Have Americans really been eating Spaghetti-O's for 30 years? Has "The Neat Round Spaghetti You Can Eat With A Spoon" really reached the age where it can no longer be trusted? Can it be true that a second generation of kids is devouring can-after-can of "The Greatest Invention Since the Napkin?"
You bet. And while it may not seem like a product whose birthday should rank with the hula hoop or even Spam, don't sell those O's short as a cultural icon. They've shown up on that greatest of all pop-culture barometers, David Letterman's Top-10 lists (Signs the Easter Bunny is Nuts: No. 5, Home filled with thousands of old bodybuilding magazines and cans of Spaghetti-O's). Their creator appeared on the Today show this week to mark its 30 years on American grocery shelves. And Campbell's Soup, parent company of Franco-American, threw the circular noodles a big birthday bash in Columbus, OhiO (the company's plant in nearby Napoleon is the largest producer of Spaghetti-O's).
That's right, Spaghetti-O's . . . the round pasta that spawned one of those insufferable advertising jingles no one who grew up in the '60s can forget; the food product consumed by Americans at the rate of 90 million pounds a year; the circular spaghetti that many kids under 10 subsist on (along with peanut butter and jelly and macaroni and cheese) and most adults wouldn't touch with a 10-foot spoon.
"My 8-year-old, Jeff, is convinced it's the only food he can eat," says Betsy Dawson, a mother of four who lives in Annapolis. "Sure, I'd like him to eat fruit and vegetables and pasta with a little olive oil and Parmesan cheese and non-fat frozen yogurt. But you feed them what they will eat."
And does she ever eat O's herself?
"Never," she says, appalled at the thought.
Sadly, not all adults outgrow the stuff.
Earlier this year, Thomas J. Grasso, a convicted killer on death row in Oklahoma, was asked by prison officials what he wanted for his last meal. For Grasso, there was only one choice: Spaghetti-Os.
But Grasso didn't get his wish. Instead of Spaghetti-O's, he was served the kind of pasta you eat with a fork. And he wasn't happy about it.
"I did not get Spaghetti-O's, I got spaghetti," an outraged Grasso complained before he was executed by lethal injection March 20. "I want the press to know about this."
No one thought Spaghetti-O's would inspire that kind of devotion when Franco-American first introduced them in 1965.
"We were looking for something that would target into kids, make the product more exciting, hopefully get mothers to serve it more often," says marketer Don Goerke, now 68. Borrowing a shape that Cheerios already had proven was a hit with kids, he gambled that O-shaped lightning would strike twice.
Thirty years later, Spaghetti-O's are still the dominant force among "canned kids pasta," according to Campbell's. If that doesn't seem like much to brag about, try this: the people of Grand Rapids, Mich., alone eat 3 million servings of the stuff a year.
And parents don't have to feel that guilty about letting their kids eat lunch or dinner out of a can. A 7 1/2 -ounce serving of Spaghetti-O's has 166 calories, 1.6 grams of fat, 5.2 grams of protein, 32.7 grams of carbohydrates and 883 milligrams of sodium.
Sheri Sabol, a spokesman for the Maryland Dietetic Association, says Spaghetti-O's are high in sodium, but not in fat and calories. "So it's not really bad as a food for children," she says.
"It's good, it's better than giving them junk to eat," agrees Mercy Shinksy of Parkville, a mother of three boys whose oldest, 7-year-old Mark, often takes Spaghetti-O's to school with him for lunch. "There's never any leftovers, they eat it all."
Part of the appeal of Spaghetti-Os is the way it is eaten, says Carolyn Wyman, a syndicated food columnist and author of "I'm a Spam Fan," a paean to the glories of processed food.
"I assume they developed this thing because kids couldn't handle eating spaghetti. It's a life skill, like tying your shoelaces, that takes a while to develop," she says. "And since they could no longer slurp it up and make a mess that way, what it offered for kids was that they could eat it with a spoon, which was sort of a naughty thing, sort of like eating peas with a knife."
But the O's would be nowhere without their jingle. Just ask the man who sang it.
Jimmie Rodgers had already enjoyed several monster hits, including "Honeycomb" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," when he was asked to sing a few words about round noodles. For years afterward, he would close every show with a song that lasted less than a minute.
"It always brings the house down," says the 61-year-old country singer, who largely retired from performing after a serious auto accident 28 years ago. But even over the phone from his office in Branson, Mo., where he is the musical director for an entertainment agency, no one says "Uh-Oh" quite like Jimmie Rodgers.
Today, the advertising that keeps Spaghetti-O's in the forefront of kids' palates has changed little. It's invention is still compared favorably to the napkin. And the "Uh-Oh Spaghetti-O's" line is still a part of most every American's vocabulary -- whether they like it or not.
"Boy, did that ever catch on with the kids," says Mr. Goerke, now semi-retired and living in southern New Jersey. "I've heard so many times, where someone will say 'Oh-oh,' and someone else comes up and says 'Spaghetti-O's.'"