Papa John's Pizza Bowls pose the important question "what is food?"

Perhaps the phrase "curious culinary concoction" is both a bit redundant and over confident when discussing any new fast food menu item. This is not simply to invoke the Slow Food movement, but to consider the roles corn syrup and manufactured tastes play in the imaginations of stomachs across zip codes and time zones. Not to mention my browser's existential angst at having searched for the link to Slow Food after learning about Papa John's new crustless, oven-baked pizza bowl, "A New Twist on Pizza Night." For those who have trouble with gluten, this seems like a new option. To be clear, this post is not to critique fast food consumers. This is more an observation from a recovering teen-aged Taco Bell eater.

So, perhaps obviously, the pizza bowl is not a pizza in the same way that Taco Bell's Mexican Pizza is well, neither a Pizza or Mexican, or an electoral system does not equate democracy. I am reminded of the discussion in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation about the factory/laboratories off of the New Jersey Turnpike that produce most of the flavors, colors, tastes and aromas we associate with fast food and frozen food.

But what is food? What is not food? Obviously, those are political and cultural questions. One could trace improved health outcomes when urban-zoned food deserts are eliminated or what crops get agricultural subsidies, as a couple of ways to answer? As Schlosser wrote, "Indeed 'flavor' is primarily the smell of gases being released by the chemicals you've just put in your mouth."

Do chicken nuggets taste like deep fried chicken parts or do they taste like "chicken nuggets," now its own reference for an invented taste of "natural" and "artificial" flavors. What about hot dogs? Flavored tofu? What are the gases that give chicken nuggets, hot dogs and tofu their flavor?

Consider this culinary nugget about strawberry flavor from an online excerpt of Fast Food Nation, "A typical artificial strawberry flavor, like the kind found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amylketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), α-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, γ-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent."

Anyway, the point is not to hate on Papa John's, artificial strawberry flavored gases, chicken nuggets, corn syrup, subsidies, or the choices made in the fast food nation, choices this author makes as well.

The point is to share that Taco Bell has brought back the Mexican Pizza, permanently! Oh, and that Papa John's uses prison labor to provide mozzarella cheese "with a kiss of buffalo milk." Where does this milk come from – apart from the buffalo? What is the price? According to a new investigation by The Counter, "The answer to the first question, it turned out, may have been the Colorado prison system, where incarcerated people working for the state's correctional industries earn an average of $4.50 per day. Leprino was the only buyer of Colorado Correctional Industries' buffalo milk between 2017 and 2020, purchasing more than 600 tons at an average price of $1.19 per pound." The Counter investigation offers insight into the breadth and depth of the reliance on prison labor, by private and public industries, in states all across the US.

It's not just water buffalo milk, but vegetables as well. "Papa John's Produce" contracts with the Arizona Corrections Industry for produce harvested by incarcerated people in Tolleson, AZ. For an in depth report, see "Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers" by the ACLU and the Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. The University of California Press recently published Erin Hatten's, Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment. "Coerced explores this world of coerced labor through an unexpected and compelling comparison of these four groups of workers, for whom a different definition of "employment" reigns supreme—one where workplace protections do not apply and employers wield expansive punitive power, far beyond the ability to hire and fire. Because such arrangements are common across the economy, Hatton argues that coercion—as well as precarity—is a defining feature of work in America today."

In other culinary news, Bloomberg news reported in August that after seven years, "Domino's Pizza Quits Italy after Locals Shun American Pies." According to company public statements, it was not the "smell of gases being released by the chemicals you just put in your mouth," or the other pizza options in Italy. Instead, "We attribute the issue to the significantly increased level of competition in the food delivery market with both organized chains and 'mom & pop' restaurants delivering food, to service and restaurants reopening post pandemic and consumers out and about with revenge spending," ePizza said in a report to investors accompanying its fourth-quarter 2021 results. 

For a much more clever take on the problematics of culinary concoctions, bad translations of food, over the top gastronomic appropriations, and insightful commentary on cultural politics, check out Laura Martinez @miblogestublog on Twitter. Martinez also has monthly column, "Hisplaining."