Archive for Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Spinach-eating Popeye served up life lessons

May 14, 2003


It's spinach-picking season, and it occurred to me that for many Americans of my vintage, the most lasting childhood association with spinach may have nothing to do with the dinner table. I cannot recall a single instance of eating spinach as a child, although I know I did. And there's a reason for this lapse. In my childhood memories, spinach appears only in animation.

One of the finest pieces of propaganda visited upon my generation came courtesy of the Popeye cartoon, a dietary morality tale that convinced millions of American children that spinach was good for them -- even if it plopped out of a can. This was a hard sell, canned spinach being what it is, but no one came away disputing that spinach had a high nutritional content.

Popeye wouldn't play very well to today's youth. He didn't fight with laser beams or with the aid of computerized robotics. He didn't even carry a gun. I also don't think today's children would stomach the nutritional lesson that Popeye reiterated in every episode. If Popeye's strength had come from some sort of secret formula, maybe even a protein shake, he might have had a fighting chance today. But spinach, no way.

Popeye first appeared in movie theaters in the 1930s, but a good many middle-aged Americans remember the cartoon from its appearance on television in the 1960s. Popeye was an average guy with an average build and certainly was no physical match for the diabolical Bluto, who also was Popeye's rival for the affections of the lovely, though gangly, Olive Oyl.

Olive Oyl, we should note, was a female stereotype. She was fickle, easily impressed by men's superficial qualities and little concerned with their character. Thus, she was repeatedly taken in by Bluto and his hunky physique and was too willing to overlook his villainy. Because she never seemed to retain the lesson that Bluto was no trophy date, and because Popeye had to provide frequent, remedial instruction on this point, the stereotype became one of the cartoon's themes.

Episode after episode, Olive Oyl's confusion about men was resolved when Popeye downed his spinach, and his biceps and triceps swelled instantaneously, transforming him into a blue-collar Superman. Our hero, whose mantra was "I yam what I yam," then crooned these lines: "I'm strong to the finish, because I eat my spinach, I'm Popeye the sailorman."

All was right in the world, thanks to spinach.

The real lesson here was that it was OK to be an average, hard-working American, but you had to eat properly and be fit. During World War II, when average Americans were saving the world for democracy, in the years of postwar euphoria over America's global might, and then in the 1960s, after John F. Kennedy's appeal for physical fitness and our increased national awareness of nutrition, this message had resonance. Eating your vegetables, even if the side dish of the day was overcooked spinach, was the American thing to do.

June Cleaver suddenly had leverage over the eating habits of Wally and the Beav. No need for her to remind the children that spinach, which contains iron, calcium and protein, also packs more vitamin A and B2 than any other veggie. They already knew that spinach was the pathway to strength and virtue.

Popeye's can of spinach was the focal point of the storyline, but another important component of the message was the character Wimpy the hamburger-eater. He was a plump procrastinator, the perfect foil for the all-American, spinach-loving Popeye and his can-do attitude. Wimpy's MO was to barter favors for food, and his eating habits frequently prompted Popeye to say, "Yer a disgrace, Wimpy."

Dare I suggest that Wimpy foreshadowed our recent concern for rampant obesity? If the cartoon had been created today, Wimpy's trademark line would be "super-size it, please."

Olive Oyl's distinctive thinness might be interpreted by today's audiences as a sign that she was either anorexic or a supermodel, while Bluto might be cast as a gym rat. He'd have to lose the cigar, though.

The other difference, of course, is how we perceive spinach. Now it's a salad ingredient that we cook with, sometimes. Canned spinach is still available and still has all the charm of wet Kleenex. We also have frozen spinach for cooking, of course, but many of us use our spinach fresh or don't use it at all.

"Just try to picture Popeye conquering evil after eating a deli spinach salad, maybe with a few mesclun greens mixed in."

-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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