Author of Pizza: A Global History
Carol Helstosky is possibly the world's foremost academic expert on the subject of Pizza. Currently, a professor at the University of Denver, Dr. Helstosky has done extensive research and written prolifically about food, including her book Pizza: A Global History. This book, read by a number of Indiana Pizza Club members, provides an enjoyable and thorough survey of our favorite food from its origins to its current status as perhaps the most popular food in the world.
Dr. Helstosky was kind enough to participate in a Pizza Q&A with us. Read below and enjoy her informed and outstanding takes on all things Pizza. Also, check out her book Pizza: A Global History, which is available everywhere!
Thank you, Carol, for taking the time to interact with The Indiana Pizza Club and our fans!
1. You discuss in your book (Pizza: A Global History) the idea that pizza has become a food that transcends traditional geographic and cultural definition. Has there ever been another food to achieve that kind of overwhelming popularity or do you think there ever will be?
I would say that there are probably several foods that have transcended geographic and cultural definition: the first example that comes to mind is pasta. Similar to pizza, pasta is easy to make, it can be prepared (topped) with many different types of ingredients so there is infinite variety, and it’s cheap. There also exist many variations across the world (think not just about Italian pasta but Asian noodle dishes and the fideos of South America, for example). Unlike pizza, perhaps, pasta can be stored for long periods of time, so it’s no wonder that it spread around the globe. This brings me to another similarity between pasta and pizza: like pizza, pasta has a lot of what I call “origin myths” or stories about the origins and evolution of the food. For example, the origins of pasta are debated, though many agree that pasta came from the Middle East, then spread to Asia and Europe.
Some have argued that tacos are like pizza in that they have gone global with many varieties, I’m not entirely convinced that tacos are as popular as pizza. What do you think?
2. What do you see as the next major trend to move through U.S. pizzerias in the next 5-10 years?
Hmmm…you won’t hold me this if I get future pizza trends wrong, will you? I think pizza will continue on its traditional track, which is inexpensive home delivery for large crowds (parties, families). The need for cheap filling pizza will never go out of style! I also think more “artisanal” pizzerias will continue to be popular, catering to communities of fans. In Denver and elsewhere, the trend seems to be swinging toward small family-style pizzerias which may or may not be owned by a small family but they certainly emphasize that they are family-friendly and offer more “upscale” pizzas (more varieties) in addition to craft beer for parents. These types of pizzerias offer sit-down dining (with alcohol) for families, as opposed to store-front pizzerias that specialize in delivery or take-out. I think pizzerias that specialize in specific preparations of pizza (vegan, gluten-free) aren’t maybe doing as well to make me think this will be an ongoing popular trend.
3. You discuss in your book the fact that pizza has shown up repeatedly in U.S. movies over the last several decades. Films like Saturday Night Fever and Do The Right Thing, for example, memorably feature pizza. But is there, in your opinion, a single movie scene involving pizza that you would consider the "greatest pizza scene" in cinema history?
Sorry but my favorite pizza eating scene is still Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever folding a NY slice of pizza and eating it while he struts down the street! That has to be my favorite pizza scene in film! To be fair, though, I really love NY style pizza, so this may explain why I like the scene so much!
4. Recently Domino's started a new campaign that allows customers to earn "points" towards free/discounted Domino's pizza by photographing and submitting (through their app) photos of ANY pizza they consume (no matter who made it). Domino's claims that they support people eating pizza of any kind and wants to reward them for it. Does this indicate that the big-time global chains are starting to recognize that boutique or local pizzerias are growing in popularity? Or is it just another crazy stunt from Domino's, a la their pothole and pizza insurance campaigns?
I think it’s also an attempt by Domino’s to try to ride the wave of promotion through social media. Large corporations like Domino’s have to be just as attentive to social media platforms (not only Twitter but Yelp, for example) as smaller restaurants do. The impact of social media on our consumption habits is a really interesting topic of study, I think. I just taught a class on food history in the winter quarter, for example, and every one of my students, except one, told me that they would *never* go to a restaurant unless they read online reviews first. This surprised me, as I’m a little more adventuresome, I would have no problem stopping at any restaurant (not just pizzerias) after looking at the outside and maybe examining the menu first. A majority of consumers now make decisions about what to eat based on social media, so I suppose Domino’s has to establish more of a social media presence.
5. Pizza chains like Pizza Hut, for example, now have locations in places like Saudi Arabia, China, and Armenia. What do you think it represents to the citizens of those countries when a place like Pizza Hut opens there? Is a Pizza Hut typically a welcome addition to an international city or is it seen as yet another intrusion of U.S. culture on the world?
What’s interesting about the global expansion of Pizza Hut is how Pizza Hut started to change its basic formula for pizza in the US, when they expanded from the Midwest to the Northeast, for example, they altered their crust to suit local tastes. Northeastern consumers then accepted Pizza Hut and it wasn’t surprising that Pizza Huts co-existed comfortably with local pizzerias. When Pizza Hut expanded globally, they adopted this same formula: the franchise team figures out what local tastes are, so they alter some of the pizza toppings and styles and also offer more traditional pizzas. I don’t see the same hostility expressed toward Pizza Hut that is expressed toward McDonald’s, for example, which represents “fast food globalization” and that’s really interesting to me. I think the accommodation of local tastes make Pizza Hut more popular with international populations. What’s interesting also is how internationally, because of Pizza Hut franchises, many people don’t necessarily understand that pizza has Italian origins, it’s seen as something American (from the United States).
6. If you could have a pizza dinner with any 3 people from history, who would you choose to eat with?
My first choice would have to be the famous Italian actress from Naples, Sophia Loren—I would love to talk to her about Italian food and what it was like growing up in southern Italy around the time of fascism and World War II. And, if you read my book, or any other history of pizza, you will read about the supposed naming of the pizza Margherita, I would like to have a pizza (a Margherita of course) with Queen Margherita of Italy, to find out more about the origins of the pizza Margherita and to ask her if it really happened, that pizza-maker Raffaele Esposito really prepared a variety of pizzas for her to sample. Lastly, let’s see, who would feel comfortable eating pizza with Sophia Loren and Queen Margherita? Let’s add Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse fame!) into the mix, I’d like to talk to her about the California-style pizza she invented and know more about what she was thinking when she put some very unusual ingredients on a pizza.