Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Spinach needs a good PR campaign

It has never been easy for spinach. Not ever. Through the years, a large portion of the population rejected spinach as too bitter, too sandy, or too dark and unappetizing when boiled. Spinach has always needed a good public relations campaign, but the only one who ever stepped forward to take on the assignment was Popeye, a cartoon character so muscle-bound he couldn’t type a news release or write a business plan.
Popeye did his best, however, and it wasn’t bad for a sailor man, trying to convince the readers of the comic pages that adding spinach to the diet would make them strong and healthy. At the same time, he was often pictured clenching that corncob pipe in his teeth and hanging out with the gluttonous Wimpy, which cast some doubt on his expertise as an advisor on health and nutrition.
One thing that stands out in my mind about Popeye’s spinach habit was that he ate it out of can. You may remember the scene: confronted with a hostile situation, perhaps the approach of Bluto, the major villain in the strip, Popeye would quickly open a can of spinach, toss it down like a jigger of bourbon, and go on the attack, always vanquishing the opposition.
As I reflect on his many adventures, I never saw Popeye eat spinach raw. It always came out of the can. Maybe he was smarter than your average sailor man, but he wasn't alone. I don’t remember seeing many people eating spinach raw until a relatively few years ago, when the spinach salad established itself as a healthy choice, especially when compared to iceberg lettuce.
Popeye first became a media celebrity in the late 1920s, and whether there was ever any hidden agenda between his syndicators and the spinach growers has never been established. But he was credited by some observers during that period with increasing annual spinach sales by about 30 percent, which is a lot of spinach. It is worth noting that in 1937 the city of Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue to memorialize Popeye for his very positive impact on the spinach market. Crystal City was then in the midst of an agricultural region where spinach was one of the predominant crops, and the farmers recognized what Popeye had accomplished on their behalf. Should you ever stop in Crystal City, you’ll find that the statue still stands.
Spinach has always had its detractors. Many rank it among the least agreeable, most reprehensible vegetables, right down there on the list with three of my own favorites, Brussels sprouts, okra and asparagus. I have never understood how spinach acquired its dreadful---and undeserved---public image, but it certainly wasn’t helped much by that memorable cartoon published years ago in The New Yorker.
The cartoon, which appeared over 50 years ago, showed two determined and intimidating parents hovering over a child at the dinner table. The caption---which still resonates today---belonged to the child, who said: “I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it!”
That about summed it up, but a check of some historical data can carry us back much further, to Colonial times. Then, according to Bert Greene, the famed food scholar, “spinach was so unpopular with the Pilgrims that an early child’s prayer sought the Good Lord’s protection from fire, famine, flood and unclean foreign leaves,” which referred to sandy spinach. Sand has been a consideration since ancient times in Persia (Iran), where spinach was cultivated as food for Persian cats.
With that as background, you can understand my concern about the spinach image, badly tarnished by the recent outbreak of illness blamed on spinach infected by the E. coli bacteria. That can be deadly and it is traced to animal or human waste. That news story will disappear, spinach is again available, but the memory of impure spinach will linger, raising questions about the future. How soon will we be again tossing baby spinach in a salad bowl?
I’d like to lend my support to any PR campaign for spinach. First, I should report that it is very healthy, although not quite as magical as Popeye contended. A single cup of cooked spinach contains 14,580 units of vitamin A, 583 milligrams of potassium, and 167 grams of calcium, but only 40 calories. As for muscles, there are no guarantees, but then I’ve been eating Wheaties for years and I still can’t jump any higher.



Post a Comment

<< Home