The Enduring Controversy of Hawaiian Pizza
By Jake Rossen
One's passion for pizza is not to be underestimated. Sauce has been spilled in debates over geographical superiority, deep dish over New York thin crust, and frozen over fresh. (Admittedly, the latter isn’t much of a discussion.)
Yet nothing seems to divides pizza aficionados like Hawaiian pizza—a conventional pie topped with perceived obscenities such as pineapple. For one thing, it’s not even Hawaiian in origin. For another, putting fruit on a pizza has been compared to doodling on the Mona Lisa. In honor of National Pizza Week, we’re taking a quick look at the origins of this controversial addition to the menu.
Hawaiian pizza actually originated in Ontario, Canada in the 1960s, when Satellite Restaurant owner and Greek immigrant Sam Panopoulos returned from Detroit having sampled what was then a novelty for Canadians: pizza. At the time, the dough-and-sauce arrangement was considered an “ethnic” food and not widely available in the country. Panopoulos took what he learned from his stateside visit, bought a small oven, and began preparing pies with toppings like mushroom, bacon, and pepperoni.
In 1962, Panopoulos decided to add another option, offering customers pineapple as a topping. There was no gastronomic science behind it. “We just put it on, just for the fun of it, [to] see how it was going to taste,” Panopoulos told the BBC in February 2017. A taste test revealed that the sweetness of the pineapple and savory flavor of the added ham made for a nice contrast with the salty, doughy pie. The “Hawaiian” name came from the brand of canned pineapple Panopoulos used.
Because pizza was itself a bit of a novelty in Ontario, there was little resistance to the idea—the food had yet to inspire the devoted and widespread following it enjoys today. (In fact, Panopoulos didn’t even have dedicated pizza boxes. He just cut circles out of cardboard he sourced from a local furniture store.) With canned pineapple a fixture of Canadian pantries thanks to spiking interest in the so-called Tiki culture that blossomed following World War II, Canadians were happy to try it.
And they liked it. “Because those days, nobody was mixing sweets and sours and all that,” Panopoulos said. “It was plain, plain food.”
As pizza franchises sprung up throughout the latter half of the 20th century, so did Hawaiian pizza, installing itself as a fringe menu item for people with an adventurous palate. But for every person who’s happy to experience something different, there’s someone else who considers the addition an abomination.
In 2017, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, the president of Iceland, told schoolchildren he would ban pineapple pizza if he had the power. (Jóhannesson later walked back the comment, insisting he held no such influence, but it sounded more like a lament than a retraction.) That same year, a UK survey revealed that while 53 percent of citizens liked pineapple on their pizza, 15 percent would support a ban.
On June 8, 2017, Panopoulos died at the age of 83. Having sold his restaurant back in 1980, he was largely kept out of the debate and relegated himself to eating only frozen pies. As for Hawaii: They don’t appear to like their namesake delicacy any more or less than the rest of the world.