Natalie Tan

Simmer Down, Issue #12 08.17.2020

In Memory of McDonalds Pizza

In the Summer of 2017, two men from Vancouver named Tristan Christofferson and Chris Hogan took a holiday to Ohio, specifically to visit a town called Pomeroy, 100 miles from the capital of Columbus, for a monumental trip to McDonald’s. On August 31, they entered the fast food chain and made history as the last two people to eat the legendary, and now obsolete, McDonald’s pizza.

In the late 1980’s, McDonald’s introduced pizza–unofficially called McPizza–to select locations all over the US, with the intention of increasing the number of sit-down dinner guests at their restaurants. This caused a slew of ad attacks from Pizza Hut, who called the product “McFrozen” and “a McStake” without effect–the burger chain scaled down their original family-sized prototypes and started doling out small personal pizzas to 500 restaurants by 1991. Pizza was served at locations in Canada from 1992-99, offering (as per my memory) a selection of cheese, pepperoni, pepperoni with green peppers and onion, and my personal favourite, ham and pineapple pizza.

Yes, ham and pineapple pizza. Invented in 1962 and considered (by me) to be one of the greatest Canadian contributions to humanity itself, this is a pie for the contrast-loving palate. However, it must be made in a very particular way, not in the Neapolitan style or the New York style, but the crust must be thick and doughy, with the harmonious toppings of ham, pineapple, and low moisture mozzarella cheese–toasted from licks of broiler flame–deposited on a base of ultra-concentrated tomato sauce perfumed with way too much oregano. The sweetness of the tomato sauce combined with the ham creates intense bites that are cut with pops of tart relief from the juicy pineapple. A true delight.

McDonald’s irrevocably changed the fast food landscape through their “exhaustive approach to research and development” through “understanding external factors such as changing customer needs, macro trends and the competitive landscape.” While in Canada and the US the menus stay relatively the same, McDonald’s constantly challenges competitors internationally by shapeshifting by context, as seen with the ebi burger in Japan, macaroni in soup in Hong Kong, spicy paneer wrap in India, and speculoos McFlurry in Belgium. Everyone from sit-down restaurants to Dairy Queen to Costco makes fries, chicken nuggets, and cheeseburgers, but you know what they taste like at McDonald’s. I grew up near a McDonald’s, and their fries could be smelled from half a block away. Baby me heard rumours that they intentionally positioned their vents in such a way that the smells would be pumped downward into the air outside. This distinction in smell and taste comes down to flavour extracts and chemical preservatives, combinations of which the chain has perfected. Like the rest of their products, McPizza was different and exciting, for kids anyway. Assembled on a small pre-baked crust around 8” in diameter, the pizzas were baked on a conveyor belt-style oven, cut into four slices, and placed into a small square box, brown with big golden “M” arches printed on the lid. Since the pizzas needed to be baked, they took about 11 minutes, meaning whoever ordered one had to wait at the table while everyone else started on their meals, but the pizza was eventually served to the table. As a kid, that was fancy.

The most important aspect, what made the McPizza distinct, what made it McDonald’s? It wasn’t the buttery, crunchy crust, the overtly sweet tomato sauce, the stretchy cheese, or that combination of ham and pineapple–it was the smell of the pizza combined with the smell of the box. For this newsletter, yes I researched facts, dates, and McDonald’s R&D, but I didn’t need to look for accounts of what the pizza tasted and smelled like–I promise you, I remember it, and when I do it’s like the memory is a sensory burst in my brain. I’m a kid sitting with my family on a metal chair at a plastic table, the chairs are connected to the table and the seats swivel left and right. It’s all light blue and white, and my thighs have goosebumps because it’s summertime and I’m wearing shorts and we’re basking in the welcome chill of the air conditioning. To my left is the colourful indoor ball pit and playground where I lost my butterfly ring upon first dive when I was 5. The manager is named Robin and she always wears light pink lipstick and her black hair half up, half down. I sit and wait until a McDonald’s employee approaches our table and smiles while placing the box in front of me. I touch the box like its warmth is recharging me before I flip open the lid and the smell of cardboard, cooked tomato, cheese, and pineapple wafts over my face, plumes of it coming up everytime I lean down to take bites.

Until that August in 2017, only two McDonald’s locations in the US served pizza, garnering visits from people far and wide for a taste of nostalgia. When they stopped–a corporate decision–there was a collective disappointment that led to think pieces, Reddit threads, and news articles about the end of an era. In a Vice article commemorating the end of the McPizza, they cited a now unreachable McDonald’s webpage, where people could ask questions to be answered by HQ:

When Billy W. from Toronto demanded an explanation from McDonald's Canada in 2012 as to why they got rid of the pizza of his youth, the Golden Arches obliged.

"You know what else was great when we were kids, Billy? Everything. Being a kid was amazing," McDonald's Canada answered. "But sometimes the great memories of our pizza overshadows the amount of time you had to wait to get that pizza. At least 11 minutes. Maybe you really didn't notice because you were a kid and were preoccupied with something else. But whoever was getting that pizza for you, they probably remember. Our customers expect much more from us and we had to say goodbye to the pizza. Hopefully there is an item on our menu now that you can look back on years from now and love just as much as you loved the pizza."

I wanted to write about McDonald’s pizza because I thought it would be fun, that when you saw the title your eyes would light up, and as I wrote to the soundtrack of Coheed and Cambria’s “Love Protocol”, the chorus swelled as I recounted the McDonald’s of my youth–of the sensation of the chairs, the smell of fries and ice cream cones, the cool air con on my skin after playing outside, Robin commenting on how we’ve grown–I had a realization. It was an experience most likely remembered now with rose-coloured glasses, but I don’t think it’s the pizza most of us miss. Tristan and Chris, who trekked from Vancouver to Ohio, wanted a taste of childhood, probably not because they wanted to be kids once more, but because they took the chance to capture for the final time a feeling they would never have again. It is August 2020, and in three weeks, I’m turning 30 years old. I’m not afraid of getting old, nor do I want to eat a McPizza, but if I had a chance to replicate for any brief amount of time an era where I could spend a bright Summer’s day in the park with my cousins, be relinquished from ownership, responsibilities, loss, the fear of an unknown future, and the anxious tremor of my limbs as easily as opening a cardboard lid and smelling the aroma of hot ham and pineapple pizza mixed with cardboard, I’d travel to Ohio to take it too.