It started as a gag: spaghetti tacos.
On an episode of the hit Nickelodeon series “iCarly,” the lead character’s eccentric older brother, Spencer, makes dinner one night. Glimpsed on screen, the dish consists of red-sauce-coated pasta stuffed into hard taco shells. What could be more unappealing?
When Julian Stuart-Burns, 8, asked his mother to make the tacos one night, she simply laughed. “I thought he was joking,” said Jennifer Burns, a Brooklyn mother of three. “But then he kept asking.”
Ms. Burns finally gave in — like thousands of other moms — and cooked up the punch line for Julian’s birthday party.
That punch line has now become part of American children’s cuisine, fostering a legion of imitators and improvisers across the country. Spurred on by reruns, Internet traffic, slumber parties and simple old-fashioned word of mouth among children, spaghetti tacos are all the rage. Especially if you’re less than 5 feet tall and live with your mother.
Mom blogs and cooking Web sites are filled with recipes from dozens of desperate parents who have been confronted with how to feed their offspring the popular gag. A Facebook page has sprung up with more than 1,200 fans.
There’s a dessert version, made with brownie mix, white frosting and strawberry preserves; a guacamole-covered version, with Mexican-flavored tomato sauce, at Barefoot Kitchen Witch, the Web site of the Rhode Island blogger Jayne Maker; and a recipe available at spaghettitacos.com that uses Italian sausage and peppers.
Ed Dzitko, a dad from Woodbury, Conn., uses oversize taco shells to fit in more spaghetti. Cheryl Trombetta, a grandmother from Secaucus, N.J., makes them whenever her 5-year-old grandson asks. A woman in Lincoln, Neb., posted a meat-sauce version on Food.com in the winter, crediting her 7-year-old son with the idea. And Karen Petersen, a mother of two from Rye, N.H., fries her own taco shells and breaks the spaghetti into thirds to make the strands fit more easily.
“Clearly, it’s spread like a virus,” said Ms. Petersen, a self-described “foodie,” who said that she has made them several times for her 11-year-old daughter, Amelia.
After seeing them on the show, Amelia was served the tacos at a friend’s slumber party this year and then begged her mom to make them.
“The mixture of spaghetti and tacos is odd,” Amelia admitted. “But it’s actually pretty good. They’re one of my favorite foods. I guess kids like making them because they think it’s cool to be like the people from ‘iCarly.’ ”
But the real reason, she said, is that “the taste is really, really good.”
For those who need to be brought up to speed, “iCarly” is about a teenage girl, raised by her brother, who creates a weekly show for the Web with her best friends. No one seems more surprised by the vast popularity of spaghetti tacos than the creator of “iCarly,” Dan Schneider, who invented the gag three years ago.
“It was just a little joke I came up with for one episode,” Mr. Schneider said. “Then it turned into a running joke. And now it’s this thing people actually do.”
For Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, the question is not why kids are asking for spaghetti tacos, but why they haven’t asked for them sooner.
“This combination seems to be an inevitability, sort of like chocolate and peanut butter running into each other on that Reese’s commercial,” he said. “The amazement should be only that it took ‘iCarly’ to bring it into our melting pot of a culture.”
“Spaghetti tacos has made it possible to eat spaghetti in your car,” he said. “It’s a very important technological development. You don’t even need a plate.”
Perhaps the nearest pop-culture equivalent — that is, a sitcom artifact that thrives in the real world — is Festivus, an alternative to Christmas introduced on a 1997 “Seinfeld” episode, Mr. Thompson said. Festivus now has a number of real adherents.
Mr. Schneider said he came up with the spaghetti taco idea while writing a first-season episode, broadcast on Nov. 10, 2007, in which Spencer finds himself in the kitchen. “Spencer’s an artist, a sculptor, he wears socks that light up,” Mr. Schneider explained. “So he’s not going to make a roast chicken for dinner.”
The joke resurfaced in five more episodes, but what pushed the dish onto the front burner of parental consciousness was an entire show devoted to it — a cook-off between Carly and a crazy chef named Ricky Flame — which was broadcast in September 2009.
Ms. Burns, the Brooklyn mom, was an early adopter, having made the tacos about three months after the dish was first mentioned.
“I had six boys coming over for dinner, and asked Julian what he wanted,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Spaghetti tacos.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ ”
Julian, now 10, had never had them before and had never heard of anyone else making them besides Spencer and the cast of “iCarly.” “But I wanted them because they looked really delicious and fun to eat,” Julian said. “They’re really crunchy and they have my two favorite foods, spaghetti and tacos.”
Every kid at the party ate them, even Julian’s picky friend, Henry.
“P.B. & J., that’s the extent of this kid’s repertoire,” Ms. Burns said. “His mother was shocked.”
The boys, who have enjoyed them for the last three birthday celebrations, now compete to see who’ll eat the most. A boy named Jake won this year, with a record five spaghetti tacos. “I thought he was going to be sick,” Ms. Burns said.
The first time they made them, Ms. Burns’s husband cooked an elaborate homemade sauce. “But I said, that’s so unnecessary,” she said. “I’m not eating them.”
Now, Ms. Burns simply doctors a jar of tomato sauce.
Even Ms. Petersen, the New Hampshire mom who crisps up the tortillas to order, said she uses a prepackaged sauce.
“Hey, I’m frying the tacos,” she said, laughing.
Amelia will then use taco toppings for garnish: tomato, lettuce, onion. She hasn’t tried avocado yet, but she’s looking forward to it.
Often, Ms. Petersen will make the dish when Amelia has her friends over.
“They’ve been so influenced by the media,” she sighed. “They’ll make their own ‘iCarly’ show in her room and then come out and have the spaghetti tacos. It’s kind of a thing we do.”
The spaghetti taco phenomenon, Mr. Schneider said, actually fits with the Do Try This at Home spirit of “iCarly,” which encourages, and then uses, skits and bits made by the young people who are watching. That philosophy has now spread to the kitchen.
Some children bypass their parents altogether and make the dish themselves. Emma St. John, 10, of Montclair, N.J., has been making them since January, when she had them for the first time at a friend’s party.
She starts with a can of Red Pack tomato sauce and then adds “a little bit of this and a little bit of that”: chili powder, cinnamon, Singapore curry oil, soy sauce, garlic powder, oregano. Her parents help her warm the taco shells in the oven and boil the spaghetti, then she does the rest.
“Everyone likes it,” Emma said. Even her 13-year-old brother, Ethan. The first week of school, they ate spaghetti tacos five times. “It’s good for people to come home and have something to look forward to,” said her father, Allen.
Mr. Schneider, the writer, said he plans to have the “iCarly” cast to his house to make a batch in the next few months, so that he can tape it and post it on his YouTube account. He’s only had a low-calorie/low-fat version prepared by his wife, Lisa Lillien, whose Hungry Girl franchise appeals to weight-conscious snack-food lovers. “I’ve never tasted the real, real version.”
Cammie Ward Moise, a Houston mom who featured the tacos on her parenting site, Moms Material, under the heading “Crazy Dinner Night,” said she doesn’t just make them for her kids, but also enjoys them herself. Still, she adds: “It’s a great thing to make, especially when you’re having the food battles at home. It’s a fun way to get them excited about eating.”
Her children, Taylor, 11, and Myles, 9, love the dish, she said. “It’s something their idol is doing,” she said. “They love ‘iCarly’ and would probably eat anything the cast of the show ate.”
“Now,” Ms. Moise said, “we just have to get her to put broccoli in a taco.”
This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.