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The Guy Behind the Pie: A Look at the Life of the Longhorn Who Invented Deep Dish Pizza

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The Thresher, via Texas Portal to History
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A photo from a 1929 edition of the Rice Thresher of Ike Sewell (right), the former Longhorn widely regarded as the inventor of deep dish pizza, during his days at Texas Air Transport with pilot S.P. Gilley.

Believe it or not, Tuesday was National Deep Dish Pizza Day. Yes, apparently that's a thing. Blink and you miss it, right?

It’s a dish that’s best known as “Chicago-style” pizza for obvious reasons. But, the popular pie didn’t necessarily arise from the town from whence it sprung. Its roots go deeper south, and it wouldn’t have existed without the guiding hand of a former Texas Longhorn: Ike Sewell.

Born outside Wills Point in 1903, Sewell spent most of his childhood in San Antonio. His first spate of national acclaim came while at UT, where he excelled as a linemen, earning both All-American and all-conference status in the Southwestern Conference's heyday. Not only that, Sewell also provided locker room updates for the Statesman during the season of 1928, writing a daily column for the paper entitled “Oh, Pod!” which dished on everything from the use of helmets by “tenderfoots” to the introduction of salt rub to treat “nerves” to a discussion of a teammate’s off-season marriage, a move that disqualified SMU and Baylor players who’d done the same.

The column became so popular it was also syndicated in Houston, and Sewell also briefly served as a golf editor for the paper. After the 1928 season, Sewell decided to study abroad.

Years before, his good friend Jerry Marshall had piqued his interest in flying that year. Marshall arrived in one of many planes he built on November 5, 1925, having flown 11 and a half hours from Peru, Indiana – about an hour outside of Purdue University, which he attended – just to see Sewell play in the Longhorns’ win over the Baylor Bears. Marshall had been stationed at Camp Mabry with the Air Force the year prior and, on a lark, decided to leave Purdue and attend UT because, as he told the Statesman’s Frank Graham, he “liked it so well.”

So, Sewell decided to tour aircraft plants in Germany during the summer of 1928, then head over to Amsterdam to check out the 1928 Summer Olympics before heading back to Austin to start the season – the first season the Longhorns wore their trademark burnt orange uniforms.

Sewell toured plants with Herman Newman, an aviator who eventually served as the first mechanic for the Mueller Airport, and then made a trip to Paris ahead of a planned departure from Amsterdam.

On his final night in Paris, however, he sat at the Texas-Chicago Inn, a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower owned by an ex-pat, and lamented:

“Most everyone tries to drink all the champagne in France and buy out all the cabarets in Paris their last night, but it was a different story with me,” he wrote in a Statesman editorial accounting his journey. “I had begun to get gray from worrying so much on how I was to get to American soil in three weeks without enough money to purchase a ticket.”

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Credit Wikimedia Commons
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Sewell in the mid-1950s after opening Pizzeria Uno.

After the meal, he spent six of his last $20 on a third-class ticket to Amsterdam, where he snuck aboard the S.S. Roosevelt, the ship carrying the Olympic hopefuls from the U.S.

Being an American college athlete, none of the porters really questioned his presence on the boat, and he was able to stow away after the games concluded. Still, he wouldn’t be able to get off without a ticket and was legitimately worried he'd get locked in the brig. He borrowed an Olympic-labeled sweater from a friend, which helped, but he eventually turned himself in, offering to work off his nine-day trip. 

Obviously, Sewell got back to Austin for the 1928 season, which ended in a Southwestern Conference title for the Steers (as was parlance for the Longhorns back then).

After college, he parleyed that passion for planes into a job as the public relations director for the Texas Air Transport Company, touring college campuses to encourage students to join up and "pilot the Aviation Industry to its magnificent future." That company later became a leg of American Airlines before Sewell bowed out of the airline game in 1933.

That's when booze, pizza and a few ill-fated plates of Mexican food come into play. 

Sewell moved to Chicago and began work at a liquor distributor and decided to branch out. Missing proper Tex-Mex, he got a hankering to open a Mexican food restaurant in Chicago, and partnered with his client, restaurateur Ric Riccardo, to open up a place on the city's North Side. 

Uno_Due_Chicago.jpg

He decided to prep a few plates of Mexican cuisine. Riccardo and a few other potential investors got sick. They decided they'd be better off serving pizza, a prospect with which Sewell had reservations. He suggested making the pizza heartier and, with the help of the would-be Pizzeria Uno manager Rudy Malnati, Sr., created deep dish pizza. The Malnati family later started their own place. Some say Riccardo had the initial idea. But, even Chicago's official historian has said there's no definitive answer to the question of who invented it.

Still, Uno's popularized the dish, and Sewell got the lion's share of the credit and plenty of profits, as well.

But Sewell always maintained his love of both Texas and Mexican food. He named a charitable foundation he later founded "Saxet" – Texas spelled backwards – and later opened the city's first Mexican food restaurant, Su Casa, in 1960.

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