Origins — Pizza; the mythical origin of the world’s favourite food

When you arrive at a place so tired and hungry that you eat your tables, you will know you have reached your promised land. (Aeneid VII. 124–127) — Virgil

This famous line in a Virgil’s Aeneid, is one of the earliest written references to what would come to be called pizza. Written in 19 BC, The Aeneid is Virgil’s continuation of Homer’s epic, the Iliad. While the Iliad was written around 800BC, the actual story itself takes place around 1250BC. Why is this context relevant? Because it means pizza could believably be in a story set in 1250BC, suggesting it was a long-established food of the era.

Some evidence even suggests that pizza, in its most basic form, could be found in the region that is today Sicily as early as 5000BC, that’s roughly the same age as writing and the beginning of recorded history.

Much of pizza’s origin exists in the dim haze of early history. There is scattered writing from various sources about pizza in its most basic for, a flatbread topped with various vegetables. It’s unlikely that early pizza had any kind of meat on it at this time. It was simple food for simple people and meat was a luxury of the rich.

Scouring the historical record, we can find mentions of these early forms of pizza in some surprising places. Records of the time tell of Persian soldiers in the 6th century baking flatbreads with various cheeses and local vegetables on their shields. The Ancient Greece’s also baked a regional flatbread and topped it with cheese and herbs, closely resembling pizza today. From its mention in the Aeneid, we could also extrapolate that Virgil was trying to link his civilisation’s tastes, The Roman Empire under Augustus, to 1250BC Troy, meaning it was likely eaten by the Romans too, a 19 BC origins story of a popular dish of the time.

The various regional variations of ‘pizza’ throughout history are almost too numerous to list. Evidence suggests it was consumed in some form or another as far east as China and as far west as Finland, all of them using a slightly different form of flatbread, either leavened or unleavened, and adding their own regional spices and vegetable to the dish.

It’s possible that pizza was invented simultaneously, by multiple communities, over multiple centuries. It’s also possible that as communities became kingdoms and empires, they expanded, taking ‘pizza’ with them and spreading it across the world. More than likely, with so many regional variations on the bread base and toppings, it’s a combination of the two.

the pizza revolution begins 

But while the pizza mentioned above may broadly be termed ‘pizza’ most will notice one key component is amiss, one that is arguably inseparable from pizza at this point. Namely, tomatoes. The simple reason for this is that tomatoes are a ‘New World’ fruit and thus weren’t ‘discovered’ and introduced to Europe until the 16th century.

Hernan Cortes

It’s unclear who exactly introduced the tomato to Europe, everyone from Columbus, to Jesuit Priests, to Conquistadors have been suggested, but once it was here, it was here to stay.

The adoption of this vital component of modern pizza was slow, many believing tomatoes to be poisonous, as many fruits from the ‘nightshade’ family are. It would be 200 years before it began to be a widely accepted food in Italian society, as economic hardship pushed poorer people to cultivate and consume the crop.

Around the time the French Revolution was raging, the small Southern Italian Kingdom of Naples was having its own culinary revolution. It is here that we find some of the first recorded references to what we today would recognise as ‘pizza’.

Nestled within the Bay of Naples, the city has always had a thriving fishing community, and records show that those fishermen had a taste for pizza. Pizza marinara consists of leavened flatbread, tomato (marinara) sauce, olive oil, oregano and garlic. It was named after the ‘seaman’s wife’ or ‘la marinara’ in Italian, the traditional cooks of the dish. It was often prepared for the fisherman returning from a long voyage and quickly became a regional classic.

The origins of the Margherita pizza are a little murkier and are tied up with the unification of Italy itself. The legend goes that Raffaele Esposito created the dish and served it to the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy in 1889. She reportedly enjoyed the dish and the way the colours represented the green (basil), red (marinara) and white (mozzarella) of the Italian flag. The pizza in question was then said to be named in her honour.

The stars of the show 

This is generally considered folklore now, with the truth being a little closer to the origins of pizza itself. It’s likely it evolved organically, mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes all being regional, relatively easy to acquire components and easy additions to a flatbread. Some records suggest Margherita pizza was being eaten a full century before the Queen’s famous visit.

Some reports suggest that Esposito fabricated the whole story after falling on hard times and trying to sell his pizzeria, but the evidence of this is also murky. What is clear though is that he did popularise the dish and slowly it spread to all of Italy. By the end of the 19th century, there were over 120 pizzerias in Naples alone.

Beyond that, Italian immigrants to the United States brought pizza with them and there are records of pizza being eaten and sold on the streets of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century.

It would be World War 2 that took pizza from an Italian dish enjoyed in Italy and by Italian immigrants, to the world stage. As the Allies invaded Sicily and slowly pushed back Mussolini on the Italian mainland, they were introduced to pizza. Cheap, easy and able to feed a crowd, soldiers embraced pizza.

Returning home, these soldiers, especially those of the United States, took their desire for pizza home. In the United States, they found a niche pizza market already thriving in the Italian immigrant communities and pizza consumption exploded and has only continued to grow. As many as 4 billion pizzas are sold in the United States every year, and, at the time of writing, it is National Pizza day in the US.

From the invention of writing, to the battle of Thermopylae, to the Fall of Rome, the unification of Italy, the French Revolution, to the end of Mussolini, pizza has been with us. Enduring perhaps because it is so difficult to define, it allows for endless innovation, evolving to the changing palate of the world.

Whether you’re a purist or embrace the change, one thing is for certain, pizza will be with us for a long time yet. Buon Appetito!

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