Several years ago, I came across a ranking of careers based on overall desirability. "President of the United States" was somewhere in the lower-middle of the pack, because it offers the most power and prestige, but also has the highest workplace fatality rate, terrible job security, brutal hours, and relatively low wages given what presidential-type people could earn on the open market. I think "accountant" was the best job, and something like "talk-radio call screener" or "asbestos miner's apprentice "was the worst. (There are a lot of these lists around; here's one that recommends math.)
"Freelancer food blogger" wasn't on the list, but I imagine it would have come in dead center, because the job has such obvious and counterbalancing strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it's the only honest way for a communications major to make some fraction of a living if Plan A—professional athletics—doesn't pan out. Plus, you don't have to comb your hair or talk to humans. But then there are the downsides: This gig's a little light on dignity and health insurance, and it's overflowing with cholesterol and strangers calling you an idiot for not liking their favorite regional nostalgia beer.
The problem with these lists, of course, is that they aren't tailored to your personal circumstances and preferences; food blogging works great for me, because my wife has a real job, plus what the hell else am I going to do? And other occupations that used to suit me better are no longer viable options. The best job I ever had was pizza delivery boy. I got paid minimum wage, plus pizza, plus tips, and that was plenty. On busy Friday nights, I often cleared enough for a Nintendo game, a case of Meister Brau, and a bagel the next morning. That was damn fine living. But now that my parents have ruthlessly ceased to supply me with every single other thing a person needs to survive, I can't afford to work that end of the pizza game. Now I'm reduced to reviewing weird-ass theme pies from America's biggest and worst pizza chains.
The major national pizza operations are unique in the franchise-food industry in that they generate huge profits without having many outspoken supporters. Obviously Pizza Hut and Domino's—the top two pizza chains by sales volume year after year—have millions of loyal customers, but it's not the sort of loyalty that comes up in conversation. Plenty of people will tell you all about their preferences regarding Big Macs versus Whoppers or which place has the best fries, and the Internet is crawling with duplicitous motherfuckers who pretend to love McRibs, Shamrock Shakes, and In-N-Out's top-secret Panda Burger Number 4 (With Pudding). But I rarely run across anyone with a strong feeling about chain pizza. Most folks seem to agree that it's pizza, so it can't be that bad, but it's from a giant chain, so it can't be good, so let's just go with whichever one's cheapest or closest or has the cutest delivery drivers.
In addition to ubiquity, price, and employee sexiness, pizza chains also rely on the occasional celebrity endorsement or wacky topping arrangement to lure business. Pizza Hut's playing both of those angles with its new line of Blake Shelton BBQ offerings; let's put Blake's Honey BBQ Chicken Pizza in the ring with Domino's Memphis BBQ Chicken Pizza and see what happens.
Domino's Memphis BBQ Chicken Pizza
I was rooting hard for Domino's when they launched that "We know we used to suck. We're sorry. Now we suck less?" ad campaign a few years ago, but alas, in my few experiences since, it's seemed that their apology carries no more weight than that of any other serial abuser. They've gotten a lot more ambitious, particularly regarding the deployment of adjectives and poultry, but I haven't noticed a marked increase in quality.
As for this thing, money is a very significant object when you're ordering chain pizza, and $11.99 for a small is pretty steep. After the sticker shock, the next thing I noticed was that my Memphis BBQ seemed to have been cooked a couple minutes past regulation time. I like it that way, but maybe you don't. Blackened cheese should be available by special order only. The pizza wasn't burnt or anything, just a bit better done than the norm: Only about two pounds of the cheese was crispy, and the other pound or so was regulation yellow goo.
Look, I like cheese as much as the next guy who hasn't had three heart attacks yet this week. But it amazes me that people order extra cheese on any pizza, let alone Domino's. In fact, when you order online, they make an explicit attempt to dump more cheese on you right before checkout. You get done building your dinner, and then when you try to click through to the end, you get a "Hey fatass, who are we kidding?" pop-up inviting you to double up on the already ridiculous cheese dosage.
So, too much cheese. The website says it's mozzarella, provolone, and cheddar. Sure. It tasted like melty (and intermittently blackened) salt. Sometimes cheddar can pop through the fog of pizza to provide a little bit of actual cheese character to the proceedings, but in this case it just added to the grease slick. The crust was doughy and bland and puffy, but it did its job: It supported the mess on top, which included all that cheese, a few shards of dull onion, the wimpy barbecue sauce, and some admittedly nice chicken. There wasn't enough meat, but the few chunks that showed up were moist and chewy and mercifully unbreaded (this grade of chicken is usually very light on flavor to begin with, and the taste disappears under any sort of coating).
Nothing about this pizza was notably offensive, but the whole was even more forgettable than the sum of the parts. The surprisingly flavorless Memphis BBQ Chicken Pizza doesn't even have the courage to suck with any vigor; it just kinda limps down your throat, attracting as little attention as possible and hoping you won't be mad about wasting $11.99 and 36,000 calories on edible boredom.
Pizza Hut's Blake Shelton Honey BBQ Chicken Pizza
Save us, Blake!
This was a much more attractive pizza, cooked just to the far side of medium, firm and crisp but not overdone by any reasonable measure. The substantial slices of red onion didn't taste like much more than the duds from Domino's did, but at least they were aesthetically pleasing. The concentric circles of honey barbecue sauce on top were a classy touch, too. There was a smattering of flabby bacon bits that neither helped nor harmed. The cheese was of a manageable volume and also flavorful for its kind, with a slight creamy sweetness amid the signature salt. The crust provided structural integrity and a grim bit of fake-buttery oil.
The grilled chicken was more plentiful and also unbreaded, but it wasn't as tender as Domino's bird hunks. It wasn't terrible, but it reminded me of the tired stuff you get off-hours from a shwarma cart on a low-traffic street, the sort of chicken that doesn't wreck your day, but does make you realize you could have done better. The honey barbecue sauce was gummy and sweet, with a chemical sharpness that was likely a junior flavor engineer's attempt at "tangy."
Blake Shelton's Honey BBQ Chicken Pizza was a better deal than the Domino's rendition: $11 for a large. It was also a better pizza, which means it didn't make me angry, but does not mean I actively enjoyed it. Pizza Hut achieved baseline mediocrity with this one, which was enough to win this sad battle.
Nominal Winner: Pizza Hut
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Lead art by Sam Woolley; Pizza Hut pizza photo by brandeating.com.
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