The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iceland’s president is a hero, because pineapple on pizza is an abomination

In these dark days, at least one leader has the courage to fight the scourge of foolishness plaguing our food.

Obviously, this has no place in marinara sauce. (Julian Abram Wainwright/Bloomberg News)

In these dark days of resurgent nationalism both at home and in Europe, inspiring political leadership is hard to find. One increasingly sees pathetic efforts to find inspiration, such as The Washington Post dubbing Germany’s conservative, boringly technocratic Chancellor Angela Merkel “leader of the free world,” because she isn’t xenophobic.

Last month, though, we finally found a head of state in a functioning democracy who is unafraid to stand up for what is right. True, his country is small and his issue of choice even smaller. But his principles are sound, his conclusions correct, and his willingness to limit his own power admirable.

I’m talking, of course, about Icelandic President Gudni Th. Johannesson who, during a question-and-answer session at a high school, said that he is “fundamentally opposed” to pineapple on pizza and that he would outlaw it if he could.

The Internet cheered and jeered with its characteristic restraint. “You either like pineapple on your pizza or you’re a goddamn ignorant fool,” wrote Reddit commenter bq909 in a typical missive. Others from pizza wastelands such as Australia and Atlanta extolled the virtues of complementing pineapple and ham with even more revolting toppings such as maraschino cherries and jalapenos. Pineapple opponents were just as aggressive. “People who put pineapple on pizza should face the firing squad immediately,” wrote Reddit commenter Heiminator.

To calm the furor, Gudni posted a clarification on Facebook: “I do not have the power to make laws which forbid people to put pineapples on their pizza,” he wrote. “I am glad I do not hold such power. Presidents should not have unlimited power.”

Obviously, outlawing pizza toppings is a radical form of government overreach; people agreed Gudni’s analysis was beyond reproach. But some otherwise sane people contested his claims about the merits of pineapple on pizza. Sadly, they showed that they do not understand two foods that they claim to value.

The history of “Hawaiian pizza,” which is topped with pineapple and Canadian bacon, and from which the preposterous concept of putting tropical fruit on a pizza first sprang, helps illustrate why. Hawaiian pizza comes neither from Hawaii nor from Italy (no one with a real love of either pineapple or pizza would adulterate one with the other). Sam Panopoulos, 82, of London, Ontario is credited with creating the concept. Canada is not known for its pizza.

In a Wednesday morning interview on CBC radio, Panopoulos proved as bland a subject as his province’s pizza. “He can have whatever he wants,” he said of Gudni. “I don’t care.” And his story of inventing Hawaiian pizza is equally unmemorable: “We tried to make some pizza. Along the way, we threw some pineapples on it and nobody liked it at first. But after that, they went crazy about it. Because those days nobody was mixing sweets and sours and all that. It was plain, plain food. Anyway, after that it stays.” Necessity is the mother of arbitrary combination.

Just look at the photo of the Hawaiian pizza in the CBC story on Panopoulos to see how terrible Ontario pizza is: The doughy, undercooked, obviously bland crust gives away that it came from a chain, or it might as well have.

And that’s the clue as to how and why Hawaiian pizza came into existence: Much like ranch dressing, pineapple is an inappropriate adornment to pizza, used only in places where the pizza is terrible. When pizza is good, the crust, cheese, and sauce provide plenty of flavor. Toppings are chosen wisely and used sparingly, because pizza is already a complete dish, better left alone than ruined with too much intrusion. In American backwaters, or Canada, where the crust, cheese and sauce often have no flavor, eaters and “chefs” overcompensate with toppings.

Pineapples are a wonderful fruit for dessert because they are very sweet. Boorish North Americans, the same people who added marshmallows to breakfast cereal, think everything is better when drenched in sugar, fat, or both. Just as they are wrong to add buttermilk to a dish covered in mozzarella, they are wrong to add pineapple to a dish covered in tomato sauce. The tomatoes should provide plenty of sweetness already. If they don’t, then the sauce made from them is bad or your palate insensate.

It’s not that experimentation with somewhat nontraditional toppings is always wrong. Keste, a highly regarded, rigorously authentic Neapolitan-style pizzeria in New York makes delicious pizzas with toppings such as pistachio pesto, butternut squash and Nutella. Look at a photo of their pizza on Keste’s website to see the charred crust of a real pizza from a wood-fired oven. Not suitable for pineapple, is it? But Keste, which respects the art of pizza-making, carefully chooses toppings that mesh with, and enhance, the existing flavor palette of pizza and Italian food.

In the pizza Mecca of New York, no one adds pineapple. To New Yorkers, the mere suggestion is considered blasphemous. When Gudni’s comments were first reported, a Facebook group founded to debate the finer points of pizza by a Brooklyn man exploded in shock and outrage at the existence of Hawaiian pizza. “Pineapple pizza is a blight on society,” says Mae Barber, a member of the group who lives in Florida but grew up in Brooklyn, capturing the general sentiment. “I am opposed to all novelty pizza toppings,” adds group member Paul Murphy, who is half Italian American, grew up in downtown Manhattan, and knows right from wrong. (A gustatorily appropriate but atypical topping like pistachio pesto isn’t a novelty topping. Novelty toppings are strange interlopers from other cuisines like hot dogs, nacho chips or pineapple.)

The contrast between Gudni and our own president couldn’t be starker. Gudni isn’t taking this position because he’s too fancy for the food of the common Icelander: The former college professor has been spotted picking up his own pizza on his way home from his presidential office. Donald Trump, who could afford to eat anywhere, loves McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and orders his steaks burnt to a crisp. Not only did he force New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to order the meatloaf in the White House, he also once demanded meatloaf at Spark’s, one of New York’s leading steakhouses, even though it wasn’t on the menu.

But all of that pales next to Trump’s worst culinary offense: When Sarah Palin came to meet with him in New York, they ate pizza at Famous Famiglia, a mediocre chain New Yorkers avoid unless forced to eat in an airport or at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Trump’s philosophy of food embodies his perverse appeal to the least urbane Americans: that being rich but having poor taste is a kind of populist authenticity. And his expectation that fine restaurants will serve him whatever comfort food he desires evokes his autocratic streak. Trump probably loves Hawaiian pizza, and one could easily imagine him demanding it from Keste.

Gudni, with his appreciation for restraint in both cooking and lawmaking, is Trump’s antithesis. Perhaps that’s why Icelanders, a famously enlightened society, have given him approval ratings as high as 97 percent.

Gudni can’t outlaw Hawaiian pizza, but he is using the power of the bully pulpit to inspire better decisions by his countrymen. That’s the kind of presidential leadership we sorely miss here. Perhaps Gudni is the true leader of the free world.