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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Little Bit of History Repeating: Hawaiian pizza


Only a creature as invasive and unnatural as the human being could have set off the string of events required to invent such a dish.

The pineapple is indigenous to Southern Brazil and Paraguay, but it spread to Central America and the Caribbean, where Christopher Columbus got his hands on one in 1493 and brought it back to Spain. Europeans instantly loved the fruit and subsequently tried and failed to grow them. Only in the late 17th century, when they were able to simulate a tropical environment in English and Dutch hothouses, were they able to produce some. 

In what historians now call the Columbian Exchange, the fast-paced period of contact between Old World and New, the exportation of one pineapple from the hands of colonized or enslaved people, to rich colonists, to even richer aristocrats could cost the equivalent of $8,000 today. By the end of the 18th century, pineapples had become symbols of luxury for their rarity and sweetness. They were just for display — too expensive to eat until they began to rot.

Later in 1900, industrialist James Dole (yes, that Dole) started a pineapple plantation on the island of Lanai in Hawaii. His Hawaiian Pineapple Company, later Dole Food Company, would become the producer of 75% of the world’s pineapples for seven decades, effectively ending pineapples’ already declining opulent status. 

As for tomatoes, Europeans feared those “poison apples” for 200 years (although people already living in what is now Mexico had been eating them for millennia). Unbeknownst to them, the fruit’s acidity was releasing lead from their pewter plates. As a result, pizza is relatively new; the first example of tomato and cheese baked on dough similar to how we know it today arose in 1889 in Naples, Italy, in honor of Italian monarchs King Umberto and Princess Margherita (hence, margherita pizza). The New York Times introduced pizza to readers in 1944.

Now, meet Sam Panopoulos. According to Dan Nosowitz’s article on the origin of Hawaiian pizza, Panopoulos immigrated from Greece to Canada in 1954, and decided to settle in a town called Chatham (near the border with Michigan) and open up a restaurant called the Satellite. On the way, Panopoulos’s boat stopped at Naples, where he tried pizza and thought it pretty tasty. His diner served the average ‘60s fare: pancakes, burgers and so on. But Panopoulos wanted to add more to appeal to customers; at one point he hired an Asian cook to make American Chinese dishes. 

Hawaii only became a state in 1959. Soldiers coming home from World War II romanticized it as an island paradise, and “tiki culture,” replete with fruity cocktails, became popular between the 1940s and 1960s. Canned pineapple became a household staple.

Pizza wasn’t well known in Canada when Panopoulos arrived, so he resolved to add pizza to his menu. One day in 1962, having few ingredients to work with and inspired by thepractice of mixing sweet, sour and savory flavors together in pork dishes, Panopoulos grabbed a can of pineapple, drained it and threw it onto pizza, then added cubes of ham to balance (or perhaps overload) the sweetness with salt. It stuck.

Pineapples have no business growing in Hawaii (or Europe, for that matter), let alone sitting on an Italian dish at the hands of a Greek Canadian restaurant owner inspired by Chinese (American) cuisine. Yet there they are. Take a bow, Anthropocene.