The year was 1974, and Takeo Sakata was holding a dinner party. “Conversation centered around the spaghetti squash,” a guest later recalled, “and the struggle Mr. Sakata had had in introducing it to the West.”
That night, Sakata was looking back on a distinguished six decades at the head of Japan’s top seed company. He had founded Sakata Seed Corporation in 1913, growing it from a small purveyor of lily bulbs into a major multinational developer of flower, fruit, and vegetable varieties. Today, the spaghetti squash can be counted among Sakata’s many successes; but it was far from an overnight one.
Since the 1930s, Sakata had been the exclusive marketer of spaghetti squash in the United States. According to Dr. Harry Paris of Israel’s Volcani Institute Agricultural Research Organization, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on spaghetti squash, “[the Japanese] were the only ones interested in it for some time.”
What Paris calls his own “incurable cucurbitis” (obsession with cucurbits, that is, squashes and their kin) began in his childhood in 1960s Brooklyn. A 1964 New York Times profile of Sakata called “The Master Seedsman of Japan” made a passing reference to “a curious fruit called vegetable spaghetti,” but Paris doesn’t recall ever hearing of spaghetti squash until the late 1970s, when he was breeding plants in Israel and collecting obscure varieties for his “toolbox” of genetic traits.
Americans took a long time to warm to this mild-tasting, oblong yellow squash, set apart by its densely coiled inner fibers, which separate when the squash is cooked into strands that distinctly resemble noodles. “You’d be surprised how many examples there are of things that have been around a while until they are rediscovered by people who appreciate them,” says Dr. Paris. He compares the spaghetti squash with the zucchini, a crop that was local to Milan, Italy for decades before it became the world’s most popular summer squash.
Zucchini and spaghetti squash belong to the same species, Cucurbita pepo, which originated in the Americas. Starting in the 16th century, traders carried squash and their seeds across the world. Wherever the seeds took root, farmers used selective breeding to develop varieties, with results as diverse as carving pumpkin, butternut, pattypan, and, in China’s northeastern region of Manchuria, what locals called yúchì guā. The name, “shark-fin gourd,” referred to how its stringy flesh resembled the finely-shredded shark fin used in soup.
But while real shark fin is expensive, shark fin gourd was abundant. Each plant readily produced up to 30 pounds of squash in a season, and the gourds could last off the vine for months, thanks to their hard outer shell. Manchurian farmers used rasps to scrape out the insides, consuming them sun-dried or fresh in soups and stir-fries.
After Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese government sent thousands of settlers into the region to establish farms. This new market attracted the attention of agribusiness owners, including Sakata. Seeing commercial potential in the shark fin gourd, Sakata and other seed moguls brought it back to Japan, where it became known as somen-kabocha, after somen noodles, or kinshi-uri, “gold thread melon.” Sakata himself reportedly enjoyed the squash, which in Japan was used in side dishes or, like somen, in soups both cold and hot.
The seeds soon trickled into international markets. As early as 1932, an American seed catalog, Good Luck Gardens, promoted the “new wonder vegetable.” “Down goes the cost of living!” read the ad, which touted the “squaghetti” as an economic source of pasta. (This same catalog wrongfully claimed the wonder vegetable was both Persian and “a favorite of the ancients.”)
Meanwhile, Sakata was breeding an improved commercial variety, selecting for traits that would make it more desirable to growers. “A breeder has to know the individual crop, has to be at least fairly familiar with its variability, in order to really work with its genetic variation to come up with an idea,” says Dr. Paris. It’s unclear how long it took Sakata to develop his unique spaghetti squash. Paris suggests three years as the minimum amount of time needed to develop a new squash variety. Paris’s own spaghetti squash, the Orangetti, was developed in six years.
Once Sakata had bred his improved spaghetti squash, he licensed the seeds to Burpee and other American companies. A 1935 Burpee seed catalog calls vegetable spaghetti (the preferred name at the time) “a recently-introduced vegetable and but little known as of yet.” Later catalogs would stress the crop’s productivity and shelf-life, although the unique texture of the flesh was the main selling point. Advertisements featured testimonials from happy growers (“spaghetti vegetable has them all beat for pies. My friends and neighbors are wild about them”) and tantalizing serving suggestions (“serve hot with browned butter and bread crumbs”; “delicious fried like egg plant when small and tender,”) but both proved ineffective. Sakata and his American partners kept crowing about the “wonder vegetable,” but consumers just didn’t see the big deal.
Throughout the 20th century, spaghetti squash continued to appear in US seed catalogs, but only as a curiosity, alongside other crops that have since failed to penetrate the American mainstream, such as “peaches on a vine” (a peach-sized sweet melon) and ground-growing “almond nuts” (tigernuts, a small nutlike tuber from Africa). Vaughan’s Gardening Illustrated called spaghetti squash “a novelty” as late as 1963 (though they did correct their 1934 assertion that it was Italian). “Pity the Misunderstood Spaghetti Squash” was a Chicago Tribune headline in 1963, which called it “the most underutilized gourd.” “Mr. Sakata was bewildered by the lack of interest,” wrote Derek Fell in 1982’s The Vegetable Spaghetti Cookbook. It would take a massive shift in Western food culture before consumers finally took notice of spaghetti squash: this time, as a health food.
Jonathan Kauffman, author of Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat, notes that health food was a familiar concept to Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, but that there were major changes over time in our definition of healthy eating.
The 1970s saw the rise of the natural foods movement, Kauffman explains, “when the idea of ‘healthy’ got intertwined with the idea of stripping away the industrial food supply and returning back to nature, with unprocessed foods.” A growing population of vegetarians, whom Kauffman calls “the avant-garde of American cuisine,” sought out unconventional options in their quest for healthy eating, exploring international cuisines and little-known curiosities.
After the 1970s, Kauffman believes there were two very different dietary shifts. “One was that organics and health food and all of that went mainstream,” he says, as large corporations picked up the trends of the counterculture. The other shift, in the 1980s and 90s, was the rise of the low-fat movement, followed by low-carb, something that in Kauffman’s words, “nobody was really talking about in the 1970s.”
Enter the spaghetti squash.
In the late 20th century, the marketing of Sakata’s spaghetti squash began to center around its appeal to an increasingly calorie-conscious public. The flesh of the squash had long been compared with noodles, but now, for the first time, it was marketed as a healthier alternative to them, with one-fifth the calories, one-quarter the carbs, and a negligible amount of fat. With different food priorities than their grandparents, American consumers took interest in the curiously stringy gourd that had been hiding in plain sight for decades.
“It has virtually no calories,” wrote Marian Morash of spaghetti squash in 1982’s The Victory Garden Cookbook. In 1998, another cookbook called it “a vegetable wonder that is low-fat and low-calorie with the sensory pleasure of pasta.” Although recipes of the 1980s and 1990s still suggested boiling or steaming the squash, one of the first recipes to present it explicitly as a healthier pasta alternative, published by Frieda’s Branded Produce in 1975, was developed using a microwave oven.
Kauffman believes that there’s a connection between the rise in spaghetti squash’s popularity and the increasing prevalence of microwaves in American homes. The device made preparing the squash a cinch (though he remembers that the first time his family microwaved spaghetti squash, “we hated it”).
Spaghetti squash was finally in the limelight. “But you have to be a pretty good cook to know what to do with it,” says Dr. Paris. One of the factors that led Paris to develop his Orangetti in the 1980s was a desire to make the squash more flavorful. Aside from the Orangetti, consumers now have their pick of cultivars, with names like Stripetti and Hasta la Pasta. Sakata Seed Corporation even refined their own spaghetti squash into the Tivoli, which won the All-American Selections award for new crop varieties in 1991. This is the only context in which spaghetti squash is mentioned on the company’s English-language website, which focuses on other Sakata triumphs like double-flowered petunias and Japan’s favorite melon.
Takeo Sakata died in 1984 at the age of 96. He did not live to see the success of the new Tivoli variety, but he did live long enough to see the Manchurian shark fin gourd he first cultivated some 90 years ago realize its potential; it just took changes in what we look for in our food. Dr. Paris asks us to imagine if spaghetti squash could have achieved its present popularity if consumers had never become interested in low-calorie and low-fat foods. “I don’t think so,” he muses. “Maybe yes, maybe no, but that’s the way things are.”
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