Today in Tedium: It doesn’t matter that the heart symbol doesn’t look like an actual human heart, and never has. It nonetheless has become our general symbol for what we think of as love. The symbol is everywhere—on greeting cards, in emoji. But there’s one particular heart-shaped thing that I can’t stop thinking about right now: The heart-shaped pizza. It seems like the most crass of romantic gestures, to put tomato sauce and cheese on bread, but in a way, it’s genius. And seemingly every major chain that’s not Domino’s is offering a heart-shaped pizza. (Hey, if two people are sharing, it makes splitting it kind of easy, I guess.) I can’t stop thinking about the fact that lots of people are expected to buy cheap, rubbery Papa John’s pizza as a way to show off their love. (Papa John’s doesn’t even use heart-shaped pepperonis!) Today’s Tedium, in our first Valentine’s-themed post in our seven-year history, talks about our cultural tendency to make heart-shaped food. Especially pizza. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The rough century in which the earliest use of a heart symbol first came into being, which is believed to be the shape of the fruit or seed of a silphium plant of the period—a plant that was, during the period, seen as a contraceptive. It took a few centuries for the shape to gain its modern symbolism; in that time, the plant is believed to have gone extinct, according to Atlas Obscura.
Where the heart-shaped pizza first came from
To those of you who think that making pizza look like a heart symbol is fairly novel, it’s worth noting that it’s a phenomenon that’s been around a little while, and dates almost to the earliest days of frozen pizza and pizza delivery in the 1950s, a period when many Americans were coming to appreciate pizza for the first time.
In a lot of ways, reshaping dough to look like a heart makes sense; after all, it’s not that complex a shape, and financially, you may be making up for the slight amount of extra work by giving the consumer a slightly smaller pie. It’s not the least obvious thing to do with a pizza, and as some not-particularly romantic people will remind you, it’s not a financially sound investment of your food-consumption dollars.
So where did it come from? Doing a search through one of my favorite sources, Newspapers.com, uncovers examples of heart-shaped pizzas from at least the mid-1950s, which is at least as long as a good portion of American consumers have been eating pizzas. (World War II gave them a boost of attention, see.)
The earliest reference to heart-shaped pizza I can find is from 1955, when the Villa Capri, a famed Los Angeles restaurant that claimed Frank Sinatra among its frequent visitors, served heart-shaped pizzas on Valentine’s Day that year, according to a gossip column of the era.
Hearts and pizzas were a common combination of that era, though they didn’t always take the modern traditional shape; either. Some early mentions of the heart-shaped pizza come from recipe pages in newspapers, with some of them recommending smaller, personal-pan-sized pizza designed for hungry kids.
These recipes also seemed to be built around the idea that one specific type of person would be making the pizza. As one recipe about heart-shaped pizzas from the era, published on the Associated Press wire, put it:
I low about a pizza pie party for Valentine’s Day? Not romantic you say? Just serve ’em and see how popular you become with the boys.
Your invitation and pizzas could he heart-shaped. The pie is pretty gooey, so it’s a good idea to serve apron-bibs to your guests. Make them out of wax paper or newspaper. A quickly made type may be pinned to dress or jacket or you may roll string around the neckline, fastening it with tape. It you want to do the apron up chic, make initials of colored tape and fasten to each apron giving them out when guests arrive.
(Yes, even the newspaper was trying to enforce gender-normative standards on your pizza-making abilities. Side note: Apron-bibs are the official uniform of pizza-driven romance.)
The concept of the heart-shaped pizza got a notable boost of attention from television host Dinah Shore, who featured it on an Italian-themed episode of her namesake television show in 1960, and again in 1962. (Sadly, episodes of television shows from this era can at times be hard to come by, so I unfortunately don’t have the specific episode, but there is a photo of Shore and Italian actor Rossano Brazzi holding a heart-shaped pizza on Getty Images.)
But slowly, heart-shaped pizzas became a common way for restaurants to stand out during romantic-themed days of the year, for local pizza shops and mega-chains alike. New York Magazine first reported on the trend in the early ’70s, which of-the-era “pizza king” Larry Goldberg specialized in.
Chains like Rocky Rococo and Pizza Haven were selling heart-shaped pizza as early as the 1980s, with Rocky Rococo even packaging the pizza with a balloon, in case the pizza didn’t scream “this is romantic” enough on its own.
One particular chain that has had a lot of success with the novelty pizza variant is Lou Malnati’s, a popular Chicago-style pizza chain that started serving the pies in the mid-1990s. As CNN Business reported in 2012, the son of the namesake founder, basketball coach Rick Malnati, came up with the general idea, which ended up becoming a prominent hit for the restaurant and even one of its most popular options for cross-country shipping.
“Valentine’s Day is now our second-busiest event behind the holiday season,” said Meggie Eck, the company’s marketing person, in the article.
Soon enough, even larger chains got in on the gimmick, with Papa John’s first doing so in the late 2000s, and even megachains like Pizza Hut later following suit. But it should be known by the fact that these chains are selling them is a sign that this is not some hot new trend in pizza-making. Much the opposite, in fact.
Likely helping to make the heart-shaped pizza ubiquitous among pizza chains: it’s incredibly easy to make, and it’s a symbol that has a universal appeal.
The year that Richard Cadbury, the son of the founder of Cadbury, John Cadbury, first came up with the design of the heart-shaped box, a key element of Valentine’s Day culture, according to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. The box was part of Cadbury’s efforts to encourage sales of high-end chocolate boxes, which began with the “Fancy Box” in 1861, which featured an array of chocolate candies filled with an array of fancy fillings, decided upon with the help of a French chocolatier.
Why do we let Reese’s keep getting away with the same molded holiday gimmick multiple times each year?
If we’re going to talk about specially molded holiday stuff, we have to spend a little time discussing the fact that we’ve let a company get away with selling random blobs of chocolate and peanut butter shaped like random seasonal things.
I’m, of course, talking about Reese’s selling of four seasonal holiday goods: the heart, the egg, the pumpkin, and the tree. Each of these candies are basically the same—just chocolate-covered lumps of peanut butter that vaguely look like a holiday shape.
I’m not saying that Hershey’s-operated purveyor of peanut butter can’t repeatedly print money using its peanut butter candy factories, but it’s clear that the company is leveraging a small amount of creativity to produce objects that it is convinced will sell.
It’s not that the symbolism isn’t appreciated. Really, it’s more that the symbolism is barely there. In the case of the peanut butter hearts, for example, the design is long and narrow for some reason, despite the fact that mot people associate hearts with being rounder and wider. You could make the same case that some make about heart-shaped pizzas: By making the heart long and narrow, you’re seemingly giving us less than we might get with the pumpkin or the egg, which use up a slightly larger proportion of the packaging.
It’s clear that they’re using the same machines to produce these candies, changing the settings slightly, and hoping we, as consumers, won’t notice that you’re selling us the same thing in slightly different forms throughout the year.
But we’re onto you, Reese’s—and perhaps you’ve figured that out, because in recent years, you’ve at least had the guts to create pink peanut butter hearts, which implies that there’s at least some room for growth there.
“We’d take it to drugstores and the managers would say, ‘I can’t sell this! People will complain!’ We’d have to tell them, ‘Trust us. Please. We’ve been doing this for a long time. People will buy it.’ ”
— Tom Ward, the then-CEO of Russell Stover Candies, describing to Bloomberg the company’s decision to start selling a fancy version of the chocolate box, called “Secret Lace Heart,” which is nicknamed the “lingerie box” within the company. The bold design choice aside, it is one of the reasons Russell Stover—which sold for $1.5 billion in 2015—has been the dominant player in the boxed candy game in the U.S. for decades.
In a lot of ways, pizza and candy are secondary dishes to the main course when it comes to heart-shaped goods around Valentine’s Day: cookies.
And trying to find the heart of the matter that democratized the way that we cooked heart-shaped things is a real adventure, and the fact that we know so much about them really shows how deep subcultures can go.
Phyllis Wetherill, a collector of cookie cutters who wrote a book about them in the ’80s, was the organizer of the first club for cookie cutter collectors in the 1970s, starting the organization from perfectly modest roots: Simply, she sent a letter to Women’s Circle magazine, asked it anyone else was interested in collecting cookie cutters, and got three other people together. From there, the cookie cutter fandom really took off.
Wetherill, herself, had a collection of more than 7,000 molds, and operated a newsletter for thousands of cookie-cutter fanatics. And while Wetherill died a couple of decades ago, the group she created, the Cookie Cutter Collectors Club, still exists.
(And if you ever find yourself in Joplin, Missouri, that club runs a historical museum highlighting the history of the cookie cutter—hearts, gingerbread men, everything in-between.)
These days, we take molds for granted, but it’s really only been since around the 1920s when modern molds, made from aluminum, really became common enough that anyone could make cookies from molds in their own kitchen. While, per Wetherill’s research, cookie cutters could be found in catalogs as early as the 1870s, they didn’t truly break through until decades later.
Which meant that there was a time when getting a molded good was actually set aside for rich people.
“If you were somebody special, like Napoleon, the most flattering thing someone could do for you back then was have a cookie mold carved in your likeness,” she told The Washington Post in 1991.
Hearts, if you can imagine, are one of the easiest things around to mold. We don’t necessarily feel special, like Napoleon, when someone gives us a sugar cookie shaped like a heart, or a pizza with a heart-shaped design, just because it’s technically impressive. After all, technology has evolved from there.
And no, it doesn’t matter that heart symbols don’t look like the human heart. What matters, really, is that there was some thought put into it.
The thought is what people really love.
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