Could we take just a second to talk about Pizza Hut's new pizza? Which fits, in form, the basic definition of a “pizza”—a flat, circular disc of leavened dough, topped with sauce and cheese, baked to bubbling gooeyness—but which is, in practice, so much more? (And possibly so much less?) The pizza (or, possibly, “pizza”) whose crust is crowned with 28 cocktail wieners that radiate out from a molten center like the rays of a dairy-cored sun? The pizza (“pizza”?) that comes, in the continental style, au jus, the jus in this case being a hefty squirt of French's mustard?
This week, Pizza Hut announced that this particular food product, a version of which has long existed in Asian markets, will soon become available in the U.S. And reactions to the chain’s latest publicity-stunt-in-the-guise-of-a-foodstuff were, predictably, as diverse and dramatic as the foodstuff itself. Is the thing that has been dubbed, uncreatively, the “Hot Dog Bites Pizza” a “monstrosity that signals the downfall of Western civilization”? Will it “help put you in an early grave”? Or is it simply “a good way to avoid that all-too-common dilemma: pizza or hot dogs”?
Such wonderings, however, elide the bigger, deeper question that lurks among the nuggeted pork products in the “hot dog bites” crust: Is this marvel of modern food-engineering, ultimately, even a pizza? Can this latest brainchild of the international conglomerate that is Yum! Foods—an Italian-German fusion dish that puts the “frank” in “Frankenstein's monster”—really count as A Pizza at all? At what point does a particular food product veer so dramatically from its historic origins and its Platonic form that it requires a new category altogether?
What does it mean, ultimately, to be a type of food?
I have no idea! I just really like pizza. So I consulted some experts.
Scott Wiener—a pizza historian who runs pizza tours of New York, writes a column for Pizza Today magazine, and boasts the world's biggest collection of pizza boxes—notes that he has “a pretty broad personal definition for what constitutes ‘pizza.’” He points out that the atomic unit of the pizza is the dough—leavened, stretched, crunchy and chewy at the same time—and therefore that it makes a crucial difference, to-pizza-or-not-to-pizza-wise, how the hot dogs are are incorporated in the “Hot Dog Bites Pizza”: Are they wrapped in the pizza dough itself, or are they essentially pigs in blankets that are fused to the pizza's interior?
Upon first glance though, Wiener concludes that “this pizza probably signals just a side step but not an actual change.” This “pizza” is, indeed, pizza in the Platonic way of pizzahood.
Mark Bello, who runs the Pizza a Casa Pizza School, concurs. “Is it pizza? Sort of. I mean, sure,” he told me of the Pizza Hut offering. Bello agrees with Wiener that the true pizza-ness of a pizza product comes down to the carbs (“if the crust sucks, it's not pizza”); he also points out that the classes he teaches may start with basic forms—your margheritas, your biancas—but also encourage experimentation (breakfast pizzas, pizzas with crazy toppings, etc.). Bello even, recently, made his own form of a hot dog pizza—one that used high-quality franks and sauerkraut, and that, while it did purposely fuse Italian and German and American food traditions, definitely did not include a side dish of French’s mustard.
And that’s the point. A pizza, basically, is a food product that is also a state of mind. One of the beauties of pizza as a form, Wiener points out, is that it is so flexible and permissive—a genre, really, rather than a strict category. That lets pizza-makers, whether they’re working at home or in restaurants or in the labs of Yum! Brands, exercise ingenuity. And if that ingenuity includes a crown of reconstituted pork products … hey, still pizza. “The crust,” Bello says, “is a canvas for creativity.”