Pizza Walk With Me

Let's get hyped up over some pizza.

PIZZA INTERVIEW: pppizza's Jenn Frank

Dan TallaricoComment

The other day my pizza pal Justin was like “Hey, someone outside of Pittsburgh tweeted about pppizza. You should check it out.” I’m always sniffing out other pizza enthusiasts so I can pick their brain (which is hopefully made of pizza). After pulling back the pizza veil, I was stunned to find out it was none other than Jenn Frank! How incredibly exciting. 

In the following interview we discuss pizza in culture, video games, favorite pizza places, pizza therapy, and the eventual future of pizza. It’s an exciting trip and I hope you enjoy.

PizzaWalkWithMe (PWWM): Pizza! Why do you think pizza has wedged itself directly into the center of American culture?

Jenn: I actually have a very serious answer, and it pertains to this very American thing called “Odyssey Years.” Rather than entirely giving up on “childish things” we are, for the first time ever, permitting ourselves to defend our superficially-puerile loves (like pizza, or maybe other trashy “disposable” things like reality television) with very big, grown-up, and sometimes academically viable reasons. A big part of this is nostalgia: maybe you were really into Ninja Turtles, or maybe your hometown baseball team went out for pizza after games. I’m 30 now, so I remember transitioning from Reagan to Bush, Sr. The first war I remember is the Gulf War. My generation had a childhood colored by unrest, uncertainty, and a resounding, nameless malaise, which is a pretty far cry from the “Me generation” or “Generation X” preceding it. We inherited all these awful things, and we didn’t know how we’d caused them, kind of akin to growing up in a broken home. But then the U.S. enjoyed a boom of economic and technological hope and prosperity, and pizza became this cheap, frivolous, “oh, screw it” thing your family did on movie night. And then the 2000s happened, and all these university-educated people are leaving college for a hopelessly vacuous job market, and suddenly chain pizza becomes this economic “baby, we’re splurging tonight!” thing. And when you’re eating instant ramen every night, and then one night a month you’re ordering a pizza instead, that pizza really comforts you: “Hello, old friend.”

I think our love of pizza also speaks to a broader desire for authenticity and sincerity, and current popular culture is totally bereft of those qualities. Meanwhile, chain pizza places are like, “Guys, we finally figured out how to get a hot dog into your pizza crust,” and there is zero pretense that a pizza can be remotely healthful or beneficial.

It’s very subversive, actually. We grew up during a self-improvement fad, fitness fads, diet fads, all of which are culturally very hostile—it’s amazing that we’ve been able to manufacture and market self-loathing as adroitly as we have. So choosing to eat a pizza is this “oh, screw it” in a different way, too: you’re rejecting other people’s priorities when you order a pizza. It’s a political act, really. So pizza has embedded itself into American culture in all these ways. Its trajectory probably mirrors that of the hamburger’s, actually, except a pizza is meant to be shared, and if you are eating a pizza all by yourself, that’s, like, ultra subversive.

PWWM: What do you think about the regional attachment to pizza? A region’s love of their own pizza almost goes beyond patriotic.

Jenn: I’m going to tell you something pretty sacrilegious now: I am really into hot dogs. For my dollar, Chicago does the hot dog right. I am pretty into Ohio’s “Stadium mustard,” though, and I think New Orleans’ Lucky Dog is the best hot dog you can buy on the street. But I don’t really compare and contrast hot dogs because Chicago already has the best ones, even better than Nathan’s in New York. When you bite into a hot dog, you’re looking for a palpable edamame snap that—I’m sorry, let me regroup. Most of my readers already know I am a proud Chicagoan; as such, I’m always reluctant to admit that Chicago-style pizza is my least favorite of all pizzas. Of course I’m glad that Chicago has its own internationally-recognizable pizza identity. We’ve earned it! I just wish it weren’t a disgusting type of pizza, that’s all. And this basically expresses my attitudes regarding foreign policy: I’m proud of this identity, in a way, I’m just sorry it’s so disgusting. But if anyone were to ever tell me “Chicago’s pizza is disgusting,” I’d probably get really worked up, really angry. That’s the thing: we worked hard to be this gross! Our pizza has a story, a legacy! You have to respect it!

PWWM: What is your go-to pizza place?

Jenn: It varies. In San Francisco I always lazily picked “Extreme Pizza” just because, at the time, their website would take me to an opening flash montage with people snowboarding or skydiving, making the franchise too outrageous to not order from. In Chicago I have a couple favorites. I’m a longtime fan of O-Tomato, which offers really healthy foods and scrupulously ungreasy pizza (their BBQ Chicken pizza uses gouda). A close friend of mine recommended Peaquod’s, but that friend is also dead, so visit at your discretion. I live right by Coalfire and recommend it. One popular new pizza joint is Roots, but it’s too expensive to take a friend there unless you’re paying for her (AKA me). If you’re recording a podcast with friends you go to Piece. Then again, if you’re all the way over in Indiana, you hit up Pizza King, which by the way is where I played my first pinball machine.

PWWM: I agree with your Chicago pizza assessment. For me, it’s too much like eating cake and takes the fun out of ordering a large pie for yourself and impressing your friends by eating the whole thing in just one sitting. The thickness is a bit outlandish, like Chicago was so desperate to get into the pizza game they went the complete opposite route to make a name for themselves.

Jenn: Yeah, exactly. If “audaciousness,” or audacity or whatever, is a quality we seek in food—and I love a great gimmick, okay, so I’m not being ironic, I’m not saying turduckens aren’t splendid—Chicago-style pizza has it in spades. It is, if nothing else, an audacious idea. So I’m torn between being, like, super proud, and being very “who thought this was a good idea?”

PWWM:My brother lives in Chicago and has a habit of forcing me into a variety of pizza places when we visit. I’ve been to Peaquod’s and lived to tell the tale and Piece is one of my favorites.

Jenn: It seems like you’re based on the East Coast (?) so your distaste for Chicago-style pizza is forgiven, but I’m really glad you still have reasons to stop by the Midwest. Which is good because, if you’re a foodie, and particularly a foodie living on shoestrings, yes, we really do have the best food. That is something I’m not apologetic about. I mean, our Thai is only so-so, but listen, we have Ethiopian food. I am really into containing foodstuffs with some type of “bread handle,” say, pita or naan, and Ethiopian food uses this really amazing, porous flatbread I love, called Injera. It is fantastic.

Kirby Pizza

PWWM: One thing you mentioned was your first pinball machine experience was at a pizza place. I remember begging my grandma to take me to Pizza Hut not for the pizza, but because they always had a rotating cast of arcade cabinents. Ninja Turtles and Street Fighter II were staples for some time until the NeoGeo cabinets starting taking over their turf. Who could say no to a machine stuffed with multiple games? A lot of my early pizza memories are closely associated with video games in someway. Why do you think video games and pizza go so well together?

Jenn: This is a pretty interesting aside, yeah. Part of it has to be form and function. Gamers are notoriously into “handhelds,” and pizza and Lean Pockets are just two more types of handhelds, and really just fascinating technologies overall.

PWWM: What is your relationship with pizza and what made you want to start your pizza blog?

Jenn: I eat pizza when I am lazy or depressed—sometimes when I am celebrating something, too, but mostly those other times. I started my pizza blog because I am in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Since I am eating an awful lot of pizza right now, I thought talking endlessly about pizza might be a better use of all my nervous energies. What I’m discovering, though, is that we have something of a “tribe past” with pizza, and if I am really looking to forge a “human connection” with strangers, maybe talking about pizza is better shorthand than talking about our feelings outright.

PWWM: The ubiquity of “pizza parties” really speaks to your “tribe past” theory. Pizza is a common thread throughout get togethers, why do you think pizza cornered the market on that? Why haven’t any other foods come close? I suppose you can argue that the existence of “sliders” is just the burger industry trying to steal ground from pizza, but not very successfully.

Jenn: So, yeah. Pizza is physically a thing a group of people gather around. Like, we gather and literally break bread together.

I think a lot of food, really delicious food, does that for us. On the whole I’d say “family-style” Italian food has that market cornered, but dim sum, tapas, potlucks, and even Ethiopian food, they’re all excuses to take a group of people out and unite over something. And that’s great, when everyone is reaching for things, and arms and limbs are crossing impolitely and it becomes this mess of “oh, pardon me, no, you go first.” Even if it’s a pleasant eating experience, it’s still like a really pleasant shitshow. If I wanted to introduce strangers, I’d have them share food first, talk afterward.
So pizza is a “get-together” food, because you come together in kind of a formal way to eat a pizza, while hamburgers and sandwiches are solo foods. Like, you can offer me a bite of your hamburger, but only if we’re also married. I’m not a germaphobe or anything, but I’m very, “Er, that’s yours, you go ahead and keep that.”
I feel like, before the Internet, playing video games was this very social thing, where our arms “cross” and we’re trying our best to “take turns.” Now we use headsets for multiplayer or whatever, but even though we’re “dining” together, your co-op partner is sitting way over there, eating his own metaphorical hamburger. Does that make sense? It isn’t communal in the same way your best childhood friend’s living room felt communal, where playing Nintendo together had this overarching feeling of Thanksgiving dinner.

PWWM: When will there be a proper pizza video game? If there’s Burger Time, why isn’t there “pizza time”? There was even that pizza delivery game that was a precursor to Crazy Taxi, but no true pizza simulator. Some may argue that “The Noid” was as close as we got, and well, that’s just sad.

Jenn: My friend, there is already a pizza game. It’s called “Pizza Tycoon,” and it spawned two sequels. I’ve written about food-oriented video games before and, no, I don’t understand the industry’s burger fixation at all.

PWWM: When it comes to pizza what do you feel is the most important aspect?

Jenn: That vegetable toppings are not underdone. I don’t mind a burnt crust, or a doughy one, or too much or too little cheese, but I really do not appreciate a raw vegetable on top. If anything, I’d prefer everything limp and wilted. I guess I prefer too little tomato sauce to too much, but that’s one flaw I’m willing to overlook.

PWWM: Do you think the Wii U will use its built in NFC capabilities to maybe pioneer pizza/video game connectivity? I can see Activision bankrolling that.

Jenn: Speaking as a goddamn professional, Dan, we don’t know that much about Near Field Communication right now, and it’s hubris to even speculate. I will say, though, that the gamepad is said to work up to 26 feet from the console—this is a pretty audacious claim, and only time will tell. Still, I never travel farther than 11 feet from my television with a slice of pizza, which is to say, my pizza and video games are already communicating in a “Near Field.”

PWWM: Do you think Sony and Microsoft will include a voucher for a free pizza with their new consoles to help boost sales? Seems like a surefire tactic.

Jenn: Pizza chain tie-ins used to work, just because they were clever and well-made. Yesterday I mentioned those Pizza Hut ‘Land Before Time’ promo toys to my best childhood friend, and she realized she remembered them and freaked out. And she said something like, it isn’t my imagination? I’m not nostalgic for a bygone era? And I reassured her she is not. Like, Pizza Hut really did give you great things in exchange for settling for their pizza.

And here I’m running a major risk for going off on a weird tangent, but “brand loyalty,” the concept of that, has really changed since the '80s and '90s: there’s no social transaction, the consumer isn’t benefiting anymore. It’s become so one-way. And the very concept of the “coupon” is weak! My best childhood friend uses them, to the point of neuroticism, but have you ever cashed in on an IOU like that? I haven’t. But now every company drops a bafflingly worthless coupon right into their packaging. You don’t have to do anything special to *get* something special anymore. It’s all so disposable. What I’m saying is, if a free pizza falls in the Sony forest, would anyone care?

PWWM: Where do you see pizza heading in the future? How will it evolve? Or is this it?

Jenn: Please, please let this be it. We have Pizza Bagels and Triscuit Pizzas, P'Zones and Pizza Cones, none of which improve on the form. But anytime you say, “Well, we’ve finally topped ourselves,” some jerk takes it as his cue to pop in with his cultural contribution, and it’s almost always some great new Suicide Machine. I’m going to tell you right now, Dan, Pizza Hut’s new Overstuffed Pizza is incredibly horf-worthy. Pass.

PWWM: I’m with you, but I think that pizza has to evolve just a tad. A Pikachu can’t stay a Pikachue forever, know what I mean? I think we’ll see a government funded program that bakes important nutrients and chemicals into their pizzas. Like fluoride in water. Same thing. Our taxes will go to make Pizza with our daily dose of calcium, protein, and an experimental government ingredient that makes every other pizza taste disgusting so we’re forced to only eating the public option pizza. Thoughts?

Jenn: Oh, man. Food and litigiousness and policing and all that really irk me. I’m a traditional person generally, but I’m also socially liberal, so yeah, I’m a big believer in letting other people pick what they consume, even if it’s garbage, because I expect to have the same right. Maybe minor things like taking soda machines out of public schools, those seem okay, but I don’t know, man, it’s such a slippery slope.

I’m not okay with dosing tap water with Fluoride, for instance, maybe just because it seems so soylent green to me. I feel like I’m starting to get sort of self-serious with a funny question, but I really demand transparency when it comes to sugars and additives or whatever. I mean, I’ll still eat crap, but I like having the option of making an educated, bad decision.