Update, Mar. 13, 16:22. I just realized this can go in the Awful-Awesome series, which I wanted to be a thing for a while but then fizzled out. Thus, I have retitled this post and added an additional closing paragraph. Enjoy!
I was in my twenties before I stumbled upon this term on Wikipedia. That is to say, I grew up liking Harris and thinking their pizzas were unique, but I never understood just how much.
Harris Pizza gets a special mention here because, though there are over a dozen area restaurants that serve pizza Quad City-style, Mary Harris was (as far as anyone knows) the first person to ever make this particular breed of pie.
When she and her husband arrived in Iowa in the 1960s, most people around here didn’t even know what pizza was. The Harris’ weren’t very familiar with the dish, either, but they knew they wanted to build a successful eatery with a new, exciting product. Mary went to the public library to learn about recipes and methodology.
Mary wasn’t just going to do whatever some directions told her. This was The Sixties. It was a time of experimentation and anti-establishmentarianism.
Sometimes (let’s be real: most of the time) experiments don’t pay off. For every scientific breakthrough, there are 100,000 failed projects clogging up garages and basements across the globe.
Mary’s experiments were a success. She left a legacy in Harris Pizza that is rare in the small-business world.
But QC-style is a delicate beast in more ways than one.
First of all, the special ingredients: the crust contains malt, which gives it a nutty flavor that’s slightly sweet. The sauce includes some kind of spicy element, like cayenne or crushed red pepper. When mixing sweet with spice, overdoing one or the other can make for a sickening meal.
It’s also fragile in a figurative sense; people have very strong opinions about this pizza. Not only are the ingredients unusual, but the “correct” way to slice a pizza QC-style is in strips. Even Chicago’s Roots Pizza does it with their QC pizza; you can imagine how this scandalizes the locals there.
Houses divide over this pizza. Loyalties are tested. One area restaurant, which shall remain nameless, manages to survive despite totally ruining every pizza they make with too-sweet crust and more-acidic-than-spicy sauce. Customer loyalty is the only thing that keeps it alive. The neighborhood kids who cut their teeth on it are grown up now, and they’ll be damned if they allow pizza from any other source on their turf.
Most people argue over Chicago- vs. New York-style and may scoff at the audacity of our comparatively small-town to create its own culinary and cultural identity. Culture, however, is not defined by what one group thinks is good or worthy of attention.
Our cultural values are based on individuality and the rights of each of us to pursue our goals. The resulting cultural elements include rhubarb wine, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, butter sculpture, the Wind Energy Supply Chain Campus, the Grotto of Redemption – AND Iowa makes more local beers than the entire state of California.
We’re prolific because we work hard and live by the adage “Done is Better Than Perfect.” So while QC-style pizza may not be as pretty as some other pizzas…
…it’s just as legitimate as the Greek, the Detroit-style, and Trenton tomato pie.
(And it’s better than pizza in Argentina. Not to sound xenophobic, but it’s all-or-nothing with the cheese down there. They either make it with none at all or with a mound so big you can’t find the crust – which, interestingly, is often made with chickpea flour).
So go ahead and laugh at the fact that the traditional way to cut QC-style is with giant scissors. I will laugh right along with you. But I’ll also tell you, in a respectful tone, that the first “pizza shears” were actually blueprint shears and that now, in the digital era, they have to be specially made – this is all according to Ryan Mosley, Mary’s grandson, who now operates the restaurant with his family.
What Mary created was a culinary tragicomedy. She had a vision, and she did it her way. We’re proud to call her a local and continue to enjoy her recipes.
P.S. Harris Pizza is also deeply involved in the community, supporting youth programs and initiatives, food banks, shelters, museums, and schools. This doesn’t really have anything to do with their pizza; I just think it’s cool.
P.P.S. QC-style is 90% Awesome. The restaurant-that-shall-not-be-named is responsible for the lost 10% because their pizza is so awful and their fans are so rabid.