The Very Canadian Origin of “Hawaiian” Pizza
On June 8, 2017, Greek-born, Canadian-bred pizza maker Sam Panopoulos died. His career slinging pies was rather unremarkable save for one notable thing – he was the inventor of the popular, yet infamous pineapple-topped “Hawaiian Pizza,” named as such because of the brand of canned fruit he used. Loved by some and hated by others, the sweet and salty pizza is so controversial that it once triggered an argument between friendly nations. While such arguments rage on both sides of it being a delicacy or an abomination, the fact is that the Hawaiian pizza is actually not Hawaiian- it’s Canadian. Here now is the story of pizza and the man who decided to add pineapples to it.
Sam Panopoulos left his Greek home with his two brothers in 1956 at the age of 20, bound for a new life in North America. However, on the boat ride over, they made a pitstop – one that forever changed Panopoulos’ life and pizza history. Getting off the boat in Naples, Italy, Panopoulos was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of a city known for its food. But that wasn’t the case with its pizza. According to the Washington Post, Panopoulos’ first ever bite of pizza was something of a spaghetti-like concoction that left him disappointed in the food item.
Truth be told, pizza at this point had never really been considered a delicacy in the Naples’ food scene. It is often claimed to have been invented in the 18th century, though this is a matter of debate as it all depends on your definition of what pizza is. If you choose to loosely define pizza as flat bread with toppings strewn on it, there is evidence that the Persian army around the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. used their shields to cook flat bread in this way out in the field. The soldiers would then cover the bread with things like cheese and dates for a quick meal. Further, it is very likely that people have been putting various toppings like cheese on bread as long as there has been cheese and bread (which is a really long time, see: The History of Cheese and The History of Toast). However, many argue that these many references to ancient forms of “pizza” aren’t truly pizza as we think of it.
Fast-forwarding a little, Mount Vesuvius leveled Pompeii on August 24, 79 A.D. Why is this important when talking about the history of pizza? Archeologists excavating the site have uncovered flat cakes made of flour that were a popular staple of the diet of the inhabitants in Pompeii and nearby Neopolis, a Greek settlement that later became Naples. Shops were also found in Pompeii that contained equipment and tools that would be consistent with those used in pizzerias.
As to specific early pizza recipes around this time, we are lucky enough to have a cookbook of Marcus Gavius Apicius. It contains several recipes that instruct the cook to put various ingredients on a flat bread base. One recipe specifically calls for chicken, garlic, cheese, pepper and oil placed on flat bread, which is about as close as you can get to a modern pizza without the now traditional tomato sauce. (Tomatoes at this point in history were only found in the Americas.)
By the early 1500s, tomatoes had made their way over from the New World to Europe. The tomato did not receive a warm welcome in its new home; rather, it was greeted with disdain and outright fear – rumors even circulated that tomatoes were poisonous. (A similar thing happened with potatoes, with this tuber not becoming widely popular until some clever tricks and antics used by Frenchman Antoine-Augustine Parmentier in which he managed to convince the masses that potatoes were just fine to eat- see: The History of French Fries.)
This all brings us back to Naples. Not long after the tomato was introduced to Europe, the poor folk of Naples added the demonized tomatoes (often in overripe form) to their pizza-like food item and gave the world the first basic tomato sauce pizza, considered by many to be the birth of the “modern” pizza, known as a “Napoletana” pizza- defined as flat bread topped by tomato sauce and cheese.
Often bought from street vendors, professor of history at the University of Denver, Dr. Carol Helstosky, in her book Pizza: A Global History, notes, pizza at this time was considered a “weekday food” because it was cheap and helped people save money for their Sunday macaroni. To quote, “It was a cuisine of scarcity: Whatever you had, you tossed it on — garlic, anchovies, other little fish bits.”
In the 1830s, American Samuel Morse, of Morse-Code fame, visited Naples and looked upon the pizza being sold on the streets with disgust. “A species of most nauseating cake…. like a piece of bread that had been taken reeking of the sewer.”
This sentiment about pizza seemed to be the norm for quite some time among the affluent.
As to how it spread to be a popular dish among those who weren’t poor, a very popular myth (of which there are a few variations) is that, in 1889, King Umberto and his cousin Margherita (and, also, his Queen) were traveling the country in hopes of calming the advancing tide of revolution in newly reunited Italy. They arrived in Naples after many long nights on the road eating the same fancy food (much of it French-inspired). Tired of overly rich dinners, the Queen demanded something simpler- a commoner meal. So, she was delivered three pizzas by then famed pizza maker Raffaele Esposito, one of which was a supposedly new concoction of mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil pizza. The Queen loved it so much that she popularized it among the elite, with the chef himself naming that particular pizza after her- hence, Pizza Margherita and Esposito often being dubbed the “father of modern pizza”… Or so the story goes.
The truth is that pizza made in that exact way was already present going back almost a century before this supposed event. On top of that, in 1849 such a dish is noted by Emanuele Rocco with it stated that the mozzarella should be arrayed out in a flower-shape over the sauce, which gives an alternate potential origin to the name of this particular pizza, with “Margherita” meaning “daisy”.
That said, it is always possible the Queen really did order such a dish from Esposito. As evidence to support this event having actually occurred, a thank you letter from the Queen herself with the official royal seal is still on display to this day at Pizzeria Brandi, once owned by the descendants of Esposito. Esposito is also known to have received permission to display the royal seal in his shop…
Unfortunately upon closer scrutiny, Raffaele Esposito received the aforementioned permission in 1871 for a shop that sold wine, rather than a pizzeria. Then there’s the problems with the letter he supposedly received from the Queen in 1889.
Beyond no record of such a letter being sent in the palace archives (which do still have records for many other mundane correspondence that occurred that day, including even noting the paying of washerwomen on the day in question), the royal seal on the letter is only similar to the real deal and very clearly was stamped on, not printed as was the case for actual royal correspondents of the time.
Further, rather than official stationary normally used by the Queen, this letter had handwritten “House of Her Royal Majesty” on the top. Comparisons between actual letters from the Queen and this one also show a difference in handwriting, general format, and signature.
The smoking gun, however, is the fact that the person who wrote the letter started it off by writing, “Dear Mr Raffaele Esposito Brandi…” Raffaele Esposito never went by his wife’s maiden name. Who did was Esposito’s brother-in-law’s sons who took over Esposito’s restaurant in 1932 and renamed it from “Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy” (the name Esposito gave it over a decade before the supposed Queen event) to Pizzeria Brandi. After they took over the establishment, according to historian Dr. Antonio Mattozzi, they attempted in a variety of ways to connect the restaurant’s history with “eminent guests”. Had they gone with Esposito’s actual name, the connection between themselves, their restaurant, and their famed pizza making uncle wouldn’t have been clear to patrons.
In truth, it would seem the popularity of various pizzas simply slowly spread from a dish of the poor to something most enjoy, all without any royal approval. Pertinent to the story at hand, pizza made its way to North America around the dawn of the 20th century, though only in a limited fashion.
It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that pizza would start to become widely noticed outside of the Italian-American community, thanks in part to certain Italian-American celebrities publicly enjoying the dish, and very notably Harry Warren and Jack Brooks’ 1952 song, sung by Dean Martin on the soundtrack for the 1953 film, The Caddy, “That’s Amore,” which contained the famous line: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s amore.”
This all brings us back to Panopoulos. With his brothers, he arrived in the Ontario town of Chatham (about an hour’s drive from the US and Michigan border) in 1956 where they opened a diner together. They called it the Satellite. (It’s still there, but under different management.) What they served there was… well, rather eclectic.
In an effort to distinguish their restaurant from others, Panopoulos and co. began offering Chinese food (also, relatively foreign to North American palates at the time) along with things like burgers; Spanish rice with fried eggs; traditional Greek delicacies with bacon strips; and then came pizza.
As we just alluded to and the man himself explained in an interview with Atlas Obscura in 2015, pizza was a relatively unknown food in much of North America at the time, and particularly Canada. According to Panopoulos, the only places nearby people could get pizza was in Windsor or Detroit, both about 50 miles away from his restaurant. Panopoulos goes on, “The pizza in Canada in those days was primitive, you know… Dough, sauce, cheese, and mushroom, bacon, or pepperoni. That was it. You had no choices; you could get one of the three [toppings] or more of them together.”
Again attempting to distinguish his fare from his competitors, he served customers pizza with things like Vienna sausage, rice, olives and anchovies (just like in Naples). But it wouldn’t be until 1962 when he first put pineapple and ham on a pizza and called it “Hawaiian,” with Panopoulos claiming he named it after the brand of canned pineapple he had taken off the shelf.
As to his inspiration here, Panopoulos noted “those days nobody was mixing sweets and sours and all that… the only sweet and sour thing you would get is Chinese pork, you know, with the sweet and sour sauce. Otherwise there was no mix.”
As they already were serving such Chinese food with good results, he thought they should attempt to find other sweet and sour mixes. With regards to such an experiment with pizza, he stated, “We just put it on, just for the fun of it, see how it was going to taste. We were young in the business and we were doing a lot of experiments.”
It also helped, and perhaps partially inspired him, that it was in the 1950s and 1960s when not only pizza was beginning to come into its own in North America, but a very Americanized version of “Tiki” culture was also sweeping through the region. It popularly started with millions of young men returning home from the Pacific Theater after experiencing South Pacific culture for the first time. Soon barrels of rum, girls in hula skirts, and tiki torches were a popular entertaining form of escapism and relaxation. Of course, the North American version of tiki culture then and now bears little resemblance to the real thing, and the actual origins are very religious in nature. This has led some who feel the whole thing is more than a little culturally offensive to compare it to, say, having fruity alcoholic beverages complete with umbrellas and cross straws, all served in drinking glasses made in the shape of Jesus’ and Muhammad’s heads, perhaps throwing in some Buddha statues and calling the whole thing “Jewish Culture”, just to make it more analogous to the mishmash that is tiki bars.
Regardless of anyone’s feelings on that can of worms, important to the story at hand is that the 1950s particularly saw things like pineapples becoming very popular in North American homes. Stores began advertising pineapples as a way to add a tropical dash to everyday life. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Panopoulos’ “Hawaiian” Pizza debuting at this time saw his customers quite literally eat it up, though Panopoulos noted “nobody liked it at first. But after that, they went crazy about it.”
Panopoulos would ultimately sell his restaurant in 1972, and in interviews shortly before his death lamented he hadn’t attempted to patent Hawaiian Pizza. (And, yes, in certain circumstances a food item can be patented.) As to why he didn’t try, he stated, “Those days, when I first came up with it, there was nothing to it. You know what I mean? It was just another piece of bread cooking in the oven.” At the time, Panopoulos had no way of knowing his little experiment would become an oft’ lamented pizzeria staple the world over.
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- It is claimed by some that famed German TV chef Clemens Wilmenrod is actually the inventor of the Hawaiian pizza as he introduced Toast Hawaii to the world on his show in 1955. However, this seems a bit of a stretch. Beyond the fact that it is unequivocally Panopoulos’ Hawaiian Pizza that popularized the dish, Toast Hawaii is considered more of an open sandwich, comprising of a piece of toast topped with ham, cheese, pineapple, and a maraschino cherry on top, all grilled until the cheese melts.
- “Let’s Talk Tiki Bars: Harmless Fun Or Exploitation” – NPR
- “The Man Who Invented Hawaiian Pizza Has Died” – Time Magazine
- “Sam Panopoulos, whose Hawaiian pizza became a Canadian treasure, dies at 83” – Washington Post
- “Meet the 81-Year-Old Greek-Canadian Inventor of the Hawaiian Pizza” – Atlas Obscura
- “PMQ Goes To Australia’ – Pizza Magazine
- “He was a visionary’: Mourners remember Sam Panopoulos the man who put pineapple on your pizza” – CBC News
- “Canadian inventor of Hawaiian pizza defends pineapple after Iceland’s president disses fruit topping” – CBC Radio
- “A Slice of History: Pizza Through the Ages” – History.com
- “Who Delivered the First Pizza?” – Food & Wine
- Pizza: A Global History by Carol Helstosky
- “The Bizarre Rise and Fall of the Tiki Bar” – Wired
- Hawaiian Pizza
- Toast Hawaii
- Clemens Wilmenrod
- Raffaele Esposito
- Pizza Margherita
- Was Margherita Pizza Really Named After Italy’s Queen?
- The Origin of Pizza
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