The Enduring Mystique of Pizza Hut
I’m not sure exactly what this reveals about my family’s nutritional values, but there are approximately three foods that still immediately and viscerally trigger a flood of childhood nostalgia upon my first bite: the Filet-O-Fish sandwich from McDonald’s, curly fries from Arby’s, and the cheese pizza from Pizza Hut. If you’re a child of the ’90s like myself, you likely had one of two relationships with Pizza Hut. You never went, either because there wasn’t one close enough to your house or because your parents didn’t love you, or you became a voracious reader in elementary school out of pure necessity because the Book It! program rewarded you with a free personal pan pizza for each novel you finished. I, of course, fell into the latter camp, but as I struggle now to recall exactly how your reading was monitored or verified beyond the honor system, I’m starting to feel a bit cheated. Did I really need to read that many The Baby-Sitters Club books just to confirm that I was, indeed, a Claudia? But I digress. There was a PH just down the road from both my home and my elementary school in a Syracuse suburb, so my ideal Friday night as a child was hittin’ the Hut with my folks — “proof” of that Book It! progress in hand — popping into Chimney’s Video Super Store after dinner to pick up a VHS tape for the weekend, and indulging in the unparalleled TGIF lineup on ABC. Shawn Hunter, take me away!
But even though I have strong childhood ties to the chain, it has remained a relative constant in my life even after my Book It! days were behind me. Nothing ever came remotely close to replicating the pure serotonin rush I felt when I saw that iconic red roof, slid into one of those worn leather booths illuminated by a multicolored Tiffany lamp (which I have considered paying a disgusting sum of money to own) and sipped my fountain soda from a red beveled plastic cup while poring over the menu as if I didn’t know it by heart.
And the smell. My god, the smell. I’d rank “pizza parlor smell” as my number one smell on earth to begin with — closely followed by coffee, Djarum Blacks, and mall Cinnabon — but there’s just something about the distinctive scent of a Pizza Hut that makes me want to roll around in fluffy dough, bathe in marinara sauce, and jump into a pit of shredded mozzarella. To this day, my parents and I order a large sausage and mushroom and a large cheese the night before Thanksgiving every single year, and like, I don’t have kids, but the amount of joy I feel when my dad brings the pies into the house has to feel akin to the experience of seeing my newborn child for the first time. Pizza Hut doesn’t just smell like pizza; it smells like being young and carefree yet also warm and cozy with family and friends, and anticipating a weekend of slumber parties, playing at the park, and going roller skating. I once heard Pizza Hut pizza described as “cake with cheese on top” and I’ve referenced it ever since because it’s one of the most accurate things I’ve ever heard. If this was you, please let me know so I can credit you. The only thing I love more than cake is cheese, so it’s truly the best of both worlds.
My small-town New Hampshire high school was just a five-minute drive from the nearest outpost, so my friends and I would wait with giddy anticipation each week for our double lunch period — which was a thing because even though the school was public, it was experimental (read: light on the learning and heavy on the pot smoking). We were nicknamed “the hippie high school” by students in neighboring districts for a variety of reasons. Chief among them: having “wellness” instead of gym (juggling and walking were among my actual chosen electives) and “advisory” instead of homeroom (during which we mainly just watched the dubbed-over GI Joe PSA videos for most of the year), calling our teachers by their first names, drifting in and out of class because we didn’t have bells, and eating lunch on a quad straight out of a teen movie, where shaggy-haired boys in beanies and Phish t-shirts played hacky sack. It was, for me personally, paradise. Well, aside from the whole still having to do homework and take tests thing. Anyway, I’m not sure what the status of the Pizza Hut buffet is these days, but our favorite thing to do for those two glorious hours was roll up seven or eight deep, and stuff our faces with all-you-can-eat slices, breadsticks, and a piece of the caramel apple dessert pizza for good measure. Maybe an iceberg lettuce leaf or two from the salad bar if we were feeling particularly health-conscious that day. Then, return to campus to make a brief appearance before our 2pm dismissal and either loiter in the town center or make our way to some secret forest clearing for any number of nefarious activities. But always, ALWAYS, Pizza Hut remained a main character. Pizza Hut was that bitch!
I think the lasting appeal for Pizza Hut, at least for me, is that no matter how much time passes, it stays firmly, magically rooted in the era in which I created that unbreakable bond with it: the early ’90s. My tiiime! For example, while attending college in Poughkeepsie, New York (a city which is sort of stuck in the early ’90s itself, yet in the worst possible ways), my friends and I decided to dine at a strip mall Pizza Hut on our way back from the actual mall, which we frequented to buy studded belts at Hot Topic and flirt with the local musicians who worked at H&M and Zumiez by day. Even 200 miles from home and a decade beyond elementary school, we set foot into that restaurant and for an hour, I was a kid again, back in my comfort zone and happy place. Red booths, gingham tablecloths, Tiffany lamps, gum-snapping teenage servers, and lots and lots of cake with cheese on top. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
Then, for my last two years of college, I lived in the North End of Boston, which has more pizza places and Italian restaurants per block than probably anywhere in the entire state of Massachusetts. And yet, one night, my roommate and I had a craving that only dining at the Hut could satisfy. We were crushed when we learned that the nearest one was all the way out in Natick — a half-hour drive from our apartment, but knew we had no other choice. While this was well before the days of Uber, it just so happened that it was the one week during the entire year she lived there that my roommate attempted to keep her car on our short, narrow street, so we were in luck. Let me tell you: that drive, that experience, and having leftover pizza the next day is a core memory that will always stand out from the many dime-a-dozen chicken parm meals I had over those two years.
I’ve gone to even greater and potentially dangerous lengths to feed my crippling addiction. While living outside of Boston a couple years after college, the craving struck without warning on a random weekday, and I had to heed it. Unfortunately, when I looked up the nearest Pizza Hut, it was not only in an unsavory neighborhood, but it was a mere Pizza Hut Express — y’know, like the ones they used to have in Targets where room-temp personal pans dry out under heat lamps. Still, it was better than nothing, so off I went to an extremely sketchy area in pursuit of my fix. I ran in and picked up the pizza I ordered ahead online, keys in between my knuckles like I was in a PSA or after-school special, and leapt back into my car. But not before inhaling the sweet, sweet, scent of my youth (that would be a hybrid of Pizza Hut and weed from the patron in the car parked next to me).
Still, the struggle continued. My apartment at the time was the converted attic of a 1895 Queen Anne victorian home, which was so beautiful and so quaint, but had its share of old house problems, including a raccoon family who at one point migrated from the dilapidated garage to my deck. Hot cardboard box in hand, beyond ready to demolish my delicious pizza, I began scrambling up the three flights of stairs on the back of the house when halfway up, I found myself face to face with Mama Raccoon, who seemed even more enthused about my meal than I was. I briefly froze, realizing that there was no way I was getting past her alive or without surrendering my dinner, before realizing I could back away very slowly and take the front steps instead. Crisis averted and pizza devoured.
To partially paraphrase that old saying, even when pizza is bad, it’s pretty good, and I’ve certainly had my share of great pies that hold a special place in my heart. But there’s another old saying that holds true, too: you never forget your first love. And mine’s initials, carved into a red leather booth, are PH.