The Pizza Effect

Yes, it’s me, your favorite professor, here to get you back on the straight and narrow. Today I’m going to talk about something called “the pizza effect,” but it’s not the effect that pizza has on our collective waistlines. The pizza effect is something that affects our thinking about the history and origins of foods, traditions, and practices of different cultures. It’s about what qualifies as culturally “authentic” in a culture, and how some of the history of different cultures has affected our perceptions of cultural attributes.

Ask anybody where pizza was invented, and they will almost invariably reply “Italy.” And most people will probably tell you, if pressed, that it’s a traditional Italian dish from centuries ago. Ask anybody where yoga comes from, and the will reply, with certainty, “India.” And most will probably tell you, if they know a little bit about yoga, that it is an ancient practice developed over centuries by Indian mystics. Those who have been told a little bit about Indian mysticism (or who may have practised it somewhat themselves) will further tell you that it is based on the Bhagavad Gita, the most revered text in Hindu culture. It’s their “bible.”

But ask any good Buzzkiller about these things, and they’ll tell you about the complications in the histories of pizza and yoga. They’ll tell you about cultural assumptions about “ancient” cultural practices, about myths of unchanging development, and about cultural appropriation. They may even drop in academic terms such as “hermeneutical feedback loop” and “re-enculturation.”
If they’re feeling hip and with-it, and after you you give them your baffled and exhausted look, they’ll tell it’s all part of the “pizza effect.”

And that’s what today’s episode is all about. The “pizza effect” helps explain why assumptions about the history and development of certain cultural practices and traditions are among the strongest historical myths out there, how they are self-reinforcing, and how they can build up mistaken images and misunderstandings about cultural identity.

Why are we talking about the pizza effect on Professor Buzzkill?

Because so many of the historical myths and misconceptions we address here at the Buzzkill Institute have come from the belief that ideas and practices have one historic cultural origin. And when we encounter something in our own countries as “Indian” or “Italian,” for instance, then we too often assume that it has existed in India or Italy in that form for centuries and that it is still popular there today. And since we seem to want to base so much of history on national identity (in fact, most historians refer to themselves as experts in a national history — American history, Canadian history, Mexican history), many of us just assume that geography and national identity are the bases for other themes and approaches to history.

The “pizza effect” was coined by anthropology professor Agehananda Bharati at Syracuse University in 1970. He used the term to explain why some aspects of Indian culture and philosophy enjoyed a mid-20th century renaissance in India after having become popular in the west, particularly in Britain and North America. Essentially what happened was that certain aspects of Indian culture and religion were studied heavily by European elites during the British Empire’s control of South Asia in the 19th century. Some of these things were brought back to Britain and took root there as early as the 1820s.

As the 19th progressed, British palates (especially London palates) were continually treated to regional South Asian cuisine. Yoga (as a spiritual as well as physical practice) came to Europe and North America in a similar way. Indian mystics and philosophers who toured Europe and North America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially Swami Vivekananda, had a major influence on new European spiritual movements and thinkers in the west. Much of yogic thought and practice was brought into these philosophies and religions around the world because of this work.

The second thing that has happened is that, over the decades, these various things (yoga, philosophy, food) have changed, both in South Asia and in the west. They have been influenced by different styles and ways of thinking. But, somewhat surprisingly, without a great deal of further cross-cultural influence.

And so when they crossed over again in the globe-trotting late 20th and early 21st centuries, examples of yoga practice, Indian philosophy, and Indian cuisine were often quite different. In fact, many popular “Indian” dishes were invented in England and are unknown in South Asia, at least until recently. In fact, it’s the introduction of the western emphasis on certain Hindu texts back to South Asia that led to the “Hindu Renaissance” in India that Professor Bharati discussed. That Hindu Renaissance was brought about, he said, by something he called “the pizza effect.”

When he coined the phrase “the pizza effect,” Professor Bharati was referring to the idea, common in academic sociology and anthropology in the 60s and 70s, that pizza (as we have known and loved it) was kind of invented by Italian-Americans and was exported “back” to Italy after World War II. Although there’s something to the idea of pizza being an Italian-American (rather than an Italian) invention, it’s not quite correct, historically speaking. It’s more accurate to say that pizza is a Neapolitan invention, which was further developed and stylized by Neapolitan immigrants to the United States, and then became Italian (that is, introduced to the rest of Italy) in the immediate decades after World War II. That why “the pizza effect” is sometimes referred to as the working of a “cultural feedback loop.”

The origins of pizza as a cuisine are relatively straight-forward. It’s not that difficult to imagine that, for centuries, people have wanted to liven up bread (and flatbreads) with seasonings and sauces that would make it more interesting, yet still manageable enough to eat by hand.

In late 18th century Naples, bakeries and cafes started to experiment with different ways to make their flatbreads more appetizing. It’s not certain when tomatoes and tomato sauce were added to flatbreads, but it’s very clear that open air pizza cafes and pizza stand were operating in the early 1800s and throughout the 19th century. But there is absolutely no evidence that it was all the rage. In fact, the story that you’ll often hear, that the most popular type of pizza, was named after Queen Margherita because she liked that it contained the three traditional colors used in Italian national flags — red (tomato sauce), white (cheese), and green (basil) is highly doubtful. The “evidence” for this culinary legend has shown to be scanty and untrustworthy.

Italian immigrants brought pizza and similar dishes to the United States starting in the late 19th century, and it became a big hit in eastern cities. The first dedicated pizzeria in the U.S., Lombardi’s, was opened in 1905 in lower Manhattan, just north of what is now Little Italy, and in the chic and trendy NoLita neighborhood.

American GIs sent to Italy during World War II took part, unknowingly, in the first stage of the “pizza effect” in Italy. Many of thes soldiers from the eastern part of the US knew about pizza, had grown up with it, and thought of it as a very popular “Italian” dish. They had also grown up with the fact that American pizzerias had modified the dish to include many different meat and vegetable toppings. When they arrived in Italy, they were surprised to discover that pizza has not strayed very far from its regional origins in the Italian south, and that it had remained a very simple dish without those flagrant American topping innovations. This is the first part of the “pizza effect,” breaking down the assumptions of what was “Italian” to these American GIs. Pizza was different in Italy, and wasn’t, in fact, the staple and popular food that it had come in the United States, especially in Italian American communities.

After World War II, and with the increasing ease of international tourism, many Americans visited Italy, and many Italians visited the United States. Pizza was recognized as the uber popular dish it was in America, and Italians coming back home with this knowledge helped spur a “pizza revival” in the old country, which has not only lasted till this day, but has spread across Europe. Witness the highly popular Pizza Express restaurants, founded in London in 1965, but now found widely in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

The very brief history of pizza I just gave you (which was poached shamelessly from Professor Carol Helstosky’s excellent, Pizza: a Global History, 2008, and which is on the Buzzkill Bookshelf), is loaded with historical “well…s,” and “but…s,” and plenty of complications. That’s because the history of Italy (like the history of India) even in the modern period is highly complex, and the ways in which the pizza effect works is highly nuanced.
In the first place, it’s only relatively recently that we’ve come to think of “Italy” and “India” as unitary countries. The Italian peninsula was unified under the Roman Empire in ancient times, but during the Middle Ages it broke apart, with different regions coming under control of increasingly power city-states (such as Rome and the Papal States, Milan, Naples, and others) or were conquered by foreign monarchs.
This lasted for centuries, and there were lots of wars over control of certain regions and cities (especially the ports). One of the effects of this was that regional and civic pride in those city states grew very strong. People thought of themselves as “Roman” or “Neapolitan” or “Florentine,” rather than “Italian,” even though most of them spoke dialects of the same root language — Italian.
“India” developed the same way, except that the differences between the regions were more pronounced and included different religions and languages. Different foreign invaders conquered large geographic regions of South Asia, but the differences between the regions were stark enough that they often had to rely on local rulers to control the sub-regions. This was especially the case under the Mughal Empire (16th-19th centuries) and the creeping control of the British from the 18th century until 1947. Even then (that is, Indian independence in 1947), creating one country was so difficult that it was partitioned into India and Pakistan at that time.
Is it any wonder that philosophies and spiritual practices developed in the state of Bengal in the far east of the Indian subcontinent might not have taken over all of South Asia? And is it any wonder that a certain regional dish, like pizza, might _not_ have captured the culinary imaginations of whole of the Italian peninsula? Look at a map. We’re talking about huge areas.
But, for the most part, the terms “Italian” and “Indian” have captured the understanding of people in the west who may not have had the patience to learn the subtleties of South Asia and European geography and history.

Still, by the 1960s we started to see a “pizza renaissance” in Italy, a “yoga renaissance” across India, a “Cornish pasty renaissance” in south-west England, a “Clancy Brothers” or “traditional music renaissance” in Ireland, and on and on. Some of these specific cultural elements had been re-invented or revived in far off places, and then brought back “home.” That’s the pizza effect.
Right now, however, we need to take a break for Station Identification for the Buzzkill Nation. I’ll be right back to pontificate more broadly about “cultural feedback and authenticity.”

This talk of “cultural feedback and authenticity” brings me to perhaps the ultimate in buzzkilling — dealing with the belief in, or over-use of, the concepts of “authentic,” “traditional,” and “pure” as they relate to national identities or ethnic cultures and modern national histories. As we’ve said many times on this show, and as the anguished cries of frustration from Buzzkill Institute researchers reminds me almost every day, all these cultural concepts are very flexible and usually not very long standing.

If there’s any truth to the phrase “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing,” it was the tendency, particularly strong in the 20th century (in my opinion) to apply degrees of purity to cultural things, and to use that as a status marker. “That isn’t genuine Irish music,” I often used to hear. I’d chuckle at this (because that’s the way I am) but I rarely lowered the boom and asked the person saying it what constituted “real” Irish music. Did U2 count? What about the Dave Glover Showband? Or was rock music or swing music being produced by Irish musicians not as culturally pure, not as “Irish” as when they were playing a bodhrán?

Obviously, there are cultural and regional origins of many things, but precious few of them remain hermetically sealed, protected from the march of time and influences from the outside.
What’s often so surprising to people is that there was lots of sharing back and forth between cultures, from at least the mid-19th century onwards, especially when trans-oceanic travel became more affordable in the age of massive steam ships. In fact, it was sometimes easier to travel from Calcutta to London (nearly 5,000 miles by ocean) than to travel from Calcutta to Delhi (1,300 miles over land). So you were often more likely to find Bengali cuisine (or derivations of Bengali cuisine) in London than you were to find it in Delhi. And Bengali strains or interpretations of Hinduism and Hindu practice might more likely be found in London or Chicago in 1900 than in Mumbai in India.

And the pizza effect of all of this is that certain elements in a culture (especially cuisine and artistic things) became popular in their own area first, travel (often across the seas), become popular in other regions, all the while they’ve been kind of forgotten or develop in different ways in their home countries, and then reintroduced there decades later. And, in the hearts, minds, and palates of the Buzzkill Institute, the variations are all legitimate and worthy.

We should think twice before judging whether specific cultural things are historically authentic or traditional. They may have originated closer to home than you think. When you’re thinking about whether something is “authentic” enough for your palate, or your ears, or your spiritual sensibilities, remember what St. Stephen of Stills (our patron saint) taught us, “love the one you’re with.”

Buzzkill Bookshelf
Carol Helstosky, Pizza: A Global History (2008).
There are countless ways to create the dish called pizza, as well as a never-ending debate on the best way of cooking it. Now Carol Helstosky documents the fascinating history and cultural life of this chameleon-like food in Pizza: a Global History.

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