Gemima Cody’s review of Pizza Hut in the Icon Review section of the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Good Food’ this week is a significant moment in the history of the publication. The review is a clear exemplification of the impacts of networked culture on food criticism and notions taste more broadly.
Traditionally ‘Good Food’ has been a publication focused on fine dining and evaluations of quality according to a spectrum orientied by extremes of praise and criticism. A review of Pizza Hut is a clear anomaly in this tradition.
The review is part of recent digital trend of Pizza Hut nostalgia, arguably spawned by Mike Neilson’s blog Used to be Pizza Hut, which he started in 2008 and attracted a story from Business Insider in 2014.
This was followed by Ho Hai Tran and Chloe Cahill’s more widely reported efforts working on the same premise, which attracted enough of an internet following to be covered in a range of niche and popular publications, and led to a Kickstarter funded book.
Tran and Cahill were able build their archive of over 100 locations by using Google Maps and communities of Pizza Hut fans, who “have provided invaluable help since they started the project in 2013.”
The amusing incongruity effect created by seeing the mansard roof common to all Pizza Huts giving birth to another business (from to Savlos to pool shops) make them an ideal product for the flow of photographic images exchanged on the internet. The timing is also right. Kids of the 80s and 90s, when the restaurants were most widespread, are now among the determining forces in media.
The internet and digital photography are part of a media ecology where it is possible for “amateur” food commentators, or ‘prosumers’, to create significance by making it easier to document and publicise what might otherwise be insignificant. This has created diverse contexts with internally evolved criteria for what counts as relevant. Lowbrow enthusiasms and highbrow culture are thereby increasingly intermixed.
A single Pizza Hut converted into a childcare centre is the kind of trivial detail that will pass into irrelevance without a network. Image sharing services and digital connectivity create the possibility of making anything into a collection that is created and sustained by diverse interest based communities.
Sianne Ngai’s work on the aesthetic category of ‘the interesting’ gives a compelling interpretation of visual culture in this context. While the roots of the interesting might be traced back to “the dramatic expansion of print circulation in the 1790s”, they are most forcefully explicated in online social networks where massive amounts of photographic content is evaluated every second according low grade affective responses, of which the Facebook ‘like’ or the Instagram ‘heart’ icon are the most notable archetypes.
Pizza Hut and other fast food chains aim to create a standardised restaurant experience. Permitting minor cultural variations, the architecture, interior design, staff training, graphic design, service model and food on the plate all conform to the same restaurant concept, whether you’re in Ballarat, Orange, or, indeed, Wichita.
This foundation of standardisation provides an important contrasting tension for the efforts of those like Neilson, Cahill and Tran, whose photographic collections show an opposing force of individuation, as old Pizza Huts become new, different businesses. As Ngai points out, the dynamic between standardisation and individuation, or the different and the typical, is a crucial part of the aesthetic of the interesting.
The element of standardisation in the franchise concept is also what enables the other key element of Cody’s review: nostalgia. The driving premise of the article is that readers will remember a comparable experience in the Pizza Huts of their youth. The quality of the food is less important than the lens of memory by which the experience is relived.
As Heston Blumenthal has demonstrated for some time, nostalgia and high-end food experiences are not antagonists. However, Blumenthal aims to inject nostalgia into exceptional, unique dining experiences, the antithesis of Pizza Hut.
There is nothing renewed or transformed in the Ballarat Pizza Hut Cody reviews. It’s expected to be the same, mediocre food which she remembers as an excited kid going to Pizza Hut in the 90s, and that’s the point.
Like the successful Netflix series Stranger Things, which revives the style and atmosphere of 1980s fantasy and horror narratives of Steven Spielberg and Steven King, her review trades on feelings of comfort and familiarity that food critics tend to value less than originality and exemplarity.
The nuancing activities of “amateur” food writers are bringing the bad, the mediocre and the sentimental into focus. Notions of taste are being reshaped as a result. It would be misleading to suggest digital culture is the determining force, but it is a key catalysing ingredient in a broader ecology.
Influential publications like the Sydney Morning Herald are looking to these diverse taste making communities for concepts that speak more directly to their audience. If they don’t continue to search broadly and experiment, maybe a future not dissimilar to Pizza Hut awaits? Maybe, in light of the new Pizza Hut concept store in Waterloo which opened this year, that future is already here?