Authenticity, Innovation and Food: A Brief History of Pizza
When we wax lyrical about food, we can lose sight of important things. Sometimes, if attempting to show off our particular knowledge about one cuisine or another, we treat authenticity as an end in itself.
“My God” we exclaim haughtily, “cream in a carbonara? That’s heresy! That’s not how it’s done!” I’m sure that most of us will have said something to that effect in our time and, while I admit that there are some particularly egregious violations of tradition and flavour out there, I think we do ourselves a disservice if we take this too far. The same is true of the ‘refining’ of certain dishes. You can take an apple crumble apart and focus on every element of its composition – replacing the accessible with the rare, simple processes for complicated ones – but is that apple crumble going to be better than my mum’s? You could make a sausage sandwich with organic Gloucester Old Spot sausages, sourdough and a red onion jus – but will I enjoy that more than a few Richmonds between two bits of Hovis with some HP sauce? I’m not sure. For me, food is about place, time and situation. Food, like language, grows and evolves organically as people move and times change. With nothing is this more apparent than the world’s favourite food – pizza.
The first recorded instance of the word ‘pizza’ is in a Latin text from the southern Italian town of Gaeta in 997 AD that detailed the obligation to give the local bishop ‘duodecim pizze’ (twelve pizzas), on Christmas day and Easter Sunday. Scholars still debate the etymology of the word as understood now – a principal theory is that there is a common root between ‘pizza’ and the English, ‘to bite’, stemming from the Proto-Germanic family of languages that influenced Italy via Germanic speaking peoples after 500 AD. Things similar to pizza have existed since the Neolithic age. All around the Mediterranean there were versions of leavened and unleavened flatbread that were topped with either sweet or savoury ingredients. As with many famous dishes, pizza has an apocryphal origin story. It is thought that, in honour of the June 1889 visit to Naples of Margherita of Savoy, a baker called Raffaele Esposito created the margherita pizza we know today. The tomatoes, mozzarella and basil were to reflect the colours of ‘il tricolore’. So impressed was she with the recipe that an official letter of congratulations was sent to the baker in Naples that hangs there to this day.
The sheer diversity of pizza now is astounding – even within Italy. Everything has been adapted as pizza has spread outwards from Naples. The dough, the toppings, the type of oven, the temperature and its fuel – everything has been tweaked to suit regional tastes. However, it was with the first waves of Italian immigration to the USA that the serious innovation began. Between 1880 and 1914 over 4 million Italians came across the Atlantic to seek a better life in the land of prosperity. They brought with them their music, their skills and of course, their food. Throughout the 20th century, as Italian-Americans fanned out across the Union, the variety of pizza grew. The New York slice, the Detroit traybaked pizza, the square pizza, Chicago deepdish pizza, the New Jersey bar pizza – all were reactions to the climate, the population and the time. A favourite innovation of mine comes from a pizzeria called Little Vincent’s in Huntington New York. Upon observing their late night customers scalding the rooves of their mouths on the piping hot pies flying out of the oven (an all too common mishap), they created the ‘cold cheese slice’. A regular cheese slice is quite literally topped with an insulating mini-mound of cold grated mozzarella to protect the inebriated punter from the overconfident first-bite burn – genius.
It is easy to think of all of this innovation as a gradual erosion of authenticity – as a garish American blasphemy against Raffaele Esposito’s invention. In this vein, the art of the Neapolitan ‘Pizzaiuolo’ is protected by the ‘Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana’ or ‘True Neapolitan Pizza Association’ founded in 1984. This institution defines every element of the original incarnation from the shape of the oven to the thickness of the crust. Neapolitan pizza has even been inscribed in UNESCO’s ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ alongside things like Indian Yoga and Spanish Flamenco. However if such protection comes at the expense of genuine innovations of flavour, style and most importantly, the satisfaction of the eater, I think it is misguided. In this way I think food reflects language. The equivalent of the aforementioned ‘Associazone’ in linguistic terms would be something like ‘L’Académie française’ charged with the protection of the French language against the tide of anglicisms and other unwelcome innovations. And yes, while there is an important function for institutions such as these to protect cultural heritage and preserve it for future generations, if the organic evolution of language had been so steadfastly observed in English we would have to go without Shakespeare, Carrol, Joyce and Chaucer.
There lies the rub
While there is an indubitable obligation not to forget that key authentic origin – be it in the culinary or linguistic worlds – the history of change and innovation is itself a cultural artefact worthy of our respect. Each change along the way reflects the quintessentially human way in which cultures intertwine and blend. Each beneficial mutation or temporary excrescence can tell us a political, social and historical story all of its own. The way that music, fashion, language and food evolve and adapt over time reflects our common history and our human desire to collaborate. So, if impoverished Italian immigrants hadn’t taken advantage of the bounteous ingredients available in the USA, we might not have spaghetti and meatballs or veal parmigiana. If no one had cared about Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation we might be without that favourite sandwich filling. If that Glaswegian bus driver hadn’t sent back a chicken curry for being too dry, we in the UK might be without chicken tikka masala (a catastrophe in my book). So next time I feel the urge to signpost my culinary knowledge to my interlocutor by deriding a dish for being inauthentic, I will pause to remember how much better off we are for, if only occasionally, we let the tide of history and innovation take its own glorious course.
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