A Pizza My Mind: On Pizza-Like Objects

Editor's note: In honor of National Pizza Month (aka October), the Serious Eats editors, staff, and Slice writers will top off our regular content with their deepest thoughts on all things cheesy, saucy, and crusty.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, except where noted]

You know the feeling. You're walking through the airport lounge, or perhaps a side street in a strange city. Maybe you're struggling with the wheels on your shopping cart as you turn a corner and look up. You see it in the distance. In a small shiny package at the newspaper stand; in the hot dog roller at the convenience store; or maybe packed into the deep freezer. A whiff of zesty oregano-specked sauce tickles your nose, or perhaps you catch a glimpse of some red, white, and green packaging out of the corner of your eye.

You never know exactly when or where you'll run into them, but you know that they will appear in your life. At times, you may go for months without seeing one. At other times, they'll appear with shocking regularity and in the least expected places.

I'm talking, of course, about UPLO's. Unidentified Pizza-Like Objects.

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For some, the mystery is thrilling. Will these satisfy my zesty sauce-deprived palate? Does pepperoni really make a good muffin topping? AND WHEN, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WILL SCIENCE INVENT A CHEEZ SNACK THAT TASTES LIKE CHEESE?

For others, UPLO's are the stuff of nightmares, occupying the darkest corners of the mind where they find company with the likes of hamburger-flavored chips and buttered popcorn jelly beans.

There are no hard and fast rules to UPOL's, other than that they must possess, or at least attempt to vaguely capture, pizza-like flavor, which in the snack industry, means cheese, pepperoni, oregano, and tomato sauce.

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[Photographs: Kelly Bone]

The earliest UPLO's were not a huge departure from their archetype, and are generally accepted as substitutes. Pizza bagels (which have a striking 64% approval rating on Slice!). English muffin pizza. Tortilla pizza. Pita pizza. What post-70's child didn't eat French bread pizza in their school cafeteria? A measly 7.7% of you said "I accept no pizza substitutes." For the rest of us, it's all fair game.

From there, we move on into the diverse world of HCPS, or High Class Pizza Snacks. Snacks that involve real melting cheese and sauce, and often real bread. They are essentially pizza ingredients, rolled into a different form. The classic, of course, are Totino's Pizza Rolls, of which Slice founder Adam Kuban is proudly and rightfully fond. You may look at them in disdain in its frozen display case, but I defy anyone to find a single office in the world where a tray-ful of hot pizza rolls left in the break room will not get destroyed within minutes.

Admit it. You'd hit one.

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

HCPS can be even higher class (you didn't think that was possible, did you?), if you make them yourself. Pizza muffins are essentially stromboli baked in a muffin tin. Wanna make your own pizza rolls? Well you can do that too.

A step down the rung from HCPS are the so-called LCPS. These ready-to-eat lower-class snacking cousins are where we start to delve into the world of powdered pizza dust. Powders meticulously engineered to capture the exact essence of a Chuck-E-Cheese, plastic cheese, screaming kids, sticky floors, ball pit and all.

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[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

Pizza-flavored Combos are the classic example. Who hasn't sucked the tomato-tinged cheese out of the center of the oregano-scented crust-tube? But everyone's entered the game at this stage. Pringles has a pizza-flavored chip, as does Doritos whose pizza chips come paired with ranch flavored chips—a flavor combination spawned in the very depths of hell.

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Want to get all the flavor of a powdered pizza and feel sort of good and all back-pat-y about yourself in the process? There's a Pizza-Like Object for you too, in the form of Pirate's Booty, or perhaps crispy, grease-free Miao Miao pizza snacks from Malaysia.

Also from the Asian pizza front: Pizza-flavored steam buns. Stupid? Genius? Perhaps a bit of both.

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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

You know that there's a full-on phenomenon going on when the big chains start playing along. Pizza-flavored Go-go Taquitos from 7-Eleven. Pizza-flavored Pizzabon from Cinnabon that look frighteningly edible at the highway rest stop. Heck, even the pale, mushy, musty pepperoni and cheese-stuffed breadsticks from Dunkin' Donuts manage to be satisfying "on a mediocre frozen pizza snack level."

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A few weeks ago, I was walking through the Lufthansa terminal of Munich International en route to Italy, looking for a quick snack to tide me over between flights. I'd already attempted to procure a pretzel and trio of weisswurst from a dirndl-clad server at the sausage stand, but was told that weisswurst were not something that could be consumed on the go and would I like to take a seat? With minutes to spare before boarding my flight, I kindly declined the sausage and settled for a Carazza pizza snack out of the vending machine. It was perhaps the most UFO-looking UPLO I'd ever encountered in the wild.

It tasted as all UPLO's do: nothing like pizza, but completely edible in a zesty, salty, lightly spiced, cheesy way. And that's the beauty of UPLO's. You may not be able to identify them. You may not know what you're getting into when you encounter a new one. But rest assured, it's not going to be terrible, and in today's fast food and convenience food world, not terrible is pretty darn good.

Do you have a favorite UPLO?

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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