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People and the pizza pie

Whether it’s the battle over what makes an authentic pizza margarita or defending the merits of barbequed chicken as a topping, DU associate history professor Carol Helstosky knows people take their pizza seriously. And with more than a billion tons of pizza consumed a year in the U.S., not to mention the seven million pounds of it eaten in Italy every day, she has found it’s also serious business.

Helstosky is writing a history of pizza to be included in Reaktion Books’ “Edible” series, which also will cover the histories of foods like cake and pancakes.

When approaching the project, Helstosky’s first challenge was finding something new to research. Because as many as 20 histories of pizza have already been written in English alone, Helstosky says she realized pizza’s biography had been told. Instead, she set out to write about what pizza has meant to people, and in turn the different things people have done to it.

Pizza dates back to 18th century Naples, where it was fast food for the poor — flatbread topped with oil or lard, herbs, salt and onions and purchased from a street vendor, she explains.

Until World War II, it was considered a regional food of southern Italy, she says. During the war, American and British soldiers stationed in Italy helped popularize the dish throughout the country. Then as southern Italians migrated north in the 1950s and 60s, they brought pizza with them.

Pizza increasingly became a topic of national pride, so that by 1997 clear definitions of what constitutes Pizza Napoletana were granted government protection.

Helstosky explains that in Italy, pizza “has constituted the diet of the Neapolitan poor, it has been a source of opportunity for Italian entrepreneurs, and it has contributed to national and regional pride and identity.”

Just as soldiers popularized pizza in Italy, they also brought it home with them. And Americans quickly adapted it according to taste and geographical region.

“Once it leaves Naples and goes elsewhere, people almost immediately begin experimenting with it,” Helstosky says.

She explains that pizza first came to the U.S. with Italian immigrants in the late 19th century — the first pizzeria being Lombardi’s in New York, which opened in 1905. Pizza didn’t move west, however, until the post-war period.

In the 1960s, national pizza franchises got their start in the Midwest. Helstosky explains that Pizza Hut and Domino’s standardized pizza, taking over Kansas and Michigan, respectively, and then the world. With more than 10,000 restaurants worldwide, she says, “In a period of 50 years, Pizza Hut has emerged as the world’s biggest pizza enterprise.”

For Helstosky, looking at the background of food is a hook that allows people to connect to history in new and unexpected ways. “One of the interesting things about the history of food is that it takes what is very obvious and makes it much more complicated,” she says.

On a personal level, though, pizza remains simple. “Pizza is the quick meal on Friday evenings that kids like,” she says.

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