Even if it's been years since you’ve tasted SpaghettiOs, the jingle is probably ingrained in your brain. It was 55 years ago this month that the famous “neat, round spaghetti you can eat with a spoon” hit the shelves. And it’s all thanks to Donald Goerke, a Waukesha native and UW-Madison graduate.
"It's a strange thing to me that a flavor memory that came out of a K-ration for military folks is now what's considered comfort food for a lot of Americans. It's almost an indulgence to have a can of SpaghettiOs now," says culinary historian Kyle Cherek.
Goerke's first job out of college was a statistical analyst for the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company, a skill which served him well when he moved on to Campbell Soup Company. The company, just like its competitors, was trying to market nonperishable foods to the wider public after World War II ended and their food supplies for the military weren't needed at a large scale.
"It was in the '50s when [Campbell's] said, in essence, 'We need something to compete with this great spaghetti product that Chef Boyardee has. And, hey Goerke — go!"
Goerke and his team tested baseball-shaped noodles, stars and even cowboys before eventually deciding on Os because they were the most durable for canning and reheating, according to Cherek. "This was a big leap for Campbell's because they had made their name in condensed soups," he notes.
During Goerke's tenure at Campbell's, the company went from only condensed soups to prepared foods in a can to microwavable food — an accomplishment Cherek says deserves a cultural award. "That's sort of like Wright brothers to landing on the moon within packaged foods," he says.
From SpaghettiOs to Chunky Soup, Goerke created more than 100 products for Campbells. With a great understanding for people and culture, Cherek says Goerke essentially became a brand ambassador for Campbell's.
"He was charming, he was affable, he was funny ... If Campbell's had a press call, they wanted [Goerke] out there talking about it. He was enthusiastic and he had developed many of these things from the idea stage to basically millions of cans in people's cupboards," says Cherek.