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America, Pizza Hut, and Me

An Indian-American kid goes in search of herself, and some stuffed-crust

Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants—great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, writer Jaya Saxena discovers you can be anyone you want at Pizza Hut.


A

s a proud New Yorker, I was not supposed to like Pizza Hut's pizza, reconstructed from a third-hand dream about Little Italy. It was pizza distilled and distorted for white middle states, with doughy crusts and sweet sauce and something that just felt off. Liking Pizza Hut was just not what we did.

Except, as a kid, I loved Pizza Hut. As a 9-year-old in 1995, any discomfort I had with the idea of impostor chain pizza was overridden by the promise of that delicious abomination, the stuffed crust.

My Pizza Hut was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and it was so perfectly suburban. It looked like any other Pizza Hut, a low building with that iconic red roof surrounded by a parking lot, and that's part of what intrigued me. When you're in New York, you know you're in New York. In that parking lot, well, this could be anywhere. Any outing was a treat when I was visiting my grandparents across the Hudson, since no matter how much I loved my grandparents, I got antsy. But it was also a treat, because even if it wasn't a New York slice, Pizza Hut for dinner meant I avoided having to reckon with Indian food.

As children go, I was pretty woke. I'm of mixed heritage, so the concept of places and experiences other than my own wasn't hard to grasp. My dad's immigration to America as a child made just as much sense to me as the generations here that stretched back on my mom's side. White people were not centered in my daily life —€” the norm, even in my part of New York's notoriously white Upper East Side, was that everyone was different. My public elementary school had students of all backgrounds, who spoke different languages and practiced different customs, and many whose families were mixed like mine. I was raised to be proud of my heritage —€” and I was!

But I also existed in an America whose air was tainted with racism. No matter how diverse and accepting my family, my friends and my school, I still absorbed media where white people were portrayed as the most beautiful. I read books where white protagonists were normal and anyone else's narrative was tied directly to their non-whiteness. When we played MASH in the courtyard at recess, our potential husbands were always white, and so were the classmates I envied for their beauty and cool. The things I was supposed to want — shiny and soft hair, a house in the suburbs, a chunky sweater I could wear while running down the beach — were presented as white things. And those white kids were always eating pizza. Not the New York City pizza available on any street corner, either. Pizza Hut. And they definitely weren't eating Indian food.

Given the option of samosas or grilled cheese, it seemed there was something wrong with you if you went for the former.

At the time, the non-Indian people in my life didn't eat Indian food. (Well, besides my mom, who married an Indian man.) Yes, my classmates all tried the samosas I brought in for those school potlucks where we'd all dress in saris or kimonos or whatever was culturally appropriate, but the kids who ate anything other than standard American food for everyday lunch were gently ridiculed. I never brought Indian food to lunch, but I saw how it was strange, to the kids without immigrant parents, that they'd bring in food from home at all when the cafeteria served perfectly good peanut butter and jelly. Given the option of samosas or grilled cheese, it seemed there was something wrong with you if you went for the former.

At school, I learned to use Indian-ness to make myself interesting, but to make sure never to lean on it so much that it became a core part of my public identity. Sometimes I would trot out Indian food 101, telling my friends they had to try poori, a puffy fried bread and an easier food for their palates to like, compared to pungent curries. (Poori, incidentally, was the only Indian food I'd eat at the time, for the same reasons.) My Indianness was an accessory I could put on, sometimes literally in the form of bindis and bangles, but more importantly, I could take it off just as easily. When popular American things came up, I was American. Acknowledging my culture could never be as cool as whatever the white people on TV were doing.

No one on TV was eating samosas, that's for sure. But even when they ate pizza, they weren't eating my pizza. They weren't in a New York City pizza parlor painted with tacky murals of Pompeii and serving slices with the crust not too thick and not too thin, the cheese stretching just so. Pizza on TV commercials was thicker, weirder, and gimmicky. Pizza in my real life either came from a folder of menus kept by the phone, or if I was lucky, from a walk of just a few blocks to a cheese-filled utopia I fantasized that my parents must have built specifically for me. At my local pizzeria, grape drink bubbled up in clear cauldrons, men tossed dough to the ceiling and called my dad "buddy," and all the way in the back, a glistening, copper espresso machine vaguely suggested Italy. And sometimes I got free garlic knots! I absorbed that this was New York, and I was a New Yorker, and that meant aligning my values with what New Yorkers appeared to value. New York was for pizzerias. Everywhere else was for places like Pizza Hut.

I was half Indian, half white, and all New Yorker. In simple assimilation calculus, going to Pizza Hut with my Indian grandparents in Fort Lee should have earned me points for eating in real life what the cool kids were eating in commercials. And yet, I was still a New Yorker: My ideal sense of self was white, but worldly, opinionated, and judgmental. I wasn't thinking of it in such socio-political terms as a 9-year-old, of course. My main thoughts were "omg, stuffed crust." But loving Pizza Hut was the most assimilated thing I could do, and yet it also became my secret suburban shame.


P

izza wasn't always white. For decades after the Italian immigration boom of the 1870s, Italians were considered by most of the white population "other" —€” not black, not white. When It's A Wonderful Life was released in 1946, Mr. Potter could insult George by calling him a "nursemaid to a bunch of garlic-eaters," and audiences would understand exactly what he meant. The Italian pantry of garlic, tomatoes, and pasta were not American, and thus not white. That began to change post-WWII, when American GIs returning from war brought back a taste for the food they had in Italy. But it wasn't really until the 1970s, when Julia Child and James Beard presented garlic as an essential ingredient to refined French cooking, that most white Americans embraced that flavor. After that, garlic-heavy Italian-American cuisine had a chance to thrive.

Once dimly foreign, pizza had succeeded in convincing people it could be white. It was aspirational that way.

By the time I came of age as a pizza-eater, there was no question pizza was an American food, which meant a white food, and it had evolved to appeal to whiter, blander tastes. Pizza Hut had been the leader of the pack in terms of re-defining pizza for white, middle America. Founded in 1958 by brothers Dan and Frank Carney in Wichita, Kansas, the restaurant was explicitly designed to appeal to Midwestern college students, not Italian-Americans and authenticity-seekers in major cities. The brothers sold the chain to PepsiCo in 1977, and by 1986 there were five thousand franchises and the now-ubiquitous home delivery. Once dimly foreign, pizza had succeeded in convincing people it could be white. It was aspirational that way. I wanted to do the same thing.

As a kid, that project of assimilation centered on what I ate. I begged my Indian grandparents for white food, telling them it was what I liked best, but also knowing it was because I didn't want to be caught enjoying Indian food. Looking back, I realize they must have picked up on my panic, and they were blessedly accommodating. While everyone else at the table ate soupy dal, and potatoes colored with turmeric and cumin, my dinner would be a plate of spaghetti and ketchup with a side of American cheese, still in the plastic so I could unwrap it myself. No one ever said anything.

Our occasional visits to Pizza Hut felt like a real occasion. The restaurant was nice enough for a sit-down dinner, even though we sat next to the take-out window and some arcade games, and it was dark in a way that felt fancy, like I was eating in a theater. I'd kill time waiting for my stuffed crust pizza (or occasionally a personal pan) by raiding the salad bar to build a tower of breadsticks and cheddar cheese, all topped with ranch dressing, perhaps the greatest monument to American food ever.

My family enjoyed these meals, especially my dad, who had developed an appreciation for pizza growing up in New Jersey. My grandfather would clap his hands and exclaim "shabash!" —€” the Hindi take on "bravo" —€” as the waiter set down our pies, and would inevitably remark on the technical expertise needed to stuff a crust. But it never dawned on me, until years later, that the reason we were there was me. That on any other night, my grandparents would be at home, eating potatoes and dal, not giving one thought to Pizza Hut. That maybe their excitement was a little forced, a little for my benefit. My grandparents took me to Pizza Hut because they wanted to please and relate to their picky granddaughter in, perhaps, the only way they knew how.


C

oming to appreciate my whole identity wasn't as easy as just learning to appreciate Indian food.  I think a lot about something the psychologist Sarah Gaither has said about multiracial identity, that the feeling that we need to "choose" between our various heritages can be a source of extraordinary internal conflict. To everyone, identities are presented to us as fixed, complete things. You are white or not. You are from here or from there. You are us or them. And each of these identities comes with a set of traits. But none of mine added up. As a New Yorker, I was supposed to love "good" pizza and hate Pizza Hut. As an American, I was supposed to want whiteness, the most middle-American version of everything, a good ol' Kansas college campus pie. And as Indian, I was supposed to be proud of my heritage and enjoy our food.

I was convinced all these identities could never exist at the same time. I couldn't be a New Yorker and Indian and American and white all at once. Loving Pizza Hut made me whiter, but less of a New Yorker. Loving pizza at all took me away from being Indian, something I knew I should embrace, but that enthusiasm for cheese and tomato sauce and even stuffed crust made me an American. I felt like I had to choose one. But none of them overlapped, so the moment I did, I betrayed all the others.

The existence of Pizza Hut does not negate the existence of a New York slice. Neither is incompatible with potatoes and dal.

There wasn't one specific moment when it dawned on me that I could be all of them at once, though it's the obvious conclusion, and it's a place where I'm finally comfortable —€” at least, most of the time. Some days I still don't know if I can be everything I think I ought to be, and often I just don't want to deal with identity at all. But the existence of Pizza Hut does not negate the existence of a New York slice. Neither is incompatible with potatoes and dal. Enjoying a cheese-stuffed crust didn't make me less of a New Yorker, and neither did it make me white. I can be Indian and like American food, I can be American and embrace my Indian roots.

Indian food and New York slices are regular parts of my diet now, but I can't remember the last time I had Pizza Hut. Living in New York still, and not going to New Jersey that often anymore, I can't even remember the last time I saw one. I do know that Pizza Hut offers garlic knot stuffed crusts now, and a pie called "Cock-a-Doodle Bacon." It's even farther from its own Italian heritage, and I'm not entirely sure what version of America it represents.

It's its own thing now, or maybe it's a lot of things. Maybe that lack of a clear identity is what drew me to Pizza Hut in the first place —€” that the chain took these fixed ideas of what pizza had to be, where it comes from, who it spoke to, and shattered them. Pizza Hut made pizza personal. It stuffed a crust. It didn't care what you thought it was, because it was only and ever itself, and that was all it needed to be.

Jaya Saxena is a freelance writer living in Queens. She is the author of The Book of Lost Recipes, out June 2016.
Editor: Meghan McCarron
Photo-illustration: Mark Hillary / Flickr / Meghan McCarron

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