The late folk singer Tom Glazer first performed his classic children's ballad "On Top of Spaghetti" in 1963. Sung to the tune of the traditional "On Top of Old Smoky," the song tells the story of a meatball on the run. Swept from table to floor by a thunderous sneeze, the meatball ends up rolling outdoors. It bounces along, gathering dust, dirt, gravel, and bits of trash along its surface. Finally, it tumbles under a shrub, nothing but mush, a shadow of its once-plump self. The following summer, so the song goes, having presumably sunk well into the fertile earth beneath its leafy shroud, the battered wad of meat sprouts up as a moss-covered tree bearing saucy meatball fruit.
While the idea of kids clamoring after a dirty meatball is nauseating, the fantasy—a comestible growing into a tree producing many pieces of food identical to the planted one—appeals to both children and adults. In C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, the sixth book of his Chronicles of Narnia series, young Digory Kirke plants a toffee in enchanted soil. Overnight, a "little, very dark-wooded tree … loaded with little brown fruits ... rather like dates" pops up, and Digory and his friend Polly tackle it for a sugary breakfast only an irresponsible parent would permit: “The fruit was delicious; not exactly like toffee—softer for one thing, and juicy—but like fruit that reminded one of toffee.” (If I lived in Narnia, I would plant a bottle of good vinho verde, a cocktail frank, and some fine mustard in that magical dirt.)
I used to teach pre-kindergarten. Toward the end of my tenure, I played "On Top of Spaghetti" for my class of 4- and 5-year olds. The kids knew the song and were singing the first lines before the CD began spinning. When Tom and his gang of under-age back-up vocalists finished up, I posed a few questions to the gathered circle: Did the song make them hungry? Did they like meatballs? Did they like the idea of eating meatballs after hearing the tune describe, in graphic detail, one sorry meatball's unsanitary backyard odyssey?
The class's love for the meatball was robust. Expertly deploying the passive voice to deflect any blame for the meatball’s fall from the table, a child named Riley laid out the position in a nervous little voice:
"It was dropped on the floor, but it was still yummy ... because it was a meatball."
The rest of the class agreed with Riley’s cast-iron logic. Meatballs, as Anna put it, were "a big treat,” regardless of what they’d rolled through. Piping up from under cropped dark bangs and a plastic tiara, Chelsea alone dissented.
"I like meatballs very much," she said seriously, "but I think the floor has germs. I would pick it up and throw it in the garbage."
Thank you, Chelsea, I thought. Hearing someone take a principled stand for good hygiene brightened my spirits. Next, I asked: If you could bury anything tasty in the ground and have that something grow into a tree proliferating deliciousness year-round, what would you plant?
"A chocolate yummy!" I recall Jason proclaiming.
"A taco," said Luke with a Spicoli-esque yawn.
"Doughnuts!" yelled Chelsea.
"I want a milky tree with candy and ice cream," said Reese.
"A French-fry tree!" barked Jackson.
"Cookies," whispered Marco.
With the possible exception of Luke’s taco, meat was not mentioned. The class overwhelmingly wanted to plant sweet things: Ice cream, jelly beans, cake, muffins, and various fruits naturally found on trees in the first place. I knew that kids liked sweets, but the fantasies they shared—the orchards dusted with powdered sugar, the branches weighed down with icing—suggested a deep-seated love of glucose that couldn't be attributed to bad parenting and corn subsidies alone.
From Candy Land to fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel” to children's book characters like the Gingerbread Man and Willy Wonka, our popular culture invests sweets with magic, delight, and mystery. Television plays a role too—though apparently, in a bow to political correctness, even the Cookie Monster now views his long-time vice as a "sometime food.” Children's songs similarly cater to the sweeter side of the palate with "Who Stole the Cookies?" and "If All the Raindrops Were Lemon Drops and Gumdrops.”
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