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May 2015: Spaghetti in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

By Aaron George

Have you ever met someone who has skinned their own SpaghettiO?

On May 12th, 1965 fifty years ago, Donald Goerke invented SpaghettiOs, the round, canned cousins of spaghetti.

The SpaghettiO is now a strangely timeless icon. Looking for a way to make canned pasta more exciting, Goerke experimented with all sorts of shapes—cowboys being the most notable—before he settled on the simple and now-iconic O shape.

After drafting the singer Jimmie Rogers, who transformed one of his romantic ballads into the far more memorable (“It’s the neat little spaghetti that can fit on your spoon/Uh Oh, SpaghettiOs”) every piece was in place for this circular pasta to become a staple of the American diet.

By 2010, over 150 million cans of SpaghettiOs were sold each year; put another way, on average, 720 million Os are consumed every day. One can of SpaghettiOs is identical to the next: the size and shape of the can, the volume of the contents inside, and the taste of the pasta and sauce. In this sense, it is a food source that completely disconnects “food” and “source.”

During the 19th century, Americans believed that only the most ignorant consumers would buy their food without knowing where it came from. Americans knew their local butcher, and were taught to inspect every cut of meat to make sure of its quality. Shopping for food involved knowing where it came from, the reputation of the farmer, whether the seller was trustworthy.

This 1967 coupon entices consumers to try the new "spoonable" and "nourishing" macaroni and cheese.

For Italian-American immigrants, who began arriving in the United States in large numbers between 1880 and 1920, pasta was a cohesive part of ethnic identity. These Italian immigrants stressed the importance of homemade meals shared between an extended family. And even as second generation sons and daughters left their ethnic enclaves and assimilated into mainstream American culture, many of them remembered most of all that they shared meals with their families.

Just as mass immigration from Italy slowed after World War I, spaghetti and meatballs (a uniquely Italian-American dish without analogue in the old country) had started to become part of the mainstream American palette.

At the same time, America’s relationship with food was changing.

Refrigerated train cars, used after the 1880s, allowed meatpackers to send meat long distances, making it impossible to know quite where your food came from.

Grocery stores, like Piggly Wiggly, began to stock canned foods as community grocers became less common.

By the early 1920s, chain stores, like Piggly Wiggly, began gradually replacing community grocers. Inviting shoppers to pick food from the shelves rather than rely on expert grocers, consumers learned to read labels on cans rather than inspect the qualities of the goods they bought.

Home Economics, then a burgeoning academic field, tried to educate wives not to snub canned foods, but to value them as a futuristic and scientific way to revolutionize the kitchen.

Martha Bruire, a home economist, saw home gardens as time-consuming compared to the convenience of canned goods. In 1913 she explained to the readers of Good Housekeeping that, “might we not have been producing noble works of literature instead of rigging up canvas to protect the carrots from the sun?”

Can openers were often touted as miraculous time-savers, as evidenced in this 1932 advertisement.

Food was “for strengthening [peoples'] bodies” one expert claimed, “not for the gratification of their palates.”

After World War II, canned foods became more and more common, along with a smorgasbord of other pre-prepared, processed foods: Jellos, TV dinners, frozen peas, dehydrated juices, and eventually Tangs.

Television chefs extolled the virtues of these new products. A popular TV cook, Poppy Cannon, explained to her viewers that, “At one time a badge of shame, hallmark of the lazy lady and the careless wife, today the can-opener is fast becoming a magic wand.”

Many of these products owed their existence to wartime experiments in keeping food fresh over great distances and for long periods of time. When the war ended, companies unloaded new foodstuffs as consumer items. Like canned food, it was impossible to know what was in Jello, harder still to know where it came from.

Andy Warhol commented on this phenomenon in 1962, with his famous painting of thirty-two types of Campbell’s soup , as uniform as they are bland. As an icon of American pop art, the painting says many things, but one of the most striking is how modern alienation and canned food so easily go hand in hand.

Likewise, consider SpaghettiOs. Once an emblem of cultural distinctiveness, then an ambassador of Italian culture to a mass American culture, spaghetti’s modern incarnation is that of an infinitely replicable suburban snack. Only in a world in which we no longer know our food could SpaghettiOs be successful. In an age of mechanical reproduction, food, like art, is no longer situated in any context.

Warhol's "32 Soup Cans" is on display at the National Gallery of Art. The repeating printed cans provide commentary on American consumption.

In recent years, new diets seem to be everywhere: vegans are now joined by raw foodists, locavores, slow foodies, and gluten free-ers. In equal numbers, Americans seem to mock and avow such diets. No matter your personal opinion on gluten, we can recognise that all these diets have one thing in common: they all strive to recreate a lost connection between consumer and consumed, food and eater.

Modern foodways have left many Americans alienated and longing for a way to better know their food. New diets are in part an attempt to regain a lost way to see food as more than a commodity, but part of a larger system. To be a locavore is to think about food in a way that our great grandparents did.

Do these new movements mean that the SpaghettiOs days are numbered? Unlikely. Still, how will our children’s children see food? Will SpaghettiOs still reign supreme, or will they stress that food is more than daily calories? It isn’t easy to predict.

My bet, however, is that we haven’t seen the last of SpaghettiOs.