American Pie

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Pizza’s mid-century journey from unknown to unparalleled was captured in a raucous 1956 skit aired on “Caesar’s Hour,” the show’s second gag that year grounded in pizza adoration. Pizza was to Sid Caesar’s writing team what domestic tranquillity was to the creative staff over at “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”: a source of endless inspiration. In “The Commuters,” three couples are absorbed in a competitive Scrabble game. The word pizza is played, but nobody’s too sure how to spell the name of their new favorite food (the word routinely shows up on first-grade spelling lists today). So the couples consult a dictionary, taking care not to drool on the definition. The men, now rapturous at the thought of a pie, flee for the nearest pizzeria, promising to return with pizza for everyone. This being comedy, they hit a snag on the way home: Their car breaks down, and the pizzas are in danger of getting wet. One of the men decides to shield the pizzas beneath the hood, a bit of chivalry that manages to jump-start the engine. Powered by pizza, the men arrive home to find their wives asleep, to be awoken only by having fragrant slices of pizza dragged beneath their noses. Pizza was a dream come true.

The premise of Caesar’s skit quickly became dated as Tom Monaghan institutionalized the innovation that transformed America’s infatuation with pizza into a lasting relationship: home delivery. In 1960 Monaghan and his brother James bought an Ypsilanti, Michigan, pizza joint called Dominick’s (James traded his share to Tom one year later in exchange for a Volkswagen Beetle). According to Correll, Monaghan was forced to rechristen the store as Domino’s when Dominick complained he was “besmirching his name” with a lousy product. But Monaghan wasn’t fixated on quality: He decided to best the competition by offering free delivery, a service that every major chain later added to its repertoire. Pizza purveyors tested lots of new concepts in the 1970s and ’80s: There were restaurants that explicitly wedded pizza to entertainment, such as Chuck E. Cheese’s, where a life-sized rat boogied through the arcade, and restaurants that emphasized fresh and novel ingredients, such as California Pizza Kitchen, home to the caramelized pear and gorgonzola pie. Nothing, however, has yet supplanted the large pepperoni pie delivered hot within the hour as the quintessential American pizza experience.

Pizza’s firm hold on the American appetite is unlikely to slip anytime soon. With very little nudging from pizza marketers, Americans have made pizza the traditional food of the emerging national holiday Super Bowl Sunday; almost 70 percent of viewers eat pizza while watching the game. Both spontaneous and economical, ordering pizza remains a signifier of carefree camaraderie; pizza seems to automatically make any event a little more fun. “We will have pizza(!),” the Carleton College history department announced last year in a memo meant to lure students to a meeting. It’s hard to imagine fried chicken or tofu having the same drawing power. “Pizza is more popular than ever,” Slomon said. Not bad for a food that most Americans had to have explained to them just 50 years ago.