What does it mean when Megan Draper makes spaghetti?
May 23, 2014 8:17 PM   Subscribe

When did spaghetti bolognese (or with meatballs) become the classic Anglo-American middle class dinner in the US?

Over in FanFare, we Mad Men fans always make note when Megan Draper seems to be making spaghetti for dinner. Which always seems accompanied with a bottle of red wine and continental flair.

In the 21st century, pasta is considered a convenience food, something you make when you're out of ideas or short on time. In my own 80s childhood, I remember spaghetti bolognese being in heavy rotation, but it didn't have the drab associations it does today (in fact it was my little brother's favorite food).

Obviously there would have been a time in the US when pasta was as exotic as curry or tajine is now, and before that, a time when it was unheard of. Also, spaghetti bolognese seems much more firmly ingrained into the American kitchen in a way that other Italian cuisine isn't (for example pizza is still something you get at restaurants, and baked ziti is mostly traditional in Italian-American families).

When did that transition happen? How did spaghetti go from foreign cuisine to comfort food? And why spaghetti bolognese, out of all Italian-American cuisine?
posted by Sara C. to Food & Drink (53 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think pasta Bolognese, which is a rich, complicated dish of veal and pork cooked in milk, from the north of Italy (Bologna obviously), is the basis of American spaghetti with red sauce. I think spaghetti in red sauce grew out of the spaghetti al pomodoro tradition of southern (Sicilian) immigrants, who made up the majority of the Italian immigration of the late 19th century to New York. Spaghetti al pomodoro is a frugal dish and more what poor immigrants were eating. But the addition of meatballs -- polpettone - to the dish is not traditional anywhere in Italy that I know of.

(I realize this is tangential to your question. I'm also interested in the history of pasta's adoption into the mainstream American diet! Hope others will chime in with more food history.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:25 PM on May 23, 2014 [18 favorites]

And why spaghetti bolognese, out of all Italian-American cuisine?

Do most people really call it spaghetti bolognese? I think most people just call it meat sauce. Thinking about it that way, it makes more sense. Americans like meat.

When you think about it, it is a great American food. Bottled sauce, cheap ground beef, and a package of noodles. It can be ready in under a half hour and a box, 1lb of beef, and a jar is just about the right amount for a family of 4-5 people.

And the truth is, you know, pizza is also quite popular in the US although most people purchase it rather than baking it themselves.

All other dishes require either costlier ingredients, more time, or both. So pasta and sauce is a natural choice.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:29 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, depending on how good a source you consider Alton Brown to be, he did cover it in one episode of Good Eats.
posted by Aleyn at 8:30 PM on May 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Bittman seems to suggest it was sometime prior to 1970; this is the first line of the Spaghetti alla Carbonara recipe in How to Cook Everything:
In the seventies, when most Americans first realized there was pasta beyond tomato sauce, spaghetti alla carbonara was a revelation.
This seems to agree with my half-remembrances of cooking articles and books I've seen from the 50s, which is where you start to see a bit of culinary variety beyond "boil everything" but they were still mistranslating all kinds of concepts, or just doing lots of weird stuff centered around the sales of particular products.
posted by axiom at 8:30 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

fingersandtoes, in the US (and I think in the UK as well), spaghetti bolognese just means red sauce with ground beef.

Although the imagery of meatballs resting on a ring of pasta has near iconic stature, I think most Americans just add browned beef to a jarred red sauce.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:30 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I will say this. My SO, from England, asks for Bolognese. I make him the thing my uncles form Venice made me. He hates it. He wants the kind of red sauce, tinned stuff he remembers, which is much more al pomodoro and very easiy to make whacking great amounts of in an industrial setting. That kind of cooking, Southern-Italty-by-way-of-Italian-Americans-by-way-of-mass production got cemented as go-to convenience food around the time Mad Med is set, and would have been what "Italian" food was for a lot of people.
posted by The Whelk at 8:32 PM on May 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Spaghetti with tomato sauce plus meat balls appears in my mom's Betty Crocker Cook Book, published in 1961, which is a revised edition of the 1950 publication. (Note: the specific word "Bolognese" does not appear in the cookbook, which syncs with my own experience of pasta with tomato/meat sauce; I don't think I ever heard it referred to as Bolognese until the '90s.)
posted by scody at 8:36 PM on May 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have an MFK Fisher book from the forties in which she talks about how spaghetti with butter and parmesan is this classy dish that one makes hot in front of guests, and the recipe seems to suggest that breaking the spaghetti is normal. Admittedly, her recipe (except for breaking the noodles) seems likely to give good results, but internal evidence suggests that it is from a time when non-Italian-Americans just didn't eat spaghetti regularly.

My guesses: that there's a post-WWII connection with Italian food and soldiers being stationed in Europe, not unlike with pizza. In the late fifties and early sixties you start to see a lot of cookbooks in English which provide Mediterranean recipes (Adele Davis) for one thing, and then you see wider distribution of different foods post-war so it's possible for ordinary people to cook differently. And there's the sixties backlash against fifties convenience food, and there's also (as a slightly silly ripple effect of Black Power) more consciousness of white immigrant communities, "ethnic" becomes more fashionable. I also know that my parents, who are a little younger than Megan would be, grew up with the "classy" cuisines being French and Italian.
posted by Frowner at 8:39 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and if I had to guess, I would bet that spaghetti became more of a national, middle America thing (as opposed to a local cuisine in cities with large Italian immigrant populations) following World War II, when soldiers came back from Europe. (on preview: jinx, Frowner!)
posted by scody at 8:40 PM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can we get away from the derail about What Is Spaghetti Bolognese, please? This is very much not a question about authentic regional Italian cuisine.
posted by Sara C. at 8:41 PM on May 23, 2014

I think I know what you're talking about. Growing up, the only pasta my family ever had was spaghetti with meat sauce. this was in the 1980s and 1990s. No penne, or farfalle or anything like that. I think for a long time, spaghetti with meat sauce was the only type of pasta for a lot of Americans.

I think I first tried pesto in like 1997, when I was 16. But now, of course, spaghetti with meat sauce is just one of many kinds of pastas. So I would say that in America, pasta diversified sometimes in the 1990s.

Anyways, I specifically remember reading an article online a few years ago about this very phenomenon. It was titled something like "When Pasta Replaced Spaghetti" or "When Spaghetti Became Pasta." But I don't think that was the exact title because googling that doesn't return much. Here's a Chowhound thread that has a bunch of personal anecdotes about this, though.
posted by mcmile at 8:41 PM on May 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I grew up in the 60's. Very anglo, whitebread American. We NEVER had spaghetti. Not once. Not with or without meatballs. I never had lasagna until I grew up and went to college.

I eat almost nothing I ate as a child. Thai? Unheard of. Sushi? Never. I remember thinking how radical yogurt was when I was in high school. The thought of curdled milk turned my stomach.

On the other hand, we ate squirrel, venison, and a lot of things no red-blooded American would touch now. Times and tastes change.
posted by clarkstonian at 8:43 PM on May 23, 2014

Sophia Loren, in the 50s, told an anecdote where where she was visiting New York for the first time and saw all the pizza places and thought America wasn't as rich as it said it was not realizing it was supposed to be something fun and not a meal "Like having a hot dog."

The American version of pasta with red sauce is much simpler to make, time to boil water and brown ground meat, a very handy housewife meal. It seems like it got mixed with up later with actual Bologense which is veal and milk and takes freaking forever. Someone like Megan, from cities on the east coast with big Italian-American populations (Montreal has a big one) would've absorbed some basics of noddle + sauces + meat as sufficently wholesome and Not Wonderbread.
posted by The Whelk at 8:44 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Spaghetti and meatballs or spaghetti and meatsauce (never called bolognese) standard in my East Coast US house in the 70s and early 80s, not thought of as "Italian food" but also not a "give up and make pasta" fallback meal. Rather, a standard dinner like meatloaf, or curry chicken (with curry powder from the supermarket and not thought of as "Indian") My mom also made manicotti but that was thought of as somewhat more fancy. We are not Italian, as should be clear.
posted by escabeche at 8:47 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the book that you want is We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans by Donna Gabaccia, who is a very respected immigration historian. It's been a long time since I read it, but I think she argues that eating "exotic" immigrant (or fake immigrant) food became a safe way for Anglo-Americans to cross class and ethnic boundaries in the early to early-mid-20th century. So they were basically a little scared of those weird people who lived in those weird neighborhoods in big cities, but they could make those people feel a little less scary and more familiar by eating what they thought of as their food. Meanwhile, ethnic entrepreneurs realized that they could make a lot of money selling watered-down versions of home-country specialties to mainstream Americans.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:53 PM on May 23, 2014 [22 favorites]

Prince Pasta had a campaign in 1969 about Wednesday being spaghetti night. My father, who grew up in Portland, Maine, will to this day respond with spaghetti (meaning with tomato sauce with either ground beef or meatballs) when asked what he'd like for dinner midweek.
posted by Mizu at 8:57 PM on May 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

Yeah, Mizu beat me to it. Prince made a huge contribution to making spaghetti American.

From their website a few years ago:

"Advertising for the company during the period before the 1950s was mainly done in Italian newspapers since spaghetti and macaroni were considered an ethnic food.

Around 1953, Mr. Pellegrino hired the advertising firm of Jerome O'Leary of Boston where they created the famous slogan "Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day." This was an attempt to introduce non-Italians to pasta products. The advertising at this time was done on radio. Prince sponsored "The Stan Freberg Show"; and later did television commercials sponsoring the Sunday Night Movie of the Week. This was a big advancement for Prince. Joseph P. Pellegrino II continued to take an active part in the business in the early 1960s with aggressive advertising and promotions. In 1969, the famous "Anthony" TV commercial was introduced to the public."
posted by inturnaround at 9:05 PM on May 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Megan is from Montreal. My grandpa was from there and would have been about Don Draper's age. He made a wonderful spaghetti with meat sauce, even though he wasn't Italian. It was just a popular Montreal dish. I don't know that Mad Men would have figured that in, but it's worth considering. I grew up with spaghetti in the 70s and 80s, although I'm told that spaghetti was exotic to my parent who started dating the child of my Quebecker grandpa. My grandpa must have learned to make spaghetti in the late 30s or so, since he signed up for the war at the end of his teens and didn't return.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:36 PM on May 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

The WWII tip might be correct. The Good Eats episode Aleyn linked mentions a 1953 cookbook by an US Army cook called Italian Cooking For The American Kitchen as formative in spreading what we think of as spaghetti and meat sauce today.

It stands to reason that said cook probably knew plenty of American GIs who'd been in Italy and craved Italian foods after the war, and thus knew there was a market for these recipes outside the Italian-American community. And his Army cook training probably prepared him to adapt Italian recipes to the American kitchen and palate.

Sadly, it's not available as an ebook via Google Books.
posted by Sara C. at 9:47 PM on May 23, 2014

Just a research hint: in certain Italian parts of the US east coast (including South Philly, where I was born but not anywhere resembling where my family is 'from'), the red sauce ladled on spaghetti noodles has long been referred to as 'gravy', as any regular viewer of The Sopranos should be able to confirm.
posted by item at 10:01 PM on May 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think Megan's connection with spaghetti is as comfort food. She mentions how her mom made it for her and she tries to cook it for the kids too. It's her go-to "Let me signal that I'm comforting you" flag. I'm imagining her parents fled Europe around WW11 so maybe it was something they brought with them? Or picked up in Montreal as Chausette suggests?
posted by bleep at 10:08 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to back up my above 'spaghetti & gravy' comment, instead of me linking to article after article regarding the issue here's me linking to a google search of 'spaghetti & gravy', which might confuse things but also appears to open many new doors. American cuisine is confusing, so therein lies your answer. Or not.
posted by item at 10:14 PM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

According to Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, and NPR, Ettore "Hector" Boiardi - better known as "Chef Boyardee" - had to begin producing his spaghetti sauce and other pre-packaged Italian dishes in a factory in order to keep up with demand. This began in 1928, and by 1938 he found it necessary to move the company from Cleveland to Milton, PA to get access to enough tomatoes. At one point they were allegedly producing 250,000 cans of spaghetti sauce per day. I can't find any info on how quickly his products spread nationwide, but the company also began producing meals for the Army during WWII, and Wikipedia states that "Meat & Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce" was on the C-ration menu by 1943.

The Library of Congress notes a massive influx of Italian immigrants between 1880 and 1920, and Boiardi and the owners of Prince Pasta can't have been the only Italian-Americans looking to make their fortune by mass producing and mass marketing their native dishes (or variations thereof).

So I'd think something like in the 30 years or so before WWII, there's a growing number of Italian restaurants and Italian food products on the shelves of supermarkets, and then there's all those GI's returning to America having tasted spaghetti in meat sauce either in Italy or as a C-ration, with the GI's (being basically the core of the middle-class) providing the sort of "critical mass" to move spaghetti from "exotic" to "standard."

IOW, "sometime in the 10 - 15 years post-WWII" sounds about right to me as an answer to the question of "when?"

"Why spaghetti?" is probably because it's dead simple to make, and the ingredients (boxes of noodles, cans of sauce) were very easy to make & ship on a large scale back in the 30's, 40's and 50's.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:24 PM on May 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

Like others have said, I was always told that spaghetti became popular around/after World War II (similar to the spread of pizza), both from the influence of Italian immigrants (usually from Southern Italy/Sicily) and descendants opening usually affordable restaurants in NY, NJ, PA, and New England (and Montreal?), and GI's who were exposed to spaghetti in the army rations, in Italy and in these Italian American restaurants.

There are some iconic movie scenes that highlight it. In terms of Mad Men, I always suspected they were partly influenced by the movie The Apartment (1960) - I can only find the spaghetti and meatballs scene dubbed into Italian. (Of course, there was also the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp (1955).)

My mother-in-law had a popular 1960 cookbook that we inherited from her called Elegant But Easy by Marian Burros and Lois Levine. It was about making meals for company/entertaining, and included a pretty basic/classic spaghetti with red sauce with meat as one of the recipes, just called "Meat Sauce for Spaghetti", as well as a recipe for meatballs to be served with spaghetti. As Deathalicious says, Americans like meat, so meat sauce or meatballs make sense as something they would take to.

My mother, the child of German immigrants, who grew up in Philadelphia in the '30's and '40's (big Italian population) made spaghetti with meat sauce as part of her dinner meal rotation well before she (and the rest of the country) began to experiment with "ethnic" cuisines.

(Growing up in an Italian area in NJ in the '60's and '70's, I never saw the term gravy used for the sauce in restaurants. Italian Americans may have used that term at home, but they did not put it on menus, probably because non-Italian Americans thought of something very different when they heard the word gravy.)
posted by gudrun at 10:31 PM on May 23, 2014

I think links are covered, but I can remember being a very young child in my very ethnically diverse, very tri-state hometown and asking if my Irish aunt was Italian because of how good her spaghetti and meat sauce was. I remember it being chilly, and I recall a calendar with Revolutionary war battle dates printed on it, so going to guess this was in the winter or early spring of 1976.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:41 PM on May 23, 2014

I note that my dearly departed Mother's 1964 copy of The Joy of Cooking has a recipe for "Italian Spaghetti with Sauce" (pg. 185) which says, "In Italy spaghetti is served in one dish, the sauce in another and grated cheese in a third." The instructions say to coat the noodles with melted butter, then cover with sauce at the table.

The suggested accompanying "Italian Meat Sauce" recipe calls for a pound of ground round and half a pound of pork, two cups of "Italian tomatoes," half a cup of "Italian tomato paste," stock, salt, pepper, and a bay leaf.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:01 PM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a lot on this in How America Eats: A Social History of U. S. Food and Culture (which I recommend!).
posted by wintersweet at 11:14 PM on May 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

In the forties. fifties and sixties, living in the suburban and rural South, I knew some Italian families who were truck farmers and learned from them how to make some Italian dishes. We had enjoyed, in the forties, American spaghetti with tomato sauce as an economical and filling alternate to potato dishes. Plain old-fashioned American spaghetti from a cellophane package with sauce from a can or jar. topped by grated cheddar cheese had been a staple since the war. It also came premixed in cans and jars. That was pretty bland but it was comfort food for a generation.

Later I learned from my Italian-American friends to make what they called red gravy to be used with pasta dishes. It involved lots of garlic, onions, and a long slow browning of ground beef, taking care to break it down into the smallest bits before adding tomato paste which was sizzled just a little and followed by tomato sauce and a lot of whole tomatoes with the pot then simmering for a very long time until everything melded together and was thick and rich. Sometimes, rarely, I was presented with some homemade noodles to use with this but I never learned to make them myself. This authentic red gravy with fresh or packaged spaghetti and aged, freshly grated parmesan was a gourmet family dish of the fifties and sixties and also good for supper parties.

I made both kinds of spaghetti. In the sixties and seventies I also made lasagna and eggplant parmigiana from recipes I got from my Italian-American farmer friends. Sometime in the sixties, there was a priest from Italy staying on the farm with them for a time and he made Spaghetti Carbonara for us. We promptly added that to our repertoire that summer, along with vodka gimlets he introduced for happy hour. Party food of the sixties also included elaborate curries and the popular craze for luaus -- Hollywood Hawaiian food. In those days, fads and fashions travelled less quickly than they do today so what I experienced in the sleepy south might have been already old news in big cities. There was a real sense of exploring the world's cuisine although today, we actually do that a lot better; anybody with a computer and a few bucks who chooses can be an international gourmet. I love the internet!

I've often wondered about the Italian families who moved to the rural South and prospered as truck farmers, always growing vegetables and gravitating toward all kinds of food production and presentation. I've met them in evangelical churches and heard the story of their older generations, especially the women, who felt abandoned by their church and found it impossible to be Catholic when there were no priests available to give the sacraments to so few immigrants until one by one the families despaired of Rome and found a protestant church closer to the farm. I first met Italian-Americans at a protestant church. My first crush, in fact, was on the beautiful son of one of these farmers. That was not to be but it left me with a deep appreciation for their family atmosphere and their lovely cuisine.
posted by Anitanola at 11:27 PM on May 23, 2014 [41 favorites]

Pasta (macaroni and spaghetti) with tomatoes was certainly appearing in mainstream cookbooks by 1930. The linked page seems to show that pasta was in reasonably common use in the decade prior to WWII.
posted by pipeski at 1:52 AM on May 24, 2014

In the UK tinned spaghetti was the gateway pasta, eaten widely as an alternative to baked beans in the late sixties and early seventies; then people traded up to real spaghetti, common by the mid seventies. The revolting tinned variety probably shaped expectations of what spaghetti was supposed to be, with default spaghetti al sugo coming closest and baptised bolognese for no good reason.

Might not be the same in the US.
posted by Segundus at 3:29 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

In my copy of Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, Sylvia Lovegren has a couple of paragraphs on early sightings of pasta in the 1920s, and includes a 1924 recipe that involves boiling the spaghetti for one (!) hour, then pouring a cooked tomato-cream sauce over it and throwing it in the oven for a further 20 minutes.

She doesn't mention when adding meat to the sauce became a thing, and doesn't really touch pasta again until the chapter on the 1970s.
posted by telophase at 3:44 AM on May 24, 2014

I grew up in the 80s and 90s, middle class, in Central/Upstate New York in a HEAVILY Italian area. Spaghetti & meatballs was my go-to dish as a kid. Even when my mom would make a meat sauce, it was really just a red sauce plus ground beef, not what I would consider an actual traditional bolognese sauce (more like a Ragù, I suppose)
posted by JimBJ9 at 3:51 AM on May 24, 2014

A few seasons back, Megan pitched an idea involving spaghetti. People were impressed.

The spaghetti pitch was a fluke, not a display of creative brilliance. There's no depth to Megan, she's just spaghetti. The writers are showing her up.
posted by popcassady at 4:45 AM on May 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

My mom told me that for her growing up in an Irish/WASP family (in the thirties and forties) Italian food was always something that you went out for and never cooked at home. She mentioned that people didn't like having the garlic smell in the house. I assume that there was a classist element to this attitude.
posted by octothorpe at 4:56 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Fresh Air did a segment on this 3 years ago.
posted by sporknado at 5:00 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

My mother, born in 1948, likes to tell the story of her mother's "spaghetti and red sauce"--egg noodles with ketchup and cottage cheese on it. This was New Jersey in the 1950s in a very Jewish, suburban household. Spaghetti was clearly on the radar even if the particulars weren't quite understood.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:05 AM on May 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is probably a pointless anecdote at this point, but I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, white, German, lower middle class. We were not Italian but a lot of our neighbors were. We ate spaghetti a lot. My grandfather would complain about eating strange foreign food if my mom made it when he visited. So it must have come in sometime between my grandparents time and my parents.

Somewhere at home I have some old newsletters from a hiking club in Philadelphia in the 1950s that my great aunt belonged to. One of the hikes includes a stop at an Italian restaurant, but those who don't like Italian food are assured they have American food as well.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:26 AM on May 24, 2014

Judging by the movies, spaghetti was in transition during the 1960s, from exotic, to safely-exotic (the sort of thing not-very-adventurous people could feel adventurous eating), to every-day.

Others have mentioned Lady and the Tramp (1955), but I think it's important to note that in the movie, spaghetti is something that you get at a fancy restaurant, while a stereotypically foreign waiter sings to you in Italian.

In The Apartment (1960) preparing spaghetti is part of showing that Jack Lemmon's character is just cosmopolitan enough. He prepares spaghetti with meatballs, but he clearly treats it as ethnic food (for example singing faux Italian gibberish while he prepares it) and he certainly doesn't have the proper equipment to prepare it, instead making do by straining it through a tennis racket. All this is in stark contrast to his sleazy, predatory boss, who has the white-bread house in the suburbs but sneaks out to take his mistresses to Chinese restaurants on the sly.

Even as late as 1967 the perceived noxiousness of the cooking smell from pasta sauce is one of the many, many bones of contention in The Odd Couple, and only persnickety Felix understands the difference between spaghetti and linguine.

And to add a personal anecdote, there are still places where spaghetti with meatballs is not a part of the classic comfort food repertoire. My wife's small-town Scandinavian-Minnesotan family will gladly eat pizza (as long as the sauce is sweet and devoid of spices) but I've never seen them eat pasta, and I think they would be rather discomfited if we tried to serve it to them.
posted by firechicago at 5:30 AM on May 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

My mom typed up a bunch of family recipes a few years ago, including one for spaghetti with meat sauce (which involves adding things like canned tomatoes and mushrooms and dried parsley to jarred sauce). It's listed as being from the kitchen of (great grandmother) Romelda, which dates it to the 1930s or 40s. I'm pretty sure Romelda lived in Michigan.

That side of the family had lived in America for several generations and was super German.
posted by phunniemee at 5:31 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Google Books yields some pre-World War i (One) cookbook appearances for spaghetti with tomato sauce, indicating the stuff was already pretty current at that time. But nothing before 1900.

1905: "Maccaroni [or Spaghetti] and Tomatoes" (scroll to page 47) — from Italian Recipes for Food Reformers. Note: this is a vegetarian cookbook ("advocat[ing] for the discontinuance of the grosser and more barbarous forms of food, consisting of the bodies of creatures who have once had life"). The "Maccaroni" section heading notes that "[u]nder this heading may be included Spaghetti, Tagliatelli, Nouilles Gnocchi, etc."

1909: Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce — from How to Cook Vegetables by Olive Green, in a section called "Thirty-One Ways to Cook Spaghetti" — four of them with tomato sauce, two of those with grated Parmesan

1909: Spaghetti with Tomatoes — Mazdaznan Encyclopedia of Dietetics and Home Cook Book: Cooked and Uncooked Foods (published by Maszdaznan Associates of God, Chicago, a neo-Zoroastrian religious movement that taught vegetarianism)

1911: Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce — from Mrs. Dwelle's Cook Book: A Manual of Practical Recipes. Mrs. Dwelle recommends: "Break a package of Minnesota Spaghetti into boiling water and boil for thirty minutes." (That Minnesota Spaghetti must have been tough stuff.)
posted by beagle at 5:44 AM on May 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

In The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin cooks his shoes and then twirls his shoelaces the way you twirl spaghetti on a fork (1:59). The film came out in 1925. For the shoelace gag to be funny, eating spaghetti would have had to be totally mainstream by then.
posted by beagle at 5:52 AM on May 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

For a taste of how American spaghetti had become by 1967, see Dinner at Eight, a seventh season episode of The Andy Griffith Show.

The residents of Mayberry act like spaghetti is an exotic Italian dish--you'll never guess the secret ingredient!--yet somehow everyone poor Andy encounters that evening has cooked another heaping helping of the stuff.

Maybe it was a Wednesday.
posted by General Tonic at 7:12 AM on May 24, 2014

I remember an old b/w episode of the Andy Griffith Show in which he had to have dinner with different townspeople in their homes on successive nights and each time the housewife made her best dish to impress, spaghetti. The kicker was, each woman confided in him that she used a special secret ingredient to make it taste good: oregano. That would've been early/mid 60s.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:13 AM on May 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:14 AM on May 24, 2014

"And to add a personal anecdote, there are still places where spaghetti with meatballs is not a part of the classic comfort food repertoire. My wife's small-town Scandinavian-Minnesotan family will gladly eat pizza (as long as the sauce is sweet and devoid of spices) but I've never seen them eat pasta, and I think they would be rather discomfited if we tried to serve it to them."

Seconding this. One of my friends growing up had a grandfather from the Midwest who seemed to find pasta one of the most offensive horrors of modern society ("look, who in their right mind would eat wet bread ??!!" was said in complete seriousness on more than one occasion).
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 7:35 AM on May 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

> For the shoelace gag to be funny, eating spaghetti would have had to be totally mainstream by then.

Not true, it just had to be widely known/believed that that's how people (presumably Italians) who ate spaghetti did it.
posted by languagehat at 7:55 AM on May 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just pulled out the Railroader's Cookbook from the Wyoming Division of the Union Pacific... the wives put it together I think- its from 1965.

There is a section for "Italian, Mexican, Chinese Foods" and there are 2 recipes for Spaghetti in it...
posted by misspony at 8:24 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the movie "Big Night," set in 1950s New Jersey, the restaurant-going-public's expectation of spaghetti and meatballs merits its own scene.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:04 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

As recently as the eighties around Chicago, there was a strong sense among non-Italian-Americans that the "Italian" kids were trashy/lower-class/sexually licentious/etc - that was certainly how things were organized socially in my high school. It wasn't articulated quite like that, but the Italian-American kids were definitely way less likely to be in honors and were considered trashy even if they were. There were also some genuine subcultural/fashion differences in terms of hairstyles and musical taste - more of the Italian-American kids had ties to the city and were less parochial, basically.

My point being that there really used to be a lot of hostility by WASPs to people of Italian descent and that it was strong enough to persist until very recently in a relatively well-off and cultured area, so it would be no surprise that the adoption of Italian food would be uneven and political in nature.

Having moved to Minnesota from the Chicago area, I am not surprised about people's hostility to pasta. You just cannot get good Italian food around here - even the "good" local Italian food is not a shadow of what I could get in, like, the downtown of a very ordinary railroad suburb back home.

Also, MFK Fisher, writing in the thirties and forties, refers to noodles/pasta as "pastes", clearly from the wheat "pastes" used to make them, which seems to me to underline the exotic nature of pasta at the time. She was very well-traveled and non-parochial, so if something seemed novel to her, it was probably not well-known among WASPy USians.
posted by Frowner at 9:29 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

My much older sister got married in 1969. I was 5. She would have my parents and I over for dinner once every 2 - 3 weeks, and spaghetti and meatballs was almost always the meal she made. Homemade sauce and meatballs. This was a meal my mother never made, and I had only had at restaurants before. My parents thought it exotic; I found it delicious; and, my sister found it cheap. Win, win, win. We were an upper middle class family outside of Boston. My father looked like a character from Mad Men when he went to work - suits, hat, briefcase, etc.
posted by hworth at 10:35 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

a couple of paragraphs on early sightings of pasta in the 1920s, and includes a 1924 recipe that involves boiling the spaghetti for one (!) hour, then pouring a cooked tomato-cream sauce over it and throwing it in the oven for a further 20 minutes.

Yeah, I've found a lot of references to baked/casserole-style pasta (often macaroni, not spaghetti) with tomato sauce from the 20s and 30s. Since that's not how most Anglo-Americans think of spaghetti with meat sauce today, it's not really an answer.

Though one point of confusion I had was how spaghetti became so ubiquitous when it revolves around what, at one time, must have been a hard to find specialty ingredient. Knowing that it had been available decades before it became popular in its modern form helps understand the transition. Spaghetti and meat sauce in the 50s is more like a tofu dish today (tofu, available in every supermarket), not a tofu dish in 1970 (tofu, a weird health food store thing).
posted by Sara C. at 11:01 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Now that I'm more awake, coming back to add that the foodtimeline site has some history for you. If you go to the section on pasta, macaroni and noodles, they have a nice sub section on spaghetti in the U.S.A, spaghetti and meatballs, tomato sauce and tomato gravy, etc..

In thinking about the sauce, I started wondering about cheese. I looked up the history of Kraft grated parmesan, and found it was introduced in the U.S. in 1945, and in Canada a year later. This post has stuff on the rise of Italian food and cheese manufacturing.
posted by gudrun at 11:14 AM on May 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

You sound like you would enjoy The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution, for which the hardback copy has the description "One day we woke up and realized that our “macaroni” had become “pasta,” that our Wonder Bread had been replaced by organic whole wheat, that sushi was fast food, and that our tomatoes were heirlooms. How did all this happen, and who made it happen?..."

Spaghetti is mentioned in the book (according to Amazon's search) though I don't remember whether it specifically addresses the transition of that food, but the book definitely addresses the underlying question you're asking about how the US got to be more cosmopolitan in its food consumption somewhere between the 50s and the 80s.
posted by librarylis at 10:47 PM on May 25, 2014

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