King Kugel: An April Fools’ history lesson

Back in 1983, Boston University’s public relations folks decided to have a little fun with April Fools’. They called Joseph Boskin, a professor emeritus of history with a particular fondness for the medieval period, and asked if he could be pitched as an expert on the history of April Fools’ Day.

He agreed and then didn’t give it much more thought, according to this article in BU Today. But the university’s PR folks did spread the word, and as it turned out, a reporter for the Associated Press wanted to speak to him. Boskin, who was in California at the time, returned the reporter’s call in New York. The 2009 BU Today article quoted Boskin as saying:

“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about the holiday, and I really can’t be of help to you,’ ” Boskin recalls. “The reporter said, ‘Don’t be so modest.’ When the reporter kept pushing, Boskin says, “I created a story.”

The story he created revolved around a friend’s love for kugel, a Jewish noodle pudding and a court jester named Kugel. Boskin spinned a story about how, during the reign of ancient Roman Emperor Constantine, group of court jesters  told him they could run his empire more efficiently than he was and he agreed to allow Kugel to rule for a day as king. Being a jester, Kugel declared that on that day forward each year, people would celebrate it as a day of absurdity. The AP story quoted Boskin as saying: “In a way, it was a very serious day. In those times fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.”

In this 2009 story, BU Today quoted Boskin as saying:

“Since I was calling New York, where kugel is famous, and it was April Fools’ Day, I figured he would catch on,” Boskin laughs. “Instead, he asked how to spell kugel.” As he was telling the outlandish story, he kept expecting the reporter to wise up to what he was doing, but all he heard was the clatter of a typewriter on the other end of the phone.

The story was published by the AP, and other news outlets called him for details about King Kugel. When the AP realized they had been duped, an irate editor called Boskin and accused him of ruining the life of a young reporter. Actually, he didn’t; the reporter, Fred Bayles, had a long journalism career and is an associate professor of journalism at Boston University.

AP ran a correction, and Boskin used the story to remind his students that they should always question whatever they hear. Boskin was quoted as saying by BU Today:

The AP always, always checks on stories, and for some reason this one fell through the cracks. It was their fault for not checking the story, and I embarrassed them. But I mean, really — kugel? What reporter from New York doesn’t know what that is?

This sounds like an April Fool’s joke, doesn’t it?

It’s not. It really happened.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 1, 2013