The spaghetti-tree hoax was a three-minute hoax report broadcast on April Fools’ Day in 1957 by the BBC current-affairs programme 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 spaghetti is made from wheat flour and water; a number of viewers afterwards contacted the BBC for advice on growing their own spaghetti trees. Decades later CNN called this broadcast “the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled.
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 report was produced as an April Fools’ Day joke in 1957, showing 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. 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. The report was made more believable through its voiceover by respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. Pasta was not an everyday food in 1950s Britain, known mainly from tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce and considered by many to be an exotic delicacy.
At the time, seven million of the 15.8 million homes in Britain had television sets. An estimated eight million people watched the programme 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.”
Pasta in the West may first have been worked to long, thin forms in Sicily around the 12th century, as the Tabula Rogeriana of Muhammad al-Idrisi attested, reporting some traditions about the Sicilian kingdom. The popularity of pasta spread to the whole of Italy after the establishment of pasta factories in the 19th century, enabling the mass production of pasta for the Italian market.
In the United States around the end of the 19th century, spaghetti was offered in restaurants as Spaghetti Italienne (which likely consisted of noodles cooked past al dente, and a mild tomato sauce flavored with easily found spices and vegetables such as cloves, bay leaves, and garlic) and it wasn’t until decades later that it came to be commonly prepared with oregano or basil. Canned spaghetti, kits for making spaghetti and spaghetti with meatballs became popular, and the dish has become a staple in the U.S.
Nowadays spaghetti is an emblem of Italian cuisine and it is frequently served with tomato sauce, which may contain various herbs (especially oregano and basil), olive oil, meat, or vegetables. Other spaghetti preparations include using Bolognese sauce, alfredo and carbonara. Grated hard cheeses, such as Pecorino Romano, Parmesan and Grana Padano, are often added. It is also sometimes served with chili.
Poisson Avril, happy April fool’s day!