Slice and the City

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Chris Robinson

Alexander Hughes (PhD ’22) ate his way through 712 slices of pizza while pursuing a doctorate degree in history at York University. 

The fast-food favourite also fed his thesis, which looked at the history of pizza in Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., from the 1950s to the 1990s. 

Why those two Great Lakes cities?  

Because once upon a pepperoni, they had more than pizza in common. 

“In 1950, Toronto and Buffalo were actually rather similar cities,” Hughes says. “They had similar-size populations with a comparable percentage of Italian immigrants, and economic output.”

Those immigrants ate a lot of pizza, a dish dating back to ancient Rome (Virgil mentions it in The Aeneid as an efficient dish for soldiers) that later acquired the status as a low-class meal consumed mainly by impoverished Italians. 

Alexander Hughes, smiling, wearing a pizza pin on his jacket lapel
Portrait by Horst Herget

When, for economic reasons, they started to move by the tens of thousands to North America in the 1950s, they brought pizza with them, gradually introducing it to non-Italians when they opened up food-centred businesses in the cities where they settled. 

Vesuvio, Toronto’s first pizzeria, was opened in 1956 by a family of Italian-Canadians, Hughes says. “By the 1960s, there were similar spots opening across the city, especially in the suburbs, all attributed to Italian-Canadian entrepreneurs.” It’s how pizza went from being food that only Italian immigrants in Canada and the U.S. ate, to becoming the universally prized gastronomic dish it is today.

That trajectory is known as “the pizza effect,” an anthropological phenomenon by which a seemingly ordinary object gains new significance when transplanted to a new, usually foreign context. 

Hughes wanted to study it, using pizza “as a lens to explore the history of immigration, business, labour, urbanization, gender, culture, economics, consumption and food,” in each of his sample cities. 

For his research, he chowed down on both sides of the border, meticulously documenting the differences, and then went backwards to account for them. 


He reckons he spent hundreds of hours in municipal libraries and archives combing through decades of newspaper articles about pizza in both cities, charting its evolution through the opening and closing of mom-and-pop pizza joints, the marketing of at-home pizza kits and the establishment of large takeout chains such as Pizza Pizza in Toronto and Pizza Hut south of the border.

photograph of pizza slice on paper plate drooping off of the edge of a table

He also conducted on-the-ground interviews with pizza business owners and their patrons, and even produced computer-driven maps to determine food migration patterns. A time-consuming process, it involved using geographic system information (GIS) software to create, analyze, manage and visualize the locations of pizzerias (past and present) in Toronto and Buffalo on maps. “I created layers to the map for every five years, which allowed me to see patterns in the growth of the industry and the suburbanization of cities,” Hughes says.

He discovered that food consumption habits changed with the cities where pizza was a common food and feature of city life. It mirrored the transitions of the urban environment. 

“By 1990,” Hughes says, “Toronto would become this prosperous, multicultural metropolis with strong economic output, and Buffalo a regional American city, which suffered from industrialization and protracted population loss.”

Pizza told the story.

“The commodification of pizza, the development of pizza industries, and the culture of consumption in Canada and the United States paralleled currents in postwar life in Toronto and Buffalo.”

What status does pizza hold today? It’s a question that Hughes will chew on for his next project, a book that he hopes will extend his original York research into the modern era. 

“I want to explore the idea of so-called pizza snobs and the rise of celebrity chefs,” he says, adding that delicious morsels of history are all around us. You just have to know where to bite. ■

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