1957 was a banner year for Switzerland’s spaghetti farmers. A mild winter paired with a dramatic decrease in the population of the dreaded spaghetti weevil led to the record harvest that has to this day never been equaled. Small family farms went into overdrive plucking spaghetti strands from the trees that had been carefully cultivated to produce spaghetti of precisely the same length. The harvest was followed, as always, by a feast featuring the traditional dish, which, of course, is spaghetti, harvested and sun-dried fresh that morning.
This was the report presented by BBC news program Panorama on April 1, 1957. Panorama had long been a source of reliable serious news. After the story aired, viewers flooded the network with calls, a few of which were disgruntled viewers, but most of which were people genuinely interested in the story. Some even asked how they might grow their own spaghetti trees.
To be fair to the public duped by such a ridiculous prank, spaghetti was not yet a widely known dish in England. It was available only in a canned form and, really, canned vegetables (which have been nearly as processed as spaghetti’s original grain anyway) can kind of resemble pasta in texture. And Panorama went all out. I have to admit, it is a pretty convincing segment.
I have to wonder, though, why a serious news program would sacrifice its integrity to pull a silly prank on its trusting audience? The answer to that question is irritatingly unclear. I mean, yes, the BBC was participating in the long held tradition of April Fools’ Day when we are all supposed to get a little silly and try to make fools of one another. But why do we do it?
There are a couple of theories. The most common one batted about has to do with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar which placed the start of the New Year on January 1 instead of the vernal equinox, which happens just a little before April 1. Only fools continued to celebrate the old holiday instead of the new and so they became the victims of ridicule. One trouble with this theory is that England didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 and by then, April Fools’ Day had already long been a thing.
In 1983, Joseph Boskin, a Boston University history professor, presented perhaps a more plausible theory. According to the professor, a court jester by the name of Kugal claimed that he could run the Roman Empire better than Emperor Constantine. Amused by the claim (because if history has taught us anything it’s that Roman emperors liked having their authority challenged), Constantine gave up his throne for a day to Kugal whose first order of business was to declare a day of foolishness. The problem with this theory, of course, is that Boskin made the whole thing up as an elaborate April Fools’ prank.
And that, I think, is why we will never know the real history behind this very silly day that turns the most serious of people into
slightly mean-spirited jokesters. It is a day that has French children pinning paper fish to their teachers’ backs, pointing and erupting in giggles as they announce: “Poisson d’Avril!” (roughly translated as, “French children are not particularly known to be clever pranksters!”).
It is a day that encourages an otherwise loving sister to empty a Cadbury Cream Egg of its fondant center and reseal it with chopped onions packed inside so that she can coax her trusting brother into taking a bite (Alas, I can’t claim this one as my own as it was my sister who pulled off this feat. I did laugh, though.)
Maybe we just do it because the sun is finally shining a little more brightly, the flowers are starting to bloom, and the fading memory of the harsh trudge through winter makes us a little giddy. Whatever the reason for it, today is the day for harvesting spaghetti, assuming you remembered to plant your tree. According to the BBC all you have to do is “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce, and hope for the best.”