Apr 012016
 

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The spaghetti-tree hoax was a three-minute spoof report broadcast on April Fools’ Day 1957 by the BBC current-affairs program Panorama, purportedly showing a family in southern Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from the family “spaghetti tree.” At the time spaghetti was relatively little known in the UK, so that many Britons were unaware that it is made from wheat flour and water; a number of viewers afterwards contacted the BBC for advice on growing their own spaghetti trees.

The report showed a family in the canton of Ticino in southern Switzerland as they gathered a bumper spaghetti harvest after a mild winter and “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” Footage of a traditional “Harvest Festival” was aired along with a discussion of the breeding necessary to develop a strain to produce the perfect length – every strand equal in length. Some scenes were filmed at the (now closed) Pasta Foods factory on London Road, St Albans, in Hertfordshire, and at a hotel in Castagnola, Switzerland.

Panorama cameraman Charles de Jaeger dreamed up the story after remembering how teachers at his school in Austria teased his classmates for being so stupid that if they were told that spaghetti grew on trees, they would believe it. The editor of Panorama, Michael Peacock, told the BBC in 2014 how he gave de Jaeger a budget of £100 and sent him off. The report was made more believable through its voiceover by respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. Peacock said Dimbleby knew they were using his authority to make the joke work, and that Dimbleby loved the idea and went at it with relish.

At the time, 7 million of the 15.8 million homes in Britain had television sets (about 44%). Pasta was not an everyday food in 1950s Britain, and it was known mainly from tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce and considered by many to be an exotic delicacy. An estimated 8 million people watched the program on 1 April, and hundreds phoned in the following day to question the authenticity of the story or ask for more information about spaghetti cultivation and how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”

Here’s the original:

If you know 1950s Britain you’ll understand what a perfect spoof this is, and how people could be taken in. This is exactly like an original report of the time, and Dimbleby’s sangfroid is spot on.

It’s also quite true that Brits, even into the 60s had no idea how spaghetti was produced. Around 1966 I was at a boy scout camp talking to a fellow patrol leader about spaghetti, and he told me that he had found out how easy it was to “make” spaghetti.  I thought he meant using flour, water, and eggs, because my father often made pasta from scratch like that. NO!!! In all earnestness he explained to me that you could buy it dried in packs and boil it, instead of opening a tin. I was shocked at his naiveté.

There have been numerous other April 1 spoofs like this 1857 ticket to see the annual washing of the lions ceremony at the tower of London:

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Or this “accident” at the new Copenhagen Metro:

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But, for my money the BBC spaghetti harvest stands sublime and will never be equaled. The 2009 report by Terry Jones showing Antarctic penguins flying to South America for the winter is well done, but its just not the same.

What better dish to celebrate than spaghetti on toast?  To people in the U.S. and Italy this sounds like a joke of its own. But it was, and is, a common favorite. We used to have it for a light evening meal on Sundays in place of the more common baked beans on toast when I was a boy. I liked it very much and would probably still enjoy it if offered to me. (I know, that’s a terrible admission). It’s a kind of childhood memory of comfort food.

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You don’t need a recipe – heat a tin of spaghetti and pour it over fresh toast.

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