Pizza Effect

general tso

The pizza effect is a term used especially in religious studies and sociology for the phenomenon of elements of a nation or people’s culture being transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported back to their culture of origin, or the way in which a community’s self-understanding is influenced by (or imposed by, or imported from) foreign sources.

It is named after the idea that modern pizza was developed among Italian immigrants in the United States (rather than in native Italy where in its simpler form it was originally looked down upon), and was later exported back to Italy to be interpreted as a delicacy in Italian cuisine. Other culinary examples include chicken tikka masala, popularized in the UK before gaining prominence in India, and General Tso’s chicken, a dish unknown in China before it was introduced by chefs returning from the States.

Related phrases include ‘hermeneutical feedback loop,’ ‘re-enculturation,’ and ‘self-orientalization.’ The term was coined in 1970 by Hindu monk and professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University, Agehananda Bharati. The original examples mostly had to do with popularity and status: the ‘Apu’ trilogy films of Satyajit Ray, which were flops in India before they were given prizes in western countries and re-evaluated as classics in India; the popularity in India of movements like those of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and ISKCON based on their popularity in the west; the popularity of yoga, several gurus, and some other Indian systems and teachings following their popularity in the west; and the exalted status of the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism, where, although it was always highly regarded, it gained its current prominence only following Western attempts to identify a single canonical ‘Hindu Bible.’

Political scientist Jørn Borup wrote about an ‘inverted pizza-effect,’ when a society’s modification of another culture gets further re-modified by that same society, such as European philosophers including Martin Heidegger ‘appear to have been significantly inspired by Eastern thought – an Eastern thought itself presented through ‘Protestant’ or ‘Western’ eyes. This transformation is naturally not a unique phenomenon in religious studies, where interpretations, re-interpretations and inventions are seen as common characteristics of religion.’ Scholar Stephen Jenkins noted that the feedback phenomenon could continue; in the case of pizza, he wrote that the return of pizza to Italy again influenced American cuisine: ‘…pizza-loving American tourists, going to Italy in the millions, sought out authentic Italian pizza. Italians, responding to this demand, developed pizzerias to meet American expectations. Delighted with their discovery of ‘authentic’ Italian pizza, Americans subsequently developed chains of ‘authentic’ Italian brick-oven pizzerias. Hence, Americans met their own reflection in the other and were delighted.’


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