Throughout much of the 20th century, anchovies were as associated with pizza as cream cheese is with bagels, or mustard with hot dogs. In movies, television shows, and (of course) pizzerias, anchovy pizza was ubiquitous. The practice of eating fish on pizza goes back to ancient Rome, so it was natural for it to be a part of the development of modern American pizza.
But today, though some restaurants keep it on the menu out of cultural lag or tradition, anchovies are the single least popular topping in America. So what caused this steep decline? Why did the anchovy pizza go from family favorite to gag-inducing?
I place the blame squarely at the feet of the Roman Catholic Church. In particular the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (Vatican 2), which closed in 1965 and officially made abstaining from meat on Friday optional except for the seven Fridays in Lent. If my theory is correct it is an example of religious observance, or lack thereof, having a host of unintended consequences.
I came upon my theory in the least surprising way possible. It was a few years ago on a Friday during Lent and I was making pizza with some dough I bought at one of the fine, old Italian bakeries in Brooklyn. Knowing I couldn’t have a meat topping, I decided I would try anchovies, which I had never previously done in my life.
The result was not good. I remember eating and thinking it was a good food for Lent because it tasted like penance. Even just lifting the slice to my face brought a salty pungent fish odor that is a natural enemy to the appetite. Biting into it was even worse. Even when I picked off the offending little fishies, their odious flavor remained, infecting the entire pie.
This naturally led me to wonder why any sensible person, let alone millions of them, once thought anchovy pizza was fantastic. But then it hit me; it being a Friday in Lent is without question the only circumstance under which I would find myself trying to consume it. But before 1965, every Friday was meatless.
One day a week, an alternative to meat was needed, and pizza has long been a popular choice because it’s affordable, filling, and tasty. Also most Italians were Catholic and most Catholic neighborhoods had pizza shops. The anchovy was a natural choice for a salty topping that wouldn’t be a sin.
In 1991, The Morning Call had an article about how Catholics eat on Lenten Friday:
“Michael Ricci, an owner of Penn Pizza in Bethlehem said, ‘Our orders pick up, and there are a lot more pies going out without meat toppings. Instead of pepperoni or sausage, people are ordering mushrooms, extra cheese, olives, green peppers, anchovies and onions.'”
Now if every Friday was like these Fridays in Lent, as it was pre-Vatican 2, it is only natural to assume that the increase Ricci was noting would be seen year round. Because now Catholics only need to plan a handful of meatless days each year, the anchovy pizza does not have the utility it once did. How those Catholics 50 years ago convinced themselves it didn’t taste awful is still a mystery.
Now, nobody really mourns the passing of the anchovy pizza as either as a food or a cultural icon, but there is still a lesson in it. Religious tradition and practice has vast consequences to society and culture beyond the salvation of the soul or the explanation of existence. Most of these are far more profound than anchovy pizza.
Church attendance builds communities and not only that; it builds communities that cross class and ethnic lines. Celebration of religious holidays bring families across the country together every year. Religious schools play an important role as an alternative to public schools. All of this is to say that the decline in religious observance and participation in America brings with it the loss of some very important things, and it is not clear what might replace them.
I’m planning to have pizza again tonight on this Friday in Lent. It will be topped with onions and green peppers; no anchovy will ever be within a hundred feet of it. But as I eat this meatless meal, reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and how meager my own is, I will likely think about the poor anchovy. And think about all of the things religion brings to my life, and to our nation.