What, me worry?
When it comes to a bag of Fresh Express Spinach, youbetcha. Oh, the package may say it contains a "SuperFood" with "more demonstrated health benefits than almost any other food" two qualities rarely used to describe my weekly banquet of the inedible, the rotten or foul but whereas I'm not expecting to glean much more than a putrid aftertaste from, say, a tube of Kalles Creamed Smoked Roe, we now know that a bag of E. coli O157:H7-tainted spinach can shut down your kidneys. SuperFood, indeed.
It is Halloween, after all, a week when the merely rank will not suffice. We're gunning for the scariest food imaginable, and that means leafy greens.
But this is no lowly head of iceberg lettuce. No, this is spinach, the ur-nutritious vegetable. Rich in antioxidants, calcium, dietary fiber and protein, spinach is low in calories and free of those dietary bogeymen fat and cholesterol. So what's not to like? And yet....
And yet spinach has always garnered groans at the dinner table. "I don't like spinach, and I'm glad I don't," the early-twentieth-century jurist Clarence Darrow once quipped. "[I]f I liked it I'd eat it, and I just hate it."
As fate would have it, Darrow died on March 13, 1938, seven months to the day before the death of Elzie Crisler Segar. Nearly 70 years out, the name E.C. Segar carries about as much weight these days as a curly endive, but his most famous creation Popeye the Sailor endures.
A weakling with a skinny girlfriend, Popeye had only to pop open a can of nutritious spinach to transform his wilting forearms into jackhammers. Segar's creation embodied the vegetable's potency, and I think I can say with confidence no nautical-themed, pipe-smoking cartoon character has ever been so closely associated with a vegetable. The Blutos of the world trembled at a can of the stuff, and even the sailor's song strong to the finish 'cause he ate his spinach sounded the veggie's virtues.
Unless, that is, Popeye's deep love of spinach was in fact a sly ode to marijuana. At the time "spinach" was slang for the drug, and the entire cartoon can be read as an allegory of narcotic euphoria tempered by mean-streets justice. Think about it: Wimpy's hamburger addiction? Explained. Now we know why Popeye gained such stellar powers, why that pimp Bluto continually tried to steal Popeye's stash, and why Olive Oyl, a pioneer of heroin chic well, OK, nothing can really explain Olive Oyl....
We've come full circle, then, when in the days after the first reports of tainted spinach began circulating, singer Willie Nelson was arrested with a bag of dope. A spurious story quickly arose: When the singer was arrested, the story goes, Nelson said: "It's a good thing I had a bag of marijuana instead of a bag of spinach. I'd be dead by now."
The incident may be a myth, but it reflects a larger truth: Namely, it's a grim day on the farm when we'd rather be caught inhaling than ingesting. It makes you positively nostalgic for the bright 1990s, when President Bill Clinton a burger lover if there ever was one announced to the whole world that, yes, he'd tried "spinach," but he hadn't inhaled.
Mad cow disease was yet on the horizon. We were only just learning that in an industry where meatpacking plants can slaughter 300 cows per hour, the animals were less living organisms and more tiny factories engineered to produce a specific quantity and quality of meat product. Only the agriscenti knew terms like "downer cows," or that our hamburgers had something called a fecal count.
Still, we thought our vegetables were safe. Spinach processing giant Natural Selection Foods (a particularly unfortunate name, given the circumstances) changed all that. Now we learn that just as a package of ground beef may cull parts from hundreds of different animals, so too is our prepackaged spinach washed en masse in giant tubs of chlorinated water.
Why is this important? It's not that is until a few E. coli O157:H7-infected plants are improperly cleaned and separated into hundreds of different bags. Then a food-poisoning outbreak is no longer confined to an individual family but, as we recently witnessed, can now affect more than 170 people in 21 states.
In fairness, the manufacturers of my bag of Fresh Express Spinach weren't involved in the recent E. Coli outbreak. I wilted my greens with a little butter, oil, garlic, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. It was delicious, and I'll even wager that if attorney Clarence Darrow didn't hate spinach so much, he might have liked it.
A spinach-phobe if ever there was one, Darrow faced off against William Jennings Bryan during the 1925 "Scopes' Monkey Trial" when he challenged a Tennessee law forbidding any state-funded school from teaching the theory of evolution. Though Darrow lost that trial, he will always be remembered as one of evolution's most articulate defenders.
But while Darrow and the folks at Natural Selection Foods may share an appreciation for Darwinian theory, the attorney wouldn't have touched Natural Selection's product.
Because as we all know, Darrow just hated spinach.