At some point in the never-ending debate over whether pineapple belongs on pizza, the haters, maybe with tongues pressed against cheek, invoked Godwin’s Law. Yep, they compared those who like the tropical fruit on pies to Hitler. One said they were worse than Hitler. The comparison would become a common insult, occasionally even flung back at the snobs who turn their nose up at a pineapple-topped pizza.
Many foods have taken their lumps over the years. Avocado toast, cake pops and kale Caesar salads come to mind. But nothing has sustained the hate like Hawaiian pizza, the most recognizable pie that features chunks of the divisive fruit. According to recent data from YouGov Omnibus, nearly a quarter of Americans say pineapple is one of their least favorite pizza toppings. Those who live in the Northeast or are older than 55 hate pineapple toppings even more. The pizza delivery app Slice conducted a survey in 2017 — the year the Hawaiian pizza debate came to a head with a spat between two heads of state– and 54 percent of the respondents said pineapple had no place on a pizza.
Celebrities, politicians, chefs and even minimum-wage pizzamakers count themselves as members of this pineapple hate group. Gordon Ramsay, a chef never at a loss for words, once opined, “You don’t put … pineapple on pizza.” He used a colorful adjective before “pineapple,” to emphasize his disdain. The president of Iceland said he would outlaw pineapple on pizza if he could, a statement that made him an instant hero in some circles. A couple of years ago, a University of Arizona undergraduate tried to add pineapple to her barbecue chicken pizza, but the pie arrived sans fruit, with a note from the campus restaurant: “Couldn’t bring myself to put pineapple on it. That’s gross. Sorry.” A $5 bill was taped to the pizza box.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s behind the animosity toward pineapple on pizza. Pineapple itself was No. 10 on a list of the most-popular fruits purchased in America last year, behind bananas and oranges but ahead of pears, cherries and avocados. It probably goes without saying that none of the top 20 fruits in America is a common pizza topping, though some, such as pears and apples, make an occasional cameo. Jonathan Allen, co-owner of the superb Pizza CS in Rockville, Md., told me that he ate Hawaiian pizza as an undiscriminating kid but now frowns on pineapple on any kind of pie, especially on the Neapolitan rounds served at his restaurant. He doesn’t like the texture. A sign over the counter at Pizza CS reinforces Allen’s stance: “No slices. No pineapple. No ranch.”
“I guess my judgments became more refined,” Allen said via phone.
Allen’s take argues that the more you study pizza, the more you understand pineapple has no place in this Neapolitan-influenced world, with its many prickly rules. This may well be true, but in a story last year for the Wall Street Journal, chef-turned-food-writer Arun Gupta noted that the disdain for Hawaiian pizza is just another form of cultural elitism. No surprise, the article noted, Gupta is a fan of Hawaiian pizza.
It’s tempting to argue that Gupta is among a semi-silent majority of Hawaiian pizza fans. There is growing, if flawed, evidence to support this. A Time magazine online poll in 2017 found that nearly 63 percent of respondents favored pineapple on pies. A Change.org petition last year to ban pineapple on pizza drew only seven supporters. My own 24-hour Twitter poll found that nearly 60 percent of respondents said they were fine with pineapple on pizza. There are celebrity endorsements, too: The Rock digs Hawaiian pizza; he says, “pineapple on pizza is MY JAM.” For what it’s worth, Justin Bieber loves it, too.
The late Sotirios “Sam” Panopoulos was a Greek immigrant widely credited for inventing the Hawaiian pizza in southern Ontario, Canada. According to lore, in 1962, he spread ham and pineapples onto a standard cheese pizza at his restaurant, the Satellite Diner, and then named the pie for the brand of canned fruit that he used. The Hawaiian pizza was born, followed closely by the controversy it continues to generate. Panopoulos reportedly died not comprehending why his famous creation was so loathed. I sympathize with him. Pork and pineapple can be as graceful together as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. No one bats an eye over tacos al pastor, that Lebanese-influenced combination of spit-roasted pork and chunks of pineapple, even though Mexican tacos have a tradition every bit as rich as that of Italian pizza.
Recently, I invited a group of friends and Washington Post employees to join me at We the Pizza on Capitol Hill for a tasting of Hawaiian pizza. I sought a mix of palates: Those who love Hawaiian pizza, those who don’t and those, like me, who are basically neutral on the combination. For the tasting, I asked chef Spike Mendelsohn and his team if they would prepare a classic Hawaiian pie, minus the ginger, lemongrass and honey that they usually put on their interpretation. Mendelsohn agreed without hesitation.
Before we dug into the pies, we batted around theories as to why Hawaiian pizza generates so much hostility. A couple of tasters said it boils down to a basic truth: Fruit doesn’t belong on pizza. “Culturally, I object to it being called Hawaiian, because the only thing Hawaiian on it would be the pineapple,” said Gene Park, an audience editor for The Post who lived in Hawaii for eight years. Others just don’t like the taste of ham and pineapple together. Martine Powers, host of the Post Reports podcast, compared Hawaiian pizza to an unfortunate incident from her childhood: The pie, she said, tastes like freshly vomited Orange Julius.
But others thought hating on Hawaiian pizza was just a safe way to hate, period, maybe even a method to transfer your loathing of another group onto an inanimate foodstuff. “I think there’s a culture now where we are so disconnected that we are now grouping together by hating things,” said Teddy Amenabar, editor on The Post’s audience engagement team. “I think it’s just a way to hate on other people.”
After all that discussion, a funny thing happened during our tasting. No one actually hated the Hawaiian at We the Pizza, even the self-described haters. “This isn’t as bad as I remember it being,” said Powers, who told me via email that “I HATE Hawaiian pizza.” Tasters pointed out that Mendelsohn’s approach was the difference: The pineapple was sliced thin and roasted, so that you don’t get a major squirt of sweet and acidic juice.
Mendelsohn’s pizza, in short, had an almost cosmic balance between salty, sweet and savory elements.