Nessie, Area 51, Roswell: names like this define UFO and paranormal lore. This is not a series about them. In Distant Encounters, we tour the strangest, most isolated tales of encounters with the unknown.
Joe Simonton wanted nothing more than to eat a late breakfast one day in April 1961. Instead he found himself the focus of one of UFO history’s weirdest footnotes.
Hearing a strange sound at his farmhouse in Eagle River, Wi., the chicken farmer investigated and discovered an alien craft: discovered as “silvery”, with a shape akin to “two washbowls turned face to face”. It made noise like “knobby tires on wet pavement”. And as Simonton approached the craft from another world, a hatch began to open. And out stepped three…Italians.
To be specific, Simonton described them as five foot tall men with dark hair and skin; only a few sources include him summing them up as space Italians, or at least Italian-adjacent aliens, bearing a silver jug with two handles.
The evolution of what people imagine aliens to look like is a study in anthropomorphism. In the 1950s, the traditional depiction of aliens was as “Nordics”: literally, blonde-haired white people from space. The somewhat less human-looking Grey or Zeta Reticulan hails from the Betty and Barney Hill abduction (by way of a half-remembered episode of The Outer Limits) a few months after Simonton’s sighting – they’d become more common as the Hill case became popular in the mid-60s, and essentially codified as what aliens look like by Whitley Strieber’s Communion. In between we find so much that’s compellingly, bizarrely alien and strange. Greys are still incredibly, unbelievably human in shape, but at least they aren’t Italian dwarves bearing jugs.
According to Simonton, the aliens motioned to him that they needed water. After dutifully filling their jug, Simonton returned – and was granted the gift that made his UFO encounter (in)famous.
On a flameless stove, one of the aliens cooked strange, disc-shaped food. A curious Simonton reached out for them, and was given four. He left the ship with this bounty in hand, and watched as the alien craft vanished as mysteriously as it appeared.
Simonton’s story was bizarre, but he had something no other UFO contactee had: physical proof, in the form of four space pancakes. Wait, three: Simonton ate one. It tasted like cardboard. Analysis of the space pancakes proved that they were made from typical Earthly ingredients, bar an unexplained lack of salt. Simonton faded back into obscurity soon after his encounter, saying that if he ever encountered aliens again, he’d keep quiet.
Simonton’s encounter with aliens is remarkable for how casual it seems. People make up stories about alien experiments, or of wise extraterrestrials handing down profound messages of peace, or warnings for the future. Joe Simonton, by contrast, spins a tale of aliens cooking breakfast. They don’t visit him to deliver a message, but to enlist his help refilling a jug, as they didn’t have enough water to flamelessly fry up their space pancakes. This story of Italians coming down from the stars to make pancakes is more strange – more human than almost anything in UFO lore.