words Sam Jacob
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the pizza giant’s arrival in Britain, we assess the cultural impact of a global food icon and trusty companion.
In my darkest hours, my friends deserted me. Betrayed and abandoned, I was alone. Well, almost alone. There was someone I could call: Ahmed. He took the orders at Domino’s. During my most miserable year, he sent me Pepperoni Passion (large) almost every night. Pepperoni Passion got me through it. It certainly got me fat.
On July 28, it will be 20 years since Domino’s opened its first outlet in the UK. It was first to bring the systemised, franchised, American pizza delivery concept to old-fashioned Britain. It’s a date that marks the beginning of modern Britain. Before that, pizza was an exotic, mysterious thing – glimpsed in ET, it seemed as un-worldly as UFOs and flying bikes. Pizza was something you ate at a pizzeria surrounded by dangling Chianti bottles, waiters with clip-on bow ties who called you Sir and ground gigantic pepper mills. It was foreign food. Eating it out of a cardboard box in front of the TV was, by contrast, liberating.
There are some who claim that only Italian pizza is worth eating. What they don’t realise is that biting into a Domino’s pizza is like sinking your teeth through the history of the whole world. Forget Simon Schama. Get yourself a large Mighty Meaty® instead – it’s 3,000 years of culture topped with ground beef. Like Western architecture, the pizza’s origins are in classical Greece. It came to Italy via the Romans. By the 1600s, Neapolitan peasants were adding New World tomatoes. Italian immigration took pizza to the US. But it was the taste that demobbed GIs had developed during the second world war that took the pizza out of Italian neighbourhoods and on to Main Street. As it did, it became American. It mutated, getting bigger and fatter, and sprouting German sausage, Hawaiian pineapple and ham.
The Americanised pizza was exported worldwide. Toppings began to reflect local culture: Tandoori in the UK, shawarma in the Netherlands, pickled ginger, minced mutton and tofu in India; squid and mayo jaga in Japan; green peas in Brazil; bacon, onion and fresh cream in France; red herring in Russia; coconut in Costa Rica. These endless perversions of the Italian original turned pizza into a pop vernacular snack.
More fundamental alterations to the pizza are plotted in the product development teams of companies like Domino’s. It’s here that they attempt to engineer pizza perfection: editing out the bad bits, amplifying the good. The big problem is the crust – a too-chewy side effect of a baked base. Pizza Hut tries to turn the negative into a positive by stuffing it with a ring of cheese. Dominos have gone one further with “Double Decadence” – edge to edge topping with a double base. The bases – more like wafer discs than bread – make a sandwich out of a garlicky emulsion. When you munch them, the top disc slides over the bottom disc, lubricated by the gunk filling. It’s disconcerting to feel the base moving – unstable, like plate tectonics – and it feels like something mechanical made out of dough.
Suburban living, car culture and technology transformed pizza into fast food. The pizzeria was equally transformed. Logistics, infrastructure and food technology exploded the idea of the restaurant, scattering its programme over the suburbs – the waiter taking your order over the phone and serving you by scooter. The kitchen and dining room joined by miles of tarmac.
For Pizza Porn, you only need sit by your letterbox. You’ll soon be submerged by flyers. They will combine close-up photography of melting cheese with fresh ingredients: plump tomatoes, peppers beaded with sweat anticipating digestion. You’ll see American flags fading like the closing credits. You’ll see Italian flags. You’ll see the Statue of Liberty punching her torch hand through a pizza base. There will be many special offers.
For those who bemoan the fact that pizzas are no longer Italian, they should realise that there is no such thing as Italy anymore. Patriotic nationality is a nostalgic dream. Modern identity is fluid, like ideas and capital. Culture mutates pizza, stretching the vernacular like mozzarella into weird new forms. Pizza tells us more about modern geography than maps.
At the time of my Domino’s dependence, I felt alone. I didn’t imagine that I was part of a huge, lonely global community, phoning our orders and eating our way through acres of pizza. Perhaps, if we had laid down our slices together, we could have formed a gigantic landscape – a Republic of Pizza, safe from harm … a pizza-faced planet spinning in space, with bite shaped shadows around its rim like mini-eclipses.