Getting stuffed in the Tardis of obesity

"Mac-Dooonald's, Mac-Dooonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken anna Pizza Hut! Mac-Dooonald's, Mac-Dooonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken anna Pizza Hut!" Were Iona and Peter Opie revising their landmark study The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), this affecting little ditty would undoubtedly make an appearance. True, I'm not certain that it's still current but it was when my older moiety of children was at primary school.

What is it with Pizza Hut? Like the poor, it seems always to have been with us - I recall a Pizza Hut in Hampstead when I was of school age, which had chalet-style woodwork and alpine murals that looked as if they had been painted using that time-honoured method of dipping a young bull in Artex, then allowing it to run amok. However, in recent years, Pizza Hut seems to have sunk into the great, cheesy substratum of British fast food, with little brand salience.

This hardly seems fair for a pizza outlet with a noble history stretching back as far as . . . well, as far as the Opies' The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, beginning as it did in an actual hut, in Wichita, Kansas, in the late 1950s. There are now more than 11,000 Pizza Huts worldwide, enough to constitute a Pizza Town, 700 of which are in the British Isles and yet, apart from the ad campaign following England's 1996 defeat by Germany in the European Championships, which featured the unsuccessful penalty shooter Gareth Southgate with his head in a paper bag, Pizza Hut has loomed low in our cultural consciousness.

On a spanking hot evening in central London, there was nothing too appealing about the entrance to this culinary Mordor: dark-red decor of interlinked rings, dark-red carpets, a faint whiff of what might have been urine and a musty slot of a dining area. The original Pizza Huts were known as "red roofs", because of their wide gables that angled up to a boxy top but, as a waitress directed us to go down to the basement, it transpired that this was a sort of Pizza Tardis - and an air-conditioned one, to boot!

Down here in the bowels of the earth, there were at least a hundred more covers, some in a sort of mezzanine, ranged around a central arena, off of which lurked a salad bar and an "ice cream factory". Seated and provided with a menu by an attentive if frenzied waiter, we took a look around at this brave new world of tourists and the obese. The mother-and-daughter combo at the table next to ours, tucking into a large Meat Feast pizza that came in its own skillet, probably weighed in excess of 150 kilos and they were soon matched on our other side by a father and son of approximately the same weight - even though the boy was only ten or so. I began to suspect that the ubiquitous decorative scheme of interlinked rings was some sort of allusion to gastric bands.

Yes, yes, it's a snob thing, isn't it? I mean, we're all middle class now, so we all go to Pizza Express - the Hut is only for foreigners and the lumpy proletariat. Pizza Hut pizzas feature pineapple, ferchrissakes! And entire chicken breasts! You dob up a couple of shitters and get unlimited fizzy drinks! I nearly had an apoplexy, on the basis that such an old-school restaurant demanded an equally anachronistic stroke. My 13-year-old, who often appears to have the same delirious sense of entitlement as the Prime Minister, looked about him in frank disbelief. The one thing he was looking forward to was the Cheesy Bites, a grotesque circlet of cheese-stuffed dough balls that rims the pizza base - but this was only available with the large pizza and he relapsed into sullen torpor.

Rocket from the crypt

I, on the other hand, was rather warming to the chilly environs of the Pizza Tardis. I cruised the salad bar and partook of a weird dressing that looked like the decocted jism of honey bees - and tasted like it, too. I ordered a regular Veggie Supreme and flirtatiously requested extra mushrooms and rocket. When the pizza arrived, combusting-jet-fuel hot, it was devoid of rocket but when I pointed this out to the waiter, he happily toddled over with a big bowl of leaves and flumped them on. I managed half of this - a regular pizza - before giving up. As we rolled back up the stairs, I reflected this: it didn't matter how déclassé the Hut was; we had been served by a perfect gentleman - Shehzad is his name, although his colleagues describe him as "the bald Asian man" - and that's surely a sign of real nobility.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis