Photograph by Paul Sutherland, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Spinach was slow to catch on in Europe and America.
Photograph by Paul Sutherland, Nat Geo Image Collection

Yum or Yuck? How Spinach Has Divided Us

Among America’s most under-appreciated holidays is March 26—officially, National Spinach Day.

Spinach is not a vegetable that most of us would expect to have a celebratory day. After all, generations of kids have turned up their noses at it. In a famous New Yorker cartoonfamous New Yorker cartoonfamous New Yorker cartoon of 1928, a mother tells her curly-haired tot, “It’s broccoli, dear,” to which the kid replies, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.” You go, kid.

Historically, spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is Persian. It probably originated in Iran, where it was known as isfanakh, which means “green hand,” and was prized as a kitchen herb. From there it traveled east to China, where it was being eaten by the 7th century. It took spinach another 400 years to reach western Europe, arriving first in Spain along with the conquering Moors. There’s evidence that the Europeans, once they got it, didn’t think much of it.

In the 17th century, John Evelyn, author of Acetaria, the first book in English devoted solely to salad, praises every conceivable leafy green except, pointedly, spinach. (See Elegantly Dressed Salads Were Once Quite Fashionable.) He conceded that spinach might be okay as a dish for the sick, if boiled to a pulp and served with butter and “Limon” juice.

Cookbook author Bert Greene once argued that an early Puritan children’s prayer begging for divine protection from fire, famine, flood, and “unclean foreign leaves” might just possibly refer to spinach, though a more likely guess is probably tobacco.

On the other hand, there were spinach supporters. Catherine de Medici, originally from Florence, Italy, and 16th-century queen of France, was supposedly so mad for it, that to this day any food with the word “Florentine” attached to it inevitably contains spinach. Louis XIV was said to have adored it. Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello.

And then there’s the famously spinach-gulping Popeye the Sailor Man who, when threatened with adversity, rips open a can of spinach, tosses it down his throat, and promptly sprouts a pair of bulging biceps. Popeye is said to have inveigled an entire generation of Depression-Era kids into eating spinach.

Popeye and sidekicks first leaped onto the public stage in 1929 in a comic strip by Elzie Segar, then went on to star in cartoons in 1933. He was featured in a Google Doodle in 2009, and if that’s not fame, I don’t know what is. In the Doodle, Popeye is shown punching the G in Google in order to pop open a can of spinach.

So why does Popeye’s super-strength come from spinach and not, say, red meat, the favorite of his hamburger-obsessed pal Wimpy? The story goes that Segar plumped for spinach because of a decimal point misplaced by German chemist Emil von Wolff in 1870, which inadvertently attributed to spinach ten times more iron than it actually contained. Spinach, the beneficiary of this mathematical goof, thus got a reputation for building red blood and brawn.

The decimal point story, after years of obsessive research, has finally been debunked, hopefully with belated apologies to Dr. von Wolff. Still, there’s some scientific truth behind the iron story. Spinach actually is a rich source of iron. It contains on average 3.2 mg of iron per serving (that is, per half cup, cooked), which puts it slightly up on an equivalently-sized serving of red meat. The problem with spinach’s iron is that, for the most part, the human digestive system can’t get at it.

In heme iron, which constitutes up to 40 percent of the iron in red meat, the iron molecule is helpfully packaged in a protein ring, which makes it easy for us to absorb. Non-heme iron, however – the protein-less iron of spinach – is a different kettle of fish. In general, we’re able to absorb less than five percent of the non-heme iron in foods—though we can up the total a bit if we pair it with Vitamin C. In other words, we get more iron out of spinach if we eat it doused with John Evelyn’s Limon juice.

Popeye’s can of spinach may not have provided the Sailor Man with much iron, but it did give him a whopping dose of beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. Vitamin A plays a number of essential roles in the human body, among them supporting cell growth, maintaining the health of skin, bones, and mucus membranes, and helping to regulate the immune system – but it’s perhaps best known for its role in vision. n the retina of the eye, Vitamin A (also known as retinol) binds to a specific protein (opsin) to form the visual pigment rhodopsin—and this, localized in the rod cells of the retina, is the compound that allows us to see in the dark. Popeye, the spinach-stuffed Sailor Man, would have made a terrific night watchman.

A final note on spinach: since at least the 1920s, “Spinach!” has been a synonym for claptrap, along with twaddle, codswallop, balderdash, and the ruder, but ever-popular, bull****. One guess is that spinach in this sense is a spin-off from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, in which one character says ruefully, “What a world of gammon and spinage it is, though, ain’t it!”

Anyone sitting through the current American primary season knows that it sure is.

Looking for ways to celebrate National Spinach Day? Check out these scrumptious recipes.