at Lyndon Johnson fundraising events and suburban progressive dinners in 1964. It’s boring. It’s the George Will of meats, remarkably unremarkable, objectionable if you take the time to think about it, but you won’t because, God, it’s George Will. So it just sticks around. And even if you did try to sneak good ham onto the pizza, it would still essentially be what we all secretly know it is: a relic from a culinary past defined by hyper-processed food and an almost allergic reaction to fresh ingredients.

In an interview in 2015, two years before he died, then-81-year-old Sam Panopoulos, who invented the Hawaiian pizza in Ontario in 1962, described the culinary situation in Canada in the early 1960s this way: “the pizza in those days was three things: dough, sauce, cheese, and mushroom, bacon, or pepperoni. That was it,” and of course the mushrooms were canned. Like the all the other inexplicable ham and fruit dishes that clawed their way out of the mid century supermarket, Hawaiian pizza was an attempt to bring something approaching joy to a drab food culture. “In those days,” Panopoulos says, “the only sweet and sour thing you would get is Chinese pork, you know, with the sweet and sour sauce[.] Otherwise there was no mix.”

We’ve since moved on from this kind of conceptual food wasteland, and looking back at Panopoulos’ creation from a time when people can have opinions about bubble tea; discussions of avocado toast, of all things, become battlegrounds of generational conflict and economic inequality; and where kale chips somehow make sense, the simultaneously garish and plain Hawaiian pizza looks especially foreign. Accustomed as we are to appearing sophisticated, the Hawaiian pizza is an unambiguous reminder of what we used to be. Hating it publicly en masse is the culinary equivalent of laughing at the anachronisms in Mad Men, a collective declaration of how modern we are, that we are better now. Because as Dan Nosowitz observes in his interview with Panopoulos, “in North America, you would never buy it for an office party or to feed hungry friends at a bar, at least not without a thorough interrogation to find out each eater’s stance on the pie.” Hawaiian pizza is, more than anything, a private indulgence, like fan fiction and editing sci-fi wikis. We might like it, but we only tell the people we trust. Because we’re better than that, at least when people are watching. I mean, what would the neighbors think? And really, what’s more traditional than that?

 

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