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Why Sam Panopoulos Was a Food-Fusion Visionary Before His Time

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The man responsible for the birth of Hawaiian pizza, one of the most polarizing foods in North American history, died on Thursday, June 8, at the age of 83.

In 1954, at the age of 20, Sam Panopoulos emigrated from Greece to Canada, where he would open a number of restaurants alongside his brothers, Elias and Nikitas.

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Do Pineapples Belong on Pizza?
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Do Pineapples Belong on Pizza?

In 1962, at the brothers’ Satellite Restaurant in Chatham, Ontario (180 miles from Toronto and 4,465 miles from Hawaii), Sam came up with the idea to add canned pineapple slices to cheese pizza during a creative spree. At the time, Satellite was already serving cross-cultural cuisine, offering both classic American food like burgers and fries as well as Chinese dishes. Pizza joined the menu in the early 60s.

“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 of this year. “We were young in the business and we were doing a lot of experiments.” Something about the pairing of sweet pineapple and savory ham just stuck.

“We tried it first, [then] passed it to some customers. And a couple months later, they’re going crazy about it, so we put it on the menu.”

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They named it Hawaiian pizza after the brand of canned pineapple, capitalizing nicely on the mid 20th-century popularity of Polynesian-inspired tiki culture that had spread across North America. Of course, as Panopoulos’ invention has spread across the world in the last five decades, so has the divide between those who love its tropical flavors and those who detest it.

Just a few months ago, it became the subject of a global debate at the highest levels of international governance when Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, the president of Iceland, told a room of high school students that he would like to ban pineapple as a pizza topping altogether if such a law were possible. Days later, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau offered a patriotic defense of pineapple pizza:

As The New York Times’ Sam Sifton points out, it’s the classic glazed holiday ham that really lends pineapple pizza its staying power. In Sifton’s words, “This is the ham that led directly to whatever childhood memory caused someone to combine ham and pineapple on a pizza. The sweet, slightly fiery and herbaceous crust on this salty haunch practically calls out for a garnish of caramelized pineapple.” In other words, where there’s ham, there’s pineapple — and at pizza parlors all over the world, you have the Greek-Canadian owner of Chinese-American pizzeria to thank for that.