NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 17, 2010

SPAGHETTI TACO DELIGHT

Amesbury students bite into offbeat, TV-inspired food fad

By Alex Marciello
Staff writer

If you know anyone between the ages of 6 and 13, then you've probably heard of "iCarly."

And if you know anything at all about the Nickelodeon show that has legions of tween fans, then you've heard of spaghetti tacos.

Like so many cultural fads, the dish launched by the TV show that combines two kid favorites — spaghetti and tacos — started as a bit of a gag.

But it's turned into a real-life phenomenon — with the offbeat culinary concoction landing on dinner tables across the country and now even on lunch trays in Amesbury schools.

Amesbury Middle School started serving the unconventional tacos in October. At the time, cafeteria employees couldn't help but wonder if they would work out.

"We didn't know anything about them," said Beverly Freeman, who cooks and serves lunches at Amesbury Middle School. "But after that first lunch period, it became pretty obvious that the kids did."

Now, spaghetti tacos have earned a spot in the regular menu rotation, making a lunchtime appearance every month at not only Amesbury Middle School but at both elementary schools in town, as well.

Yesterday, they beat out hamburgers and pizzas as the most-requested menu item during the sixth-grade lunch at Amesbury Middle School, which is no small feat.

"I've seen 'iCarly,' and I like spaghetti and tacos, so that's what I'm going to have," student Michaela Forsyth said.

The line of students behind Michaela seemed to agree, as eager diners celebrated the entree of the day.

Spaghetti tacos were born on an episode of "iCarly" when the lead character's eccentric older brother, Spencer, makes dinner one night. Known for his spontaneously combusting experiments and light-up socks, Spencer adds a bit of whimsy in the kitchen as well.

Now, kids enamored with the TV idol can't get enough of the meal — two hard taco shells with spaghetti and tomato sauce stuffed inside. There are countless recipes for spaghetti tacos online, with an assortment of adaptations that feature additions like guacamole, sour cream and lettuce, and even dessert versions topped with chocolate chips.

Kevin Kish, director of dining services for Amesbury public schools, said he always welcomes any ideas to keep his menus new and exciting, but he almost missed this one.

When Kathy Fowler, a technology specialist at Cashman Elementary School, told Kish about them, he admits he was hesitant at first.

"I asked her, 'Are you sure the kids are going to know what these are?' and she said they definitely would. Then she showed me the blogs and a New York Times article about them," Kish said. "I figured we already serve the spaghetti and the tacos, now let's just put them together."

While the idea of tacos and pasta together is enough to turn the stomach of most adults, there is no question in the minds of Amesbury's youngsters — they love them. (Perhaps because high school students don't watch "iCarly" and the fact that their palates are a bit more refined, spaghetti tacos aren't on Amesbury High School's menu.)

For Kish, the newfound dining phenomenon is also a great way to incorporate nutrition with a student favorite. The taco shells are whole grain, and the meatballs, served as a side, provide protein for growing bodies. For the students who drink milk and add a vegetable or fruit side, it's a healthy meal. And with the recent passing of the Child Nutrition Act, finding ways to incorporate healthy components into school lunches is important in keeping Amesbury ahead of the curve, Kish said.

"If it sounds good and it's easy enough for the people putting it out, then I'm all for it. You can't just sit there and say that won't work," he said. "I think the more things we can try, the better off we are. Especially meals that balance nutrition with fun — that's exactly what I'm shooting for. You have to have fun with it."