Not until 1929, when cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar introduced a one-eyed sailor named Popeye, did spinach become a routine dinner ingredient.
You pop a forkful of cooked spinach into your mouth. You draw your lips down over your teeth, you chew. You chew again. Your teeth rend the withered leaves. Your salivary glands secrete saliva. The alkaline saliva mixes with macerated spinach. A green flood rises behind the dam of your front teeth, carrying the high tide of spinach leaves’ tannic harshness across your tastebuds. The flavor is astringent, metallic, almost like medicine or dimes and nickels. What you’re tasting is green, the flavor of the moment after God stirred up His first batch of single-cell pond scum. You’re tasting the photosynthetic summa, the grand finale in the drama that opens with chlorophyll-drenched molecules’ capture of sunbeams.
Charles Ledgerwood: "We don’t consider San Diego to be spinach country, not like Salinas and Watsonville and the Bay Area"
Oxalic acid present in spinach gives the vegetable its stern flavor. Arthur M. Shapiro, a UC-Davis professor of biological sciences whose specialty is in plant chemical defense mechanisms, was kind enough to chat with me about oxalic acid and spinach. Oxalic acid, said Shapiro, “is a very simple organic acid, as simple molecularly as an organic acid can get. Oxalic acid is widespread in the plants of the goosefoot family, of which spinach is a member. Many of the goosefoot family members have this sour or faintly metallic taste.”
I asked Dr. Shapiro why, in addition to its astringent bite, spinach seemed to leave gritty film on teeth and tongue. “Oxalic acid,” he said, “has an affinity for calcium and forms a variety of compounds with calcium. One of those compounds is calcium oxalate. The gritty feel comes from calcium oxalate crystals. People with calcium metabolism problems are often advised to limit the amount of spinach they eat.” Gritty feel to the teeth notwithstanding, Dr. Shapiro declared himself particularly fond of spinach and recommended a Persian restaurant near the Davis campus for its excellent spinach dishes, including a spinach pie.
Culinary historians unravel histories of specific foods and preparations by using dictionaries, Greek and Roman manuscripts, medical texts, Dark Age and medieval monastery documents, royal court records, writings on husbandry and horticulture, herbals, letters and autobiographies, to medieval Latin spinachium. Etymologists suggest that the Arabic isfanah’s alteration to the medieval Latin spinachium may be an allusion to the spinae or spines on seeds of several species of spinach or that spinachium simply may refer to the plant’s cultivation in Spain, the first principal center of spinach production in Europe. A second medieval Latin name for spinach was Hispanicum olus, or “Spanish herb”; an early French name for spinach was erbe d’Espaigne.
Food historians believe that spinach — Spinacia oleracea— is native to southwest Asia or the western Himalayas. Spinach was first cultivated in Persia. From Persia domesticated spinach spread to Nepal, and thence in 647 to China, when Nepal’s king sent spinach plants as tribute to the Tang emperor Taizong. According to Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) in Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran, spinach would have been not only a novelty to the Chinese, but presumably also to the Nepalese. “Otherwise,” writes Laufer, “they would not have thought it worthy of being sent as a gift to China, which was made in response to a request of the emperor Taizong that all tributary nations should present their choicest vegetable products.”
My Sinologist friend Deborah Rudolph, whose father for many decades taught Chinese at UCLA, gave me Berthold Laufer’s spinach chapter to read. Laufer, she said, for 35 years, was virtually the only Sinologist working in the United States. She appended a note to the Xeroxed chapter. “Just wanted you to know that in spite of the date of Laufer’s work, it’s never been superseded — and he’s never been equaled as a scholar, except perhaps by Joseph Needham, whose Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge, 1954: 15 physical volumes and still counting) is considered a monument of Sinology by occidentals and Asians alike.”
Deborah continued. “From the way Laufer writes, you might get the mistaken impression he never left the library. Actually, the Chinese holdings of the Field Museum in Chicago are as fine and as extensive as they are largely because of the fieldwork he did (which includes four expeditions to the Himalayas). My father arrived in Chicago (he taught at the University of Chicago for two years between his M.A. and Ph.D.) just after Laufer’s suicide in 1934. It was rumored that Laufer jumped off the top of a building after his wife ran away with another man.”
Even with the help of etymological studies, plant foods’ histories are not always easy to construct. One difficulty is that early writers sometimes indiscriminately used generic names for fruits and vegetables. All dark, leafy green plants, for instance, might be called “spinach.”
Among the most helpful of food historians’ tools are etymological studies. The etymologist traces a word’s history back to the word’s earliest known use. From this initial use, the etymologist tracks the word’s mutations in form and meaning, its shift from one language to another. These word histories help the food historian pursue origin and development of a fruit, vegetable, spice, or preparation.
The American Heritage Dictionary shows spinach’s beginning in Persian aspanakh, moving thence to Arabic isfanah (“prince of vegetables”) fiction and drama and poetry, general histories, cookbooks, and battle archives. (Alice B. Toklas noted: “Wars change the way of life, habits, markets, and so eventually cooking.... Invading or occupying troops carry their habits with them and so in time perhaps modify the national kitchen or table.”)
The late Waverly Root notes in Food that although we are told that Charlemagne (A.D. 742-814) ordered spinach (and beet, turnip, rutabaga, onion) planted all across his Holy Roman Empire, it is unlikely that what Charlemagne ordered planted was what we eat as spinach. More likely Charlemagne’s spinach was the chard-like Good King Henry, which has thicker and wider leaves than does our spinach.
When Pope Urban II in 1095 sent the first troop of European Christians to recover the Holy Lands from the Muslims, he unwittingly set off a culinary revolution. For the next three centuries, European Crusaders fed at an alien trough, savoring unfamiliar foods, spices, and preparations. Returning Crusaders carried the culinary exotica and ideas for their concoction back home. The simply prepared foodstuffs on western European tables began to take on the golden sheen of saffron and aromas and flavors of Moorish rose water, sugars, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
Meanwhile, in Florence, Ferrara, Milan, and Venice, during what later would be called the Renaissance, scholars began the recovery and translation of documents from their Greek and Roman past. These documents included accounts of banquets, food preparation, and philosophical discussions-of gastronomy. By the early 15th Century, the urban Italian upper classes, desirous of imitating menus recorded by classical authors, began to eschew the roughly butchered beef, mutton, and pork haunches that cooks had strewn across Dark Age and medieval banquet tables. They were beginning to shun spices that cloaked the “high” taste and odor of spoiling meats and to employ instead herbs and spices that enhanced foods’ natural flavors. Seasoning became temptress rather than camouflage. They were eating the mushrooms, garlic, truffles, oysters, artichokes, asparagus, and garum that their Mediterranean forebears had eaten.
Waverly Root believes that the Arabs introduced spinach into western Europe through the Moors in Spain or that the Crusaders brought spinach home from their wars. It could have traveled, he writes, by both routes. Root traces one of the earliest mentions of spinach to a 13th-century Italian agronomist who wrote that spinach was planted in Italy in the fall so as to be ready to be picked for Lent. As early as 1351, spinach was listed as one of 470 vegetables permitted monks on fast days. Spinach recipes appear in an English cookbook compiled in 1390 at the court of Richard II, and a manuscript dated 1440 states that the chief vegetables then eaten in England were cabbage, leeks, radishes, and spinach.
Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) daughter of Italy's Lorenzo de Medici and granddaughter
to Lorenzo the Magnificent, has become associated with spinach (as well as the two-tined table fork, ice cream, high-heeled shoes, lace, ballet, a hairdo called coiffure en raquette that paid tribute to the newly popular game of tennis, permission for ladies to dine at court tables with gentlemen, and the murder of some 50,000 Huguenots during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre). Like Nancy Reagan, Catherine also involved herself with astrologers, specifically Nostradamus, whom she asked to plot the horoscopes of her husband and children.
Catherine came to France in 1533 to marry Henry, duc d’Orleans, France’s future king. A troupe of Florentine chefs accompanied the 14-year-old bride. These chefs brought to France the niceties of Italian Renaissance cuisine, serving the French court its first aspics, fresh rather than dried peas, broccoli, savoy cabbage, and fagioli beans, frangipani, macaroons, guinea hen (which entered French cuisine as pintade a la Medicis), truffles, artichokes, water and milk ices, and puffed pastries. Legend has it that Catherine was so fond of spinach that she required it served at every meal, a requirement that turned royal chefs inventive with spinach.
Culinary historians argue about what the French were eating when Catherine arrived in the French court. Some insist that until Catherine’s advent, the French upper classes, using hands rather than utensils (and occasionally a broadsword), ate the heavily spiced foods that were common fare on medieval tables. This pro-Catherine, pro-Florentine party gives Catherine
and her Florentine chefs credit for altering the course of culinary history The opposition, as in Barbara Wheaton’ Savoring the Past, the French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, insist: that Catherine’s arrival in the French court did little to change French cuisine According to Wheaton, “The interchange of ideas and people between France and Italy had begun before Catherine de Medici was born and continued after her death.”
In classic haute cuisine, dishes prepared with or garnished by spinach are tagged a la Florentine. Among food historians, a mild controversy exists as to whether a la Florentine points to Catherine or to “in the style of Horence.” Waverly Root notes that in Italy a la Florentine does not necessarily indicate spinach as an ingredient and that in French haute cuisine, the word “Viroflay” may also signal spinach as an ingredient because it was in Viroflay, the Paris suburb, that a particularly delicious and vigorous variety of spinach was grown.
Some say the Spanish brought spinach to the New World; others say no one knows how spinach got here. Waverly Root writes that spinach “seems to have slipped surreptitiously into America,” adding that he has no idea who brought it here or when. Colonial cookbooks indicate that spinach was being grown and eaten in the colonies before 1776..Thomas Jefferson’s garden records show that he grew several varieties of spinach.
Not until the 20th Century would green and yellow vegetables be reckoned as essential to good nutrition. Vitamins had not yet been identified, writes Laura Shapiro in Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, “and only vegetables offering a useful amount of protein, carbohydrate, or fat—namely peas, beans, lentils, and potatoes — had a dietary function that could be considered legitimate.” Nineteenth-century cookbooks treated green and yellow vegetables roughly. Shapiro writes, “A thorough scrubbing followed by an equally thorough boiling was the usual prescription for vegetables, which had to be cooked long past the point of resistance in order to be deemed digestible.” Home economists and cookbook authors, notes Shapiro, recommended one to three hours’ boiling for string beans, 45 minutes for asparagus, and up to 12 hours for beets. Once the vegetable had been cooked down to mush, the housewife sluiced the mush with the then-ubiquitous white sauce.
Salads, Shapiro writes, were for ladies and “brain-workers.” Raw vegetable salads “were perceived as the appropriate food for people who needed something other than blunt, substantial calories from their meals.” Home economists recommended that salads not be fed to servants and suggested that manly men likely would not eat them.
In 1911 Polish biochemist Casimir Funk coined the word “vitamines”—vita from the Latin for “life.” By the 1920s, the A, B, and C vitamins had been isolated. As various foods were assayed for vitamin content, one food after another had its moment as a miracle food. In the mid-1920s nutritionists found that spinach leaves contained iron, vitamin A, and vitamin B2. The announcement immediately increased the nation’s spinach consumption. But not until 1929, when cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar introduced a one-eyed sailor named Popeye, did spinach become a routine dinner ingredient. Popeye was involved in a tempestuous romance with the gawky, spindle-legged Olive Oyl. He frequently had to defend her honor or win her back from another suitor. On these occasions, Popeye bulked up by swallowing spinach from a can. As soon as Popeye gulped down his spinach, a Sousa march played, and Popeye, arms whirling, overpowered his rivals. Between 1931 and 1936 U.S. spinach consumption increased by one-third.
Spinach is easy to grow. The usual garden pests don’t seem to give a whit for it. Spinach grows fast, producing edible leaves 40 to 50 days after you plant seed. It can be sown in rows in the garden or in large pots on the patio. The problem gardeners do have with spinach is what’s called “bolting.” What happens when spinach bolts is that the plant suddenly stops vegetative, or leaf growth and turns its energies to sex. In the plant’s center, you’ll notice an elongated bud. From this bud a stalk shoots up. When this happens, you can forget your spinach. Leaves produced after bolting are small and bitter. When I first gardened, I assumed that hot summer days caused spinach to bolt. Not true. Spinach bolting is a response to day length not temperature. When days lengthen to 14 hours, spinach will begin to produce seed stalks.
Spinach comes in smooth-leaved and crinkly-leaved varieties. The latter are called “savoyed.” Spinach leaves, even those with a smooth surface, are the very devil to get clean. Most cookbooks suggest cleaning spinach with cold water. Don’t. Fill your sink with warm water, because heat will relax the leaves and make it easier to get out the sand that sticks in the wrinkles. Remove binding from spinach stems, pitch spinach into the water. Swoosh the leaves up and down and hope this action loosens the grit and dirt. Then walk off for a few minutes, do something else, come back. Grab up the leaves, toss them into a colander. Empty sink. Rinse sand and dirt from sink. Repeat process at least once more. Or buy a bag of already cleaned spinach.
I’ve never tasted canned spinach. I can see why any child would turn petulant when presented with a forkful of this drab-olive, slimy, ropy mess. When I was offered it as a child, I refused it. I’ve also never tasted creamed spinach, although all the he-man types I know regularly order it from restaurant menus and seem happy while they eat it. Even the idea of creamed spinach in my mouth turns my stomach. I like my spinach plain, either raw with gingery citrus dressing and a handful of toasted sesame seeds or tossed into the microwave or into a pot atop the stove. If you cook it as briefly as I do, you don’t even need to add water. What moisture clings after washing the leaves will be enough.
You can find 89-year-old former (1958-60) Carlsbad mayor Charles Ledgerwood in his store, Reliable Seeds, across from Tamarack Beach in Carlsbad (3862 Carlsbad Boulevard, 729-3282. Open daily except Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.). Mr. Ledgerwood has sold seeds from this spot in Carlsbad since 1933. “Yup,” he said, “been here for 62 years at the same place. When we started out, we grew lima beans, and we were quite extensive in lima beans. We sold limas thousands of pounds at a time. We farmed up to 65 acres in those days, a lot to have in seed crops.
“We grew green bush beans for a good number of years. Our big, big item was zucchini squash, 2000 pounds every year. Not anymore. The demand for zucchini is gone. The agricultural land was taken over for housing, schools, malls, freeways, and byways, every use except agriculture.”
I had telephoned Mr. Ledgerwood because I heard he was growing a slow-to-bolt spinach for seed. “We are growing some,” he told me, “as an experiment. We don’t want to say very much about it because we don’t know if we will get seeds from it. We got the seed from Holland. We are very well pleased with it, but the irony is that we can’t make it go to seed. It just continues to bear lovely crops of leaves, very tasty and very tender. Of course, we are hoping we would get some seed out of it, that was the main objective, but it’s so good at not bolting to seed that we begin now to wonder if we will get any seed out of it. We have our own threshing machine and do hope it will eventually bolt so we can thresh it and have it to sell. Certainly, it will have to go to seed sometime or we wouldn’t have had seed to plant, that’s what I keep telling myself.”
I asked Mr. Ledgerwood to describe his spinach. “In general, 1 would call it a smooth-leaf spinach. The leaves aren’t perfectly smooth, but slightly savoyed. But it’s not savoyed to the extent that the Bloomsdale spinach is. Bloomsdale,” Mr. Ledgerwood added, “has a nice flavor, but the objection to it is that because it’s savoyed, it has a tendency to pocket the sand and it’s difficult to wash out the sand because of the pocketing in the leaves.”
Mr. Ledgerwood said that he’d been eating a lot of carrots and spinach lately. “I used to suffer a lot from arthritis, and now I’m just as clean as can be. It is a surprise to me. I wasn’t trying to control the arthritis with the spinach and the carrots. But I’m getting along beautifully. I’m 89 years old now. 1 am out there gardening. I work ten hours a day.”
What advice does Mr. Ledgerwood give local spinach growers?
“Well, it should be planted from October through to March; it should do best at that time. Certainly, it’s not advisable to plant during warm weather. We don’t consider San Diego to be spinach country, not like Salinas and Watsonville and the Bay Area, where it thrives beautifully. Sometimes, if the weather conditions are just right, spinach has done well here. But on the average, it’s never been one of our real successful crops.”
Reliable Seeds is a distributor for Northrup-King. Also, many of the seeds Mr. Ledgerwood sells come from Europe. He likes to try out as many of the seeds as he can to make sure they adapt well to the local climate. “But we can’t do all that much,” he said, “because we just have the one acre now. Today, what with the water bills, we can’t afford an extensive acreage. Plus, the land out here is too valuable to farm. So we just get along with what we have, do small amounts of things.”
This year, he said, he was “trying out various sunflower seeds, onion seed, some beans, quite a number of flower seeds, things you can’t buy elsewhere, really good things. We’re trying a new strain of sugar snap peas that we think have a tremendous possibility. Also, we are growing
some new strains of a white, round radish, the finest, most delicate radishes I have ever tasted. They are very long-lasting, get quite large, and still produce delicious eating. There’s no source for this particular radish anymore. We used to buy them from firms in the East, and they’ve discontinued them. So we are trying to keep up their propagation. We have some planted now that we hope to thresh in summertime.”
Mr. Ledgerwood was bom in South Pasadena, where his father, he said, “was an automobile dealer. He sold Overlands, Hupmobiles, and Saxons. Saxon was the first little baby car. It had one speed forward and one speed in reverse. It was a little two-passenger car. But my father’s big items were the Overlands, and he sold those in the years before World War I. Then the Overland folks quit making cars during World War I, and my father took on the Hupmobile agency. Those Hupmobiles, they were a real elegant automobile. After the war, in 1918, the Overland people resumed making cars, and my father went back to selling them.”
So how did Mr. Ledgerwood happen to become a farmer?
“I had it in my blood, that’s how. My mother’s father had one of the biggest nurseries in the Midwest. He sold fruit trees by the freight car load all over the Midwest. My father was also raised on a farm, but he didn’t have any use for farming. He’d been kicked around enough to hate it and to have no taste for agriculture at all. Everything connected to farming was very distasteful to him. He didn’t like the small wages, the long hours, and the hard work.
“I look back and realize I made wise decisions about my life when I was just a kid. When I was in high school, I looked around for a place I wanted to live and decided that I wanted to live here, and I determined I wanted to go to the agriculture college in Davis. My father said, ‘If you want to go away to college, you know that they have good colleges here in Southern California.’ Then, he said, ‘If you want to go away to college, then you’re on your own.’ I said, ‘Then I’m on my own, I’m going.’
“I delivered papers and washed cars and mowed lawns until I got enough money to go and I went — 1926, ’27, ’28, those years, right before the depression. When I got to Davis, which back in those days was called University Farms, I got a job as a laboratory assistant to one of the professors who was doing some of the first breeding ever for disease resistance in tomatoes,
“As a result of my college experience, I got a job with Del Monte. They were into canned goods and growing canning crops — peas, tomatoes. That was a very interesting job. We were all over the West, wherever they had canneries. I left because I didn’t like the winters in Idaho. I came to the place I determined I would come to in high school, to Carlsbad, right where I am now.
“Carlsbad was a very prosperous agricultural area at that time. Now it’s all gone. We farmed up to 65 acres in those days, a lot of acreage to have in seed crops. It’s all gone now, all lost to us, lost to market centers, to houses and condominiums. I drive by all this and remember all the wonderful times I had. I remember the three tractors that I had, the 16 farm workers that I had, and all the work that I did for other people. I have a beautiful past.” As to his spinach seed, Mr. Ledgerwood said, “I hope it works out It might be a total failure.”