This afternoon, I drove to the Cumberland Mall food court and ate Cinnabon’s new culinary innovation: the Pizzabon. Earlier this week, the Sandy Springs, Georgia based cinnamon roll chain announced that they’d be testing a pepperoni pizza cinnamon roll hybrid only in their Cumberland Mall location. Reading about it, I felt a curious, sharp pang of responsibility as a food writer. Here was a new food item that could be eventually served at 750 locations in 30 countries across the globe and the opportunity to taste it basically before the rest of the world was essentially in my backyard. I felt a duty to eat the thing.
Here’s the first surprise: the Pizzabon actually looks better in person than it does in the promotional photo that has been floating around the internet. It looks less like a radioactive Twinkie with melted plastic on top and more like a leaning spiral of dough, meat, and cheese that has been lightly browned on top. Just one bite and I found myself in the grips of distinct flavor memory: the Pizza Hut buffet of my childhood. Each element of this is distinct: pepperoni like a leathery strip of salt-fat, cheese that has more in common with solidified grease than a dairy product, and tomato sauce that bears little resemblance to the flavor of any tomato I’ve ever met. Those who have tasted a Cinnabon cinnamon roll or tried to eat a pillow will recognize the softness of the dough.
The Pizzabon belongs in a growing cannon of food items that includes the KFC Double Down and Taco Bell’s Taco Loco. What these foods share is not a set of ingredients, but a very specific concept: The food should sound initially offensive but simultaneously appealing to the pleasure centers that fast food has been scientifically engineered to massage. These are food items meant to be talked about as much as eaten. I’d say that there’s enough of this happening to call it a new tradition in American corporate food: the stunt sandwich.
There’s something insidious to me about the self-aware logic that underpins the stunt sandwich: It’s asking the customer to be in on the joke of fast food. The concept is practically yelling, “You remember how gross and unhealthy and environmentally unsustainable fast food is? Well, this is, like, TWICE as gross as that. Come eat it.” The Pizzabon asks the consumer to acknowledge the unappetizing absurdity of fast food while participating in it. It’s the same logic that operates in reality television: encouraging us to pity and laugh at people while participating in their glorification. The Pizzabon is the Honey Boo Boo Child of food.
This might seem like a stretch or that I’m making quite a fuss over the “concept” behind a dumb food stunt, but that’s condescending to the amount thought, money, and cultural power that goes into fast food. Amidst all of the arguments around Chik-fil-A recently, I heard more than few people argue that it was “just a chicken sandwich.” Sure, that sounds nice and simple, but food is an expression of culture, values, history, and class when a celebrity chef or a fast food joint makes it.
Fun fact: Cinnabon was the first American business to open in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown last year. They’re owned by Roark Capital Group, a private equity firm named for the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s insufferable novel The Fountainhead. So, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say these guys are acting as America’s cultural ambassadors in the rest of world and they’re sending Honey Boo Boo Child to represent us. That doesn’t taste right to me.
Promo photo courtesy Cinnabon, real photo by author