The Swiss Spaghetti HarvestOn April 1, 1957 the British news show, Panorama, broadcast a segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed to an unusually mild winter. The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show's highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched a rural Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets.
"The spaghetti harvest here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry," Dimbleby informed the audience. "Many of you, I'm sure," he continued, "will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley. For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair."
The narration then continued in a tone of absolute seriousness:
"Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depradations have caused much concern in the past."
Dimbleby anticipated some questions viewers might have. For instance, why, if spaghetti grows on trees, does it always come in uniform lengths? The answer was that "this is the result of many years of patient endeavor by past breeders who succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti."
Blurry photo of Swiss family harvesting spaghetti
And apparently the life of a spaghetti farmer was not free of worries: "The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There's always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavor and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets."
But finally, Dimbleby assured the audience that, "For those who love this dish, there's nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti."
Of course, the broadcast was just an April Fool's Day joke. But soon after the broadcast ended, the BBC began to receive hundreds of calls from puzzled viewers. Did spaghetti really grow on trees, they wanted to know. Others were eager to learn how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC reportedly replied that they should "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."
To be fair to the viewers, spaghetti was not a widely eaten food in Britain during the 1950s and was considered by many to be very exotic. Its origin must have been a real mystery to most people. Even Sir Ian Jacob, the BBC's director general, later admitted that he had to run to a reference book to check on where spaghetti came from after watching the show.
The prestige of the Panorama show itself, and the general trust that was still placed in the medium of television, also lent the claim credibility. The idea for the segment was dreamed up by one of the Panorama cameramen, Charles de Jaeger. He later said that the idea occurred to him when he remembered one of his grade-school teachers chiding him for being "so stupid he would believe spaghetti grew on trees."
- The BBC has the original broadcast of the Panorama documentary available online in the realvideo format. The realvideo player must be installed on your computer in order to view the broadcast.