Bites of History: Spinach far more versatile than just fuel for a cartoon sailor

A new leaf

Is Popeye right? Will spinach make you “strong to the finish?”

First — a little background. Spinach, a stalwart of Old World cooking, is a relatively new kid on the produce block, having only reached Europe in the Middle Ages.

Spinacia oleracea originated in Persia, in what is now Iran, and strictly grew in that region until the beginning of the Christian era. Even then, it was unknown to the ancient Romans and Greeks. From Persia, this edible flowering plant went to Nepal, and in 647 AD, that country’s king gave it to China, where it was, and still is, known as the “Persian green.”

Around 1100 AD, North African Moors brought spinach to Spain, where the great Arab agronomist Ibn al-‘Awwam called this member of the amaranth family the “captain of leafy greens.” From Spain, spinach finally went on to Provence, where its popularity grew and was eventually eclipsed only by cabbage.

Spinach was extremely popular in Italy, too. Italy’s Catherine de’ Medici reportedly liked the vegetable so much that after she became queen of France, she ate it every day. Today, dishes made with spinach are known as “Florentine” because Catherine came from Florence, Italy. European colonists brought spinach to North America, and the plant grows here easily in cool weather.

Now — back to Popeye, with his bulging biceps and love for the sea, for his spindly gal, Olive Oyl, and for spinach, which supposedly made him strong to fight off enemies such as the gnarly Bluto. The pipe-smoking sailor made his debut on Jan. 17, 1929, in a comic strip called “Thimble Theatre.” Soon after, U.S. children started eating spinach, with national sales climbing by 33 percent in the 1930s and Popeye getting credit for saving America’s spinach industry. Popeye even got his own brand of canned spinach, and in 1937, the spinach-growing city of Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue honoring him and his positive influence on America’s eating habits.

Most folks believed Popeye gained sudden strength from spinach’s high iron content. Then in 1981, along came a widely believed story in the British Medical Journal claiming that an 1870 German study contained a simple typographical error, with scientists putting a decimal point in the wrong place and erroneously giving spinach 10 times more iron than any other green leafy vegetable.

Turns out, the author in the British Medical Journal was a little loose with the facts, and the story contained sloppy research; there is no record that the German scientists who made the 1870 study made the mistake of shifting a decimal point. So it is true that spinach, a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients, is high in iron, with a 1-cup serving containing about the same as a 3-ounce veal chop. Compared to most commonly consumed vegetables, it rates extremely high. And even though oxalic acid makes only about half of this iron easily available to enter the body, there’s still lots of iron in spinach. (To increase absorption of iron from all plant foods, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests eating meat, fish or poultry or foods high in vitamin C at the same meal.)

Unfortunately, the truth about spinach’s true iron content came out long after a host of scientists had disseminated the bumbling German decimal story. Australian scientist and TV personality Karl Kruszelnicki was among those who’d been bamboozled, and after eating a little crow, he grew determined to dig up the original source of Popeye’s strength. And lo and behold, those bowling ball muscles really don’t come from iron. On July 3, 1932, Popeye said he eats spinach because “spinach is full of vitamin A an’ tha’s what makes hoomans strong an’ helty.”

A 2010 study noted that children are more inclined to eat spinach after watching a Popeye cartoon. So, regardless of what makes spinach nutritious, the lovable sailor deserves a hand for inspiring youngsters to give this strong-tasting vegetable a try. Now if he could only get them to eat broccoli.

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.

Sources: “The Origin and History of Spinach,” www.cliffordawwright.com; “Popeye,” popeye.com/history; Sutton, Dr. Mike. “Spinach, Iron and Popeye,” academia.edu; Kruszeinicki, Karl S. “”Popeye’s spinach story rich in irony,” www.abc.net.au/science/articles; www.cdc.gov.