Not until Monday night did it occur to me how badly I wanted to own a shirt that said SAVOR THE FLAVOR. On a free-standing garment rack, wedged between an apron, a black vinyl puffer vest, and several other shirts of sartorial insignificance, there was a bright-red women's v-neck t-shirt demanding that I put a premium on taste.
"SAVOR THE FLAVOR," it said to me loudly, in white block lettering.
OK, I thought. I was in an open-plan loft space in the Garment District whose walls were white and chrome and in front of me there was a long white banquet table topped with a spread of untouched congealing pizzas that, on preliminary glance, could have either been real or plastic. Bring on the flavors. Please make sure there are many flavors to savor. Do not skimp on these flavors, for that is what I have come for.
Though I've never been to an engagement party, a nightclub, a pop album launch, nor any event that could be considered even slightly exclusive or VIP, I believe that the Pizza Hut Flavor of Now event, which I attended and where I was fêted by several exceedingly nice women of average height, was a successful example of an engagement-meets-album-launch hoo-hoorah. The engagement was between new flavors and old pizza, and the album launch was for a new pop-R&B group called Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut was trying on its skinny jeans and chain wallet for the first time.
Earlier that day, Pizza Hut had announced that their previously foolproof business plan—make pizza, then sell that shit and fast—was getting re-conceived. In a company-wide rebrand that spans from their pizza box design to their nutrition to their ingredients to their ordering style, Pizza Hut revealed that the near 60-year-old franchise was going to be new(ish), like Oops!... I Did It Again era Britney Spears in some red latex and a hair poof. This newness included "ten new crust flavors, five new premium ingredients, four new flavor-packed drizzles, and new Skinny Slice pizzas," which at the event would result in eleven new pizza recipes for the taking, eating, and digesting with difficulty.
In a courageous act of unparalleled bravery, I volunteered to travel beyond 8th Avenue and above 14th Street to see what was in the kitchen and what was really going on beneath the hut.
Being balls deep in pizza is not an uncommon situation for a person like me. I looked out wistfully at the beautiful view of the New York City skyline, glowing like an oil painting from the window of the chic nightclub-esque room. Then I turned back around to face five tables loaded with oily pizza. This pieline view featured not skyscrapers but dried-out toppings claiming the air rights over gummy mozzarella.
Several servers wearing black latex gloves that could easily pass for leather Isotoners began bringing out pizzas from god knows where, a fire escape? A pizza dungeon? A backyard birthday party? A rave?
But . . . isn't there already pizza out here? I thought, one hand still tugging at the hem of the SAVOR THE FLAVOR t-shirt. There was one long table fit for a queen and her several jesters and manservants, packed with pies. "Hot pizzas are almost ready," one of the many friendly women told me. So this other array of pizza was the pizza I could not and should not eat. Got it.
In the meantime, I grabbed a cheese stick and a fancy white plate, which I loaded up with "flavor-packed drizzles," spooned out of a series of white ceramic bowls in four flavors: balsamic, honey sriracha, barbecue, and buffalo. The new Pizza Hut plans to drizzle your requested drizzles on your pizza before delivering it. "People love garnishes," Pizza Hut chef Barbie King would tell me.
In a color palette reminiscent of a late fall sunset, my drizzles looked artistic and appetizing. The appetizing effect lasted until I tasted them, dipping a dry cheese stick into each gooey dollop individually.
Another of the nice woman approached. "So! What do you think?" she asked. My was mouth full with brittle bread and sweet slime. I swallowed a crumbly bite and replied that they were great. I wrote in my notebook that "the drizzles taste like high fructose corn syrup with even more sugar."
Here's is where we take a break for storytime. The last Pizza Hut I went to was in Chittagong, Bangladesh, in 2011. Before that, I hadn't been to a Pizza Hut since I was a kid, probably sixth grade, at a Pizza Hut on Baltimore Pike in Springfield, Pa. In the years in between those two events, I had eaten a lot of pizza, probably more than any one normal human should.
Though my palate has changed drastically over the course of the Great Pizza Hut Gap of My Life, both visits to the American pizza chain—in sixth grade and adulthood, on two different continents—yielded pizza that tasted exactly the fucking same.
This is the purpose of major dining franchises that stake territories in suburbs throughout the country and across the world. Consistency—when families are too harried to make dinner or when a kid has 18 friends attending his birthday party or when pizza is the unanimous symbol of "It's time to party!"—is easily the greatest asset these businesses have.
Does that change the fact that their food, without question, tastes really, really terrible and that it is unilaterally bad for you? No.
Yet we eat it anyway.
I tasted nine slices of Pizza Hut's new pizza and by the time I was ready to leave, I felt dazed and bloated. The slices were portioned out to me and several other writers (almost all women) at the tasting event in thin slivers, a blessing. Initially I had believed I would have to eat several whole slices of Pizza Hut and I quaked with fear.
There were eleven types of pizza to taste, representing a tiny fraction of the "over two billion potential combinations" that Barbie King told me were possible under the new regime of options, a fact to which I responded with a face aghast. I'm not a math genius, but that seems like way too many.
I sampled and munched on the following "pre-selected" combinations (annotated with my observations from a grease-stained notebook):
Sweet Sriracha Dynamite – "sticky?"
Old Fashioned Meatbrawl – "fluffy crust; tastes like a pizza bolognese"
Skinny Club – "greasy and cheesy"
Plain Cheese Pizza with a Pretzel Crust – "why is this pizza so salty"
Cock-A-Doodle Bacon – "help help; bacony + cheesy + chickeny"
Pretzel Piggy – "full of sugar and acrid cheese"
Giddy Up BBQ Chicken – "sweet"
Cherry Pepper Bombshell – no notes
Skinny Italy – no notes
By the time I made it to the Cherry Pepper Bombshell and the Skinny Italy, I was in no state to be eating pizza or using my hands for any act except swiping my Metrocard to go home to my toilet. Each pizza felt like a culinary exquisite corpse: pretzel crust + mushrooms + blanched cheese + balsamic drizzle + fresh spinach = a one-way ticket to Flavor Town, which is a ghost town where no one lives because it is frightening and full of wraiths made of stale dairy products.
The only person maniacal enough to eat like I did on Monday night is Guy Fieri, a legendary figure in the twilight age of shoving a bunch of edible shit into one inedible meal. Digging into a slice of pizza so thoroughly drenched in honey and Sriracha that it was sticky to the touch, I wondered if Guy Fieri had some uncredited role in this insanity. Guy Fieri would make a great Oz.
Despite what Pizza Hut would like you to believe, the Flavor of Now is never going to be the same grab-bag flavors your cousin mixed into a milkshake before forcing you to drink it on a dare. Pizza, as we learned in the ingenious development of the two-flavor-option Pizza Push app, is a dish best served with simplicity, not with barbecue sauce and Ginger Boom Boom crust (this is real!!!!!!), or Peruvian Cherry Peppers, or whatever twisted mouth-assault one person can dream up.
Standing by a table brazenly advertising the Pretzel Piggy pizza and its inbred half-sister the Giddy Up BBQ Chicken, another writer I was talking to remarked, "This is the hangover table." I thought back to the last time I drank and the breakfast burrito that followed the morning after, made with black beans, eggs, salsa, and rice. No sane person, with the definitive exception of Guy Fieri, would drink again if the Flavor of Now were the only food left on earth to cure a hangover.
[Photos by Dayna Evans]