What Can Pizza Tell Us About Ourselves?

Probably nothing. But delivery-based data sure was amusing.

It’s a shame pizza-based analysis fell by the wayside.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Buyit/Thinkstock.

In the 1990s, America believed in the predictive powers of pizza. Online anecdotes abounded:  Pizza deliveries to the Pentagon doubled leading up to the Panama invasion at the turn of the decade. When Operation Desert Storm launched in January 1991, the Chicago Tribune published an account of a D.C. pizzeria owner who was able to predict that military action in the region was imminent, thanks to spikes in his sales. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who was a Pentagon correspondent at the time, supposedly remarked, “Bottom line for journalists: Always monitor the pizzas.”

Around the same time, pizza also served as a fun way of approximating the attention of the American populace. During O.J. Simpson’s famous, slow-speed police chase in the summer of ’94, Domino’s Pizza reported record-breaking pizza sales. (According to the same company, not a single person in the entire country ordered a pizza from them during the five minutes the Simpson verdict was read out the following year.)

But perhaps the best example of the pizza obsession of the 1990s lay in the existence of the “Pizza Meter,” a short-lived annual report put out by Domino’s in the early- to mid-’90s. By polling delivery drivers, the report claimed to offer insights into American political and personal attitudes. Real conclusions from the 1995 report include statistics like, “People who answered the door while listening to rap music were 45 percent more likely to order a meat-topped pizza than non-rap listeners.” Or, “People who answered the door wearing polyester ordered 9 percent more vegetarian pizzas than those sporting natural fibers.”

The Pizza Meter even took the occasional stab at drawing larger conclusions based on the survey of delivery drivers. “The number of nude door answerers dropped a little this year. This could mean good marketing by the underwear companies,” said then-spokesman Tim McIntyre in the 1995 report. “It could mean we’re having colder winters—but most likely it means the nation is taking fewer risks. We’re becoming more conservative.”

The idea of pizza as a proxy for national attitudes saw a blip of resurgence this week, when financial analysts noted that Papa John’s stock has been steadily rising all year and attributed the trend to people’s anxiety about the civil violence and political instability that have affected the country this year. “[People would] rather stay at home and chow down on delivery pizza than make a trip to a sit-down restaurant,” Quartz reported.

Since seemingly everything else from the ’90s is coming back—from Donald Trump to Pokémon—I’m not sure why we haven’t brought this food delivery–based style of analysis back into the public discourse, in the interest of keeping morale afloat during these dark and tumultuous times. We have more data than ever before, thanks to platforms like Seamless and UberEats. It is this type of delivery data that allowed Slate to assess that Chinese food is in fact the delivery meal of choice on Christmas Day, certainly a worthy journalistic endeavor.

Such modern-day analysis could allow us to draw sweeping conclusions about whether we’re relying more or less on pseudoscience by assessing the rates of gluten-free food orders. Do people who still order Hawaiian pizzas also still play FarmVille (both were amusing for a while, sure, but at this point we should all admit that pineapple does not belong on pizza). Are customers more likely to ask for a receipt if they’re watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians when they answer the door?

Perhaps pizza-based analysis fell by the wayside thanks to the rise of more serious data-driven journalism. Or perhaps there was a growing cynicism about the blatantly branded marketing ploy that was the Pizza Meter. But in the past 20 years, we’ve grown as a country—the internet has made us more accepting of such silliness. We don’t necessarily need to correct the pitfalls of the original surveys—like the horrendously unscientific data collection techniques or the flippant attitude toward causation vs. correlation—to capture that unique excitement that came when previously inaccessible insights were made plain and laid bare.

With Jon Stewart gone, we need something else to lead us through the darkness. To paraphrase an old adage, maybe the best way to a country’s mind is through its stomach.