If there is a poster child for foods that are perceived as unappetizing to children, certainly spinach would be in the running for the title. The vitamin- and iron-rich green, leafy dish is sometimes considered vegetative proof that tastiness is inversely proportional to nutritional value, the kind of food that gives “it’s good for you” a bad name.
The word spinach comes from the Persian “aspanakh,” which means something like “green hand.” The fact that consumption of spinach is believed to have originated in Persia, i.e. present-day Iran, a country currently ruled by a fanatical leader intent on acquiring nuclear technology, is probably just a coincidence. By the late 12th century, spinach was known in Moorish Spain, home of agronomist Ibn al-’Awwam, who is said to have referred to it as “the captain of leafy greens.”
It was not a captain but a common sailor who attempted to popularize spinach in the United States during my childhood. Popeye pushed spinach somewhat less subtly than Bugs Bunny promoted carrots. Perhaps I should have noticed that there was a pattern here. Children’s programming was constantly attempting to influence our eating habits, but in those days I took my cartoon characters at face value and could not imagine them having ulterior motives. That went double for Santa Claus, whose Joe the Motorists’ Friend incarnation also belonged to this cabal, although he tended to emphasize quantity rather than quality, an approach about which the jolly old elf’s girth should have served as a warning, but in those days no one seemed to make the connection.
Carrots, at any rate, were already a part of the menu at our house, and I liked them, so Bugs was covered. Spinach was not, and I succumbed to the Sailor Man’s endorsement, begging my parents to serve it. But it was unfamiliar to them, too, and the first time my mother made it, she got it the way it was generally available in our town at the time, and the way Popeye ate it — from a can — and did what she would with any vegetable, i.e., boiled it. There it lay, a soggy, dark green mass on my plate. I ate at least some of it as a point of honor, but I couldn’t guarantee I finished it. In any case, I never asked for it again.
A few years later, my mother tried serving spinach a different way, this time with bacon dressing. But it was not enough to overcome the memories of that great disillusionment with a cartoon hero who had sold out and become a pawn of an adult nutritional agenda. How could I ever again trust anything they recommended?
It wasn’t until many years later, at the Berghoff, a traditional German restaurant in Chicago, that a friend was able to convince me to try the creamed spinach. When I protested that I detested that vegetable, he confessed that he always had, too, but that this was different. It was only because of the recommendation of a kindred spinaphobic spirit that I was willing to take the previously unthinkable step of sampling a mouthful. It was everything the slimy mass I remembered from my childhood wasn’t — not only edible, but actually tasty.
Once that barrier was broken, it was only a matter of time till I had opportunities to try things like spinach quiche. Or spinach omelets. Or my caterer sister-in-law’s spinach salad with strawberries and walnuts. Or those little triangular spinach-filled phyllo pastries that I used to call spanakopita but which I’ve recently seen tagged with the Albanian name börek, perhaps because Albania is no longer the renegade state that once broke with its only remaining ally, China, for not being Maoist enough.
And I’ll try anything “à la Florentine” (though “alla Fiorentina” sounds classier), which indicates it’s prepared with spinach and Mornay sauce. The name stems from Florence-born French queen Catherine de’Medici’s love of spinach, reportedly so great that she insisted it be served to her on a daily basis.
Though I’ve come to terms with spinach and now enjoy it in many forms, it’s unlikely I’ll ever reach her level of appreciation. But I bet old Cathy never had to eat it boiled from a can.
Published in Notebook
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