When I first received word about Star Wars soups and SpaghettiOs, I was fascinated. Imagine: Star Wars and SpaghettiOs, together at last, and for once, not on some fourth-grader’s shirt. Toys are one thing, but how can the galaxy far, far away invade your dinner table? We had to investigate.
Questions swarmed. Is it safe to nosh on Darth Vader’s face? Is Chewy mushy? Mostly, I wondered how the mad geniuses at Campbell’s Soup transform ordinary noodle components into my favorite Jedis, Ewoks, and Binkses. After all, the very inventor of the SpaghettiO, Donald Goerke, was hailed as a genius for simplifying the noodle’s shape down to that iconic O. “Its stable shape allowed a thinner strand of pasta to be used, making the reheated product less gummy,” the New York Times reported after Goerke’s death in 2010. “Shapes considered and rejected by Mr. Goerke’s team included baseballs, cowboys, spacemen and stars.”
That list! The rejected shapes were cowboys (Han Solo?), spacemen (HAN SOLO?), and stars (as in Wars). I implored the SpaghettiO research and development team to enlighten me. The answers, delivered in abridged email form, from a public relations person quoting an anonymous SpaghettiO chef (engineer?) were the closest I could get you to this, a heretofore unexplored tomato-y truth.
I asked: How did they select specific Star Wars shapes? “We chose six of the most popular Star Wars characters to feature on our cans, and it was those characters who inspired the pasta shapes,” the anonymous Campbell’s Soup R&D scientist told me. “We have pasta Stormtrooper, Darth Vader, R2D2 and Yoda,” s/he concluded, leaving the final two characters a mystery.
What else was the SpaghettiO brain trust concealing, if only inadvertently? What Star Wars shapes couldn’t they manage to make? “We have a special term we use when we are looking at how we can translate a character into pasta shapes, and that is ‘pastability’,” the anonymous scientist, whom I’ll call George from now on, told me, ensuring maximum buzzword overload. “C-3PO and Chewbacca don’t have as distinctive facial features as the other characters, so were not very ‘pastable.’ Having a lot of lines is difficult because when pasta cooks, it swells, so the shape can be lost, making the character unrecognizable. We tweaked the pasta dough recipe and our production techniques to make sure that each character held its shape after cooking.”
The only force in the galaxy that would cause Campbell’s Soup to change their recipe and techniques was Star Wars. Anything for the sake of getting grown men who unironically wear Yoda ears to shove Stormtrooper-shaped pasta into their mouths before the microwave even stops beeping.
What then, was the normal process for making pasta into wacky, lucrative shapes? “The pasta shapes are made using a process called extrusion where the soft pasta dough is pushed through a mold or die to create a unique shape,” George told me. “To achieve the Star Wars shapes we have to create a custom die.” The custom die for each shape is cut specifically from the pasta versions of the character created by Campbell’s graphic designers for extrusion, which sounds like it hurts. For each character, George told me, designers “take into account a combination of physical and geometrical characteristics to make sure the intricacy of the shapes stay intact throughout the cooking process and characters remain recognizable.” S/he didn’t elaborate any further.
I pushed further. About this shape-testing, again? George remained coy. “We’ve been making different shaped pasta for 80 years, so we’ve mastered the skill of making sure our pasta looks - and tastes - great,” s/he said. Had George made pasta for 80 years? Was s/he stuck in the factory somewhere against his will — the victim of a cruel Jedi mind trick? We may never know.
“We have a pasta specialist who can pretty much look at a design and know whether it will work,” George said. “This means most of the work goes into the drawing stage, before the die is even cut.” Who was this pasta specialist? How did they get their job? Did they get a degree in pastability? Why would Obi-Wan Kenobi let Luke Skywalker keep his original last name if he was trying to hide him from Anakin? The fine people at SpaghettiOs were mum. The Jedi-like individual who can determine SpaghettiO viability on sight — or some other untold sense — remained as mysterious as Goerke’s inability to craft a SpaghettiBaseball.
The Campbell’s scientist’s last answer was telling. “Pasta is made from dough, so in theory you can shape it any way that you want. The difficulty is creating intricate shapes, like our Stormtrooper, in a bite size piece of pasta.” The pasta Jedi at Campbell’s seemed eerily drunk with power, just like Lucas was when he turned his prequels into three movies of CGI fakery. They could shape any shape they wanted? Didn’t they just get through telling me C-3PO and Chewbacca weren’t pastable? I was getting the runaround, and it threw me for a loop.
I didn’t know what to believe anymore. It all seemed like a big, doughy joke to George. Before I could ask any other questions s/he was gone, off to come up with whatever other blockbuster project he was stuck turning into slightly edible macaroni in the next round of delicious extrusion.