Spinach … Toot Toot!

March 26th, 2014 Sections: Plants
Spinach guzzling Popeye

Spinach guzzling Popeye

There is a story that when he became President of the United States, George Bush, (that is the older – George H. Bush – not his son, George W. Bush), he issued an instruction to the White House staff that Broccoli should never be served: “I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And now I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli”m he is supposed to have said.

It caused quite a stir at the time … especially among the broccoli growers of America.

I can understand their distress – but I can also understand the President’s aversion to the stuff.  Young children have a habit of pushing their vegetables to the side of the plate and having to be tricked, forced or bribed into consuming them.  And, I have to admit, as a child I was never very fond of Broccoli either …

In fact, as a child I was very fussy about what I would and wouldn’t eat.  For example, whereas I was quite happy to eat Baked Beans with each and every meal, I wouldn’t eat cabbage or cauliflower, tomatoes or tomato ketchup, turnips or parsnips … and a whole host of other perfectly good and healthy foods.

It was only when I became a student and moved away from home .. and so had to learn to fare for myself, that eventually found myself “putting away such childish things”.  At first I would buy the familiar products … potatoes, carrots, peas … and Baked Beans … and then one day I was a guest and my hosts served me something I would never normally have tried if left to my own devices.  They didn’t tell me what it was and so I scoffed away unaware what it was that I putting into my mouth.  It was only later when we discussing the delicious meal that I realized … “Hey, that wasn’t bad.  What have I been missing out on all this time?

As a result … I started experimenting … and I discovered that although I was probably right in not really liking parsnip … in terms of virtually everything else, I came to realize that I had been missing out.

There was another vegetable that really passed me by – Spinach – but that was probably because my mother never served it.  That in turn could have been because it wasn’t very often in the shops and markets at that time … or, I suppose, it could have been because she wasn’t very keen on it, herself.  In fact, my only exposure to Spinach was probably through watching Popeye – the Sailor Man cartoons on TV.  Throughout my childhood, I tended to think of Spinach as a peculiarly American food.

For the record: Popeye – first appeared in a comic strip on 17th January, 1929, and soon became the chief character in the strip … moving onto radio, comic books, theater,  animation and even a live action film starring Robin Williams … along with a supporting cast including: Olive Oyl – his “girlfriend; Sweet Pea – his adopted baby son; Bluto (or Brutus), his rival for Olive Oyl’s affections; Wimpy – who always seems to eating and Poopdeck Pappy – Popeye’s father.

One of the main features of the story is that when hard pressed and in need of invigoration, he squeezes a can of Spinach which spurts into his mouth … causing an instant muscle growth and increase in strength … which enables him to perform incredible feats of strength.

The Crystal City Statue

The Crystal City Statue

Spinach wasn’t the original source of Popeye’s incredible strength – in the early stories he obtained the rejuvenating burst by rubbing himself with a “magic hen” – but that soon gave way to the now familiar vegetable.  There’s a story that Spinach was chosen because of it’s Iron content – apparently based on a nineteenth century miscalculation that put the decimal point in the wrong place thus boosting the figure by a factor of 10 … but it’s recently been revealed that it was selected not for it’s iron content but for the Vitamin A that it contains.

Whatever, Popeye not only boosted the vegetable’s popularity – especially among usually pinickity children … it also led to a statue of Popeye being erected – on 26th March, 1937 – in Crystal City, in Texas, by grateful Spinach growers for the 30% increase in sales which the attributed to him – making him the first cartoon character ever to be depicted in a public monument..

(Oh, yes … There’s another Popeye Statue in in Chester, Illinois, which was the hometown of Elzie Crisler Segar – the creator of the Sailor Man.)

As it happens, I don’t think that I have seen much Spinach (shpinat) on sale here in Kyrgyzstan – although it is one of thopse plants that tendsd be sold in small bunches in the markets rather than in the shops … It is, however, often quoted as an ingredient in dishes … In fact, one of my favourite dishes in one of our local restaurants is a Spinach Lasagna.

Spinach is a low growing herbaceous plant which can grow to about 30 centimeters tall, (although one source seems to suggest up to 60 centimeters),  to long edible leaves.  It’s an annual, although I understand that some species are biennial, and is grown from seed.  It is rich in iodine, calcium, iron and protein as well as a range of vitamins … but it has a short shelf life and needs to be consumed or processed shortly after harvesting.

It is another one of those plants thought to originate in Central Asia, (or South West Asia) – probably from somewhere Ancient Persia, (modern day Iran), from where it was taken by Arab traders along what was to become known as the Great Silk Road, first to India and then to China sometime before 647AD.  Shortly afterwards, (well, in the ninth century), it made its way Westward into Europe, (where it was renowned for its medicinal qualities – it was/is used, for example, in the treatment of anemia and rickets), and eventually traveled North to German and Britain, where it became popular as a vegetable – partly because it appears early in the Spring when other vegetables are still scarce.                

China is by and far the most prolific grower of spinach accounting for almost nineteen million tons of the world’s total of about twenty one million tons grown annually.  I did try to find the figures for Kyrgyzstan but they don’t seem to be listed anywhere – so it must be a fairly minor crop.

It is, however, cultivated here in Kyrgyzstan.  As far as I can tell, it seems to be grown in the region around Osh and in the Chui valley and there is a risk that it will be taken as a weed when appearing wild in irrigated fields.  It was, apparently, one of the crops promoted in a project on organic farming by South Korean specialists recently … and the Kyrgyz Agroforum website contains details of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Technical Regulations on the “safety of fresh fruit and vegetables” which includes provisions concerning the cultivation of leafy ground vegetables including “lettuce, spinach, sorrel, cabbage. parsley. celery, cilantro, dill … and so on.  There’s also advice on tasks that need to be undertaken when growing the crop in “gardens” and greenhouses.



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