A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)
Family: Amaranthaceae: amaranth family; formerly Chenopodiaceae: goosefoot family
Other Names and Varieties: Amsterdam, Bloomsdale, summer supreme, winter queen
Healing Properties: base rich, nutritional vegetable activates digestion; cooked juice for coughing, asthma
Symbolic Meaning: green life force; promoted as superfood: Popeye and agribusiness
Planetary Affiliation: Venus
Spinach and other related goosefoot plants originated in the sparse steppes of central Asia. In Turkestan, Afghanistan, and eastern Persia (Iran), the hot and dry summers evaporate the moisture, leaving the soil glistening with salt and alkaline. But the alkaline soil was not a problem for these plants, since the protoplasm of the Chenopodium family is fairly resistant to the influence of salts and alkalines. This is a characteristic that predestined the plant for modern mass cultivation on irrigated fields, which tend to become salty. These plants can also easily take the mineral salts of artificial fertilizers.
The primeval precursor of today’s garden spinach greened in the moist, cool spring and quickly grew to lush tufts; the long-day plant blossomed in the bright summer days and made seeds; after dying off in the fall, only a fruit capsule remained. To protect itself from being devoured by hungry animals, the fruit pod had spikes, but these were lost later in the process of cultivation.
It is probable that prehistoric nomads in the central Asian steppes gathered wild spinach leaves in the spring, adding them, along with various other greens, to meat broth. We know that ancient Persians cultivated “aspinakh” as a garden vegetable. It was later made known to Allah’s sons when they invaded the Persian realm in the seventh century BC; they modified the Persian name to isfinaj. The juicy green leaves—which were as green as the victorious flag of the Prophet—fascinated the Arabs. As they cherish good food, they appreciated how this new leafy green pairs so well with the many delectable dishes of their cuisine; but the plant appealed to their poetic vein as well. Was the plant not similar to Islamic warriors in many ways—the bristly external seedpods protecting a soft and delicate interior? Ibn-Al Awwam, an Andalusian scholar, declared spinach to be “the crown prince amongst vegetables.” In no time Arabic doctors also discovered the healing properties of the plant. Spinach—so it is written in tenth-century medical writings—is good for the liver when suffering from jaundice and activates bowel movement, and the cooked juice helps for coughing and chest ailments.
Illustration 79. Arabic merchants spread the cultivation of spinach
Just as the Romans once brought along vineyards wherever they set foot, the Islamic conquerors brought the cultivation of spinach from India to Spain. In the dialect of the Spanish Moors it was called “ispinag,” which sounded to the Spanish like “espinada,” which means thorny; out of this developed the Medieval Latin word “spinachia”; this is how we eventually got our word “spinach.”
In the sixteenth century spinach appeared in European gardens and began slowly but surely replacing the leafy greens that had been cultivated until then. Indeed, most of the leafy greens used before spinach have been forgotten. These plants included garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa), garden orache (Atriplex hortensis), purple amaranth (Amaranthus lividus, A. blitum), garden patience (Rumex patientia), and Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus). Here and there spinach, this “barbarian” potherb, numbered among the “nine greens” or “seven greens” gathered in the spring and added to soups or baked into breads. This spring tradition served as a “blood cleansing” after the long winter, ensuring good health throughout the rest of the year. After the Christianization of Europe these greens were traditionally eaten on Maundy (Holy) Thursday (the Thursday preceding Easter); on this sacred day in Bohemia spinach donuts were eaten.
Illustration 80. Molecular structure formula of chlorophyll
Folklore has very little to say about spinach—no myths, no fairy tales, and no traditional uses tell us anything about the deva of this plant. We do know that, like other leafy vegetables, spinach was sown on days when the moon finds itself in a water sign—Pisces, Scorpio or Cancer—so it would have many lush leaves. Fire signs were strictly avoided, as it was believed the plant would only shoot and produce a lot of seeds.
It was not until the first half of the twentieth century that spinach became popular, developing an almost cult status. This happened for several reasons. First, in 1913 chemist Richard Willstätter (1872- 1942) discovered the basic chemical structure of green leaves: chlorophyll.
He was able to show that the molecular structure of chlorophyll is identical to that of blood; the only difference is that in the middle of the molecular ring chlorophyll has a magnesium atom, whereas the hemoglobin of blood has an iron atom. But this wasn’t just a scientific breakthrough—the news also made waves among food gurus and health nuts. Green leaves and red blood! The green leaves capture the enlivening strength of the sun’s rays and mediate it to the blood, cleansing and regenerating it.
The tabloid press of the times celebrated chlorophyll as “the color of life.” The green plant pigment now appeared to be a powerful substance; indeed, it was believed the very source of health had been found. Of course, it wasn’t long before the green substance was commercialized, particularly in the United States. The 1920s saw all kinds of green soaps, toothpastes, deodorants, and mouthwashes. Even pills and other medications were dyed green with chlorophyll—physicians counted on the resulting placebo effect speeding recovery time. Green vegetables, especially those with a high iron content, were suddenly “in,” and standing tall among them stood mighty spinach.
There was another reason for the sudden popularity of the leaf vegetable. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the U.S. government invested hundreds of millions of dollars in irrigation projects with the aim to turn the desert in the southwestern states and California into an agricultural paradise. In the process the newly established agribusiness, which was gradually eliminating small family farms, began flexing its muscles. Deserts morphed into endless irrigated fields that mass-produced strawberries, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, and spinach for the North American food market. The result? In just one example, in 2011 70 percent of the lettuce consumed in the entire U.S. was grown in Salinas Valley, California—the “salad bowl of the world”—where with massive chemical and technical input agricultural “technicians” bring in five harvests per year. Practically overnight an entire packing and transporting industry arose, which offered work for cheap seasonal laborers brought in from Mexico. Now, for this investment to be worthwhile, obviously demand for these products had to be stimulated—as directed by major promotional campaigns advertising a new way of life. Hollywood stars disclosed their secrets for longevity and good looks: drinking orange and tomato juice and eating corn flakes and oodles of spinach, whose iron and chlorophyll keeps them fit and healthy.
Illustration 81. Blossoming spinach plant (Leonhart Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, 1543)
Around this time came advancements in the technology of conserving food in tin cans. In order to bring canned spinach to the consumers, scientists from government institutions were commissioned to make the new food product palatable. Their assignment was to rationally and objectively research the nutritional aspects of spinach. Unfortunately, many were in pay of the agribusiness lobby, and so not surprisingly positive results poured in from all directions. The Biochemical Journal (volume 10, 1926) reported that laboratory rats fed with spinach grew faster than those not fed with it. They reportedly grew even faster than a control group fed with cod liver oil (the health tonic of the day regularly given to children). The bottom line: if children eat a lot of spinach they will grow up to be big and strong.
One other conclusion came from the studies: spinach leaves have an antirachitic effect, especially when they’ve been radiated with a mercury vapor-quartz iodine lamp. (At the time many children suffered from rickets, which caused bowlegs and skeletal damage; this resulted from Louis Pasteur’s research making it fashionable to cook milk before drinking it, a practice that destroys the milk’s vitamin D, which is needed for strong bones.) The bottom line: if children eat a lot of spinach they won’t get rickets. In 1927 American Medicine reported that scientific evidence showed that this “king amongst vegetables” helps prevent anemia, heart arrhythmia, kidney ailments, dyspepsia, hemorrhoids, and all kinds of states of nonmotivation and debility. At the same time extensive analytic research was conducted on the vegetable’s ingredients and substances: saponins (which are beneficial for digestion), glucoside, flavonoid, amino acids, and of course chlorophyll; plus minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sodium, and iron—lots of iron. Interestingly, however, it turns out that it’s a myth that spinach has a lot of iron! Even more interestingly, the assertion that spinach contains plentiful iron resulted from a typo. In one of the first analyses, the percent period was placed one digit too far to the right, noting the iron content as ten times what it really is. Also of note: no great pains were taken to publicly correct the mistake.
As a result of the perpetuation of this error, doctors, especially children’s doctors and gynecologists, advised their patients to eat a lot of spinach for its high iron content. Too often such doctors felt compelled to diagnose “iron-deficiency anemia.” Just as there are fashionable sicknesses, there are also fashionable diagnoses. In ancient times it was “bad fluids” (according to the humoral teachings); in the nineteenth century it was psoriasis, sycosis, and syphilis; in the first half of the twentieth century it was gastritis, colitis, arthritis, focal infections, and anemia. The symptoms of anemia are paleness, cold hands and feet, loss of appetite, dizziness, headache, weight loss, and a general loss of physical and mental robustness. That the social conditions of the times—poverty, unhealthy living and working conditions—could be responsible for the anemia seems to have not occurred to anyone; instead, the sole cause was attributed to iron deficiency. Women and children were especially at risk. Women lose a lot of blood during menstruation, and pregnancy and nursing both leach their energy. Small children grow quickly, consuming a lot of iron, as do youths, especially if they have fallen victim to the habit of masturbation (according to the medical theory of the time). As such, it was concluded that children and women, especially pregnant and nursing women, should eat as much spinach as possible.
Unfortunately, the children did not comply when the—oh, so healthy!—slimy, green glob was dished onto their plates. Given the difficultly of the sell, educational measures needed to be taken—and this is where Popeye came into the picture. Popeye is a tough little guy and no one shoves him around. As children could identify with him, they were ready fodder for the jingle everyone in my generation could sing:
I’m Popeye the sailor man,
I’m strong to the finish
cause I eat my spinach,
I’m Popeye the sailor man.
Whether any tots became convinced that miracle spinach turned the sailor man into a superman is debatable. In any case, some friends of mine who were children at that time told me it did not fool them—that the canned stuff tasted awful no matter how highly Popeye praised it.
Illustration 82. Popeye the Sailor Man tanking up on spinach, which gives him superhuman strength
Today, the spinach hype has been brought down to earth. Eaten occasionally—fresh, not canned—spinach is indeed a nutritious vegetable. But as daily fare for weak constitutions and convalescents, as fortification for small children and pregnant or nursing women, it is not at all a good idea—and for people with kidney problems least of all. (Recall that in 1927 American Medicine recommended spinach for kidney ailments.) Modern-day gardener John Seymour correctly pointed out that if Popeye had eaten just one-fourth of the spinach he ate on television he would have surely have died of oxalic acid poisoning. Like other Chenopodium family members (Swiss chard, orache, Good King Henry) or related knotweed family plants (rhubarb, sour dock), spinach contains considerable amounts of oxalic acid (126 mg per 100 g). Oxalic acid binds with calcium and magnesium found in the body, leading to decalcification of the bones and teeth. It also binds to the calcium in mother’s milk. In the process are built up calcium oxalates, tiny sharp crystals that damage and congest the kidneys and also lead to urinary stones. In fact, two-thirds of all urolithic calculi are oxalic stones. How smart of all the children who refused to ingest the canned green slime!
Even separate from the oxalic acid concerns, the iron content of spinach happens to be relatively low (5 mg per 100 g)—and it’s usually in a compound state and thus not accessible to the organism. And so, those told to ingest more iron should instead eat, for example, stinging nettle, which happens to contain no oxalic acid. But in the meantime, research has shown a light on the popular iron-deficiency anemia diagnosis. We know now that the body sequesters iron; this means the iron level in the blood drops when the body is suffering an infectious disease or when a woman menstruates or is about to give birth. Since most pathogenic bacteria need iron to grow and reproduce, they “starve” when the body withholds its iron levels; as such, this is a perfect example of the innate “wisdom of nature.” In cases of pregnancy or infection, a diagnosis of iron-deficiency anemia is definitively false, and the resulting prescription of iron pills and ferruginous preparations are counter-productive.
Another problem with commercially grown spinach is that it absorbs and accumulates many nitrates, plus heavy metals like cadmium. Excessive use of nitrogen fertilization to make the leaves lush and green contributes its share of unsavory ingredients as well. Although nitrates are not very dangerous, they do hinder the building of vitamin A in the body and can cause problems with the thyroid gland in children. However, it can become problematic when nitrogen-fixing bacteria change nitrates into nitrites. For this reason one should never warm up cooked spinach or keep spinach in opened cans for any length of time. High amounts of nitrites can cause blue baby syndrome in infants, a disease that disrupts oxygen transport into the blood.
So where does all this back and forth information leave us? Despite these reservations, spinach remains a tasty vegetable that’s rich in vitamins, minerals, and bases—especially young tender leaves. Spinach has iodine, which is good for the thyroid, plenty of vitamin C, and large amount of vitamin A, which helps with chapped skin, dry conjunctiva, and night blindness. (A mere 100 grams of fresh spinach provides an adult’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A.) Spinach also contains large amounts of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A and an antioxidant, which according to recent research helps prevent cancer. In 1969, Japanese experiments with guinea pigs showed that spinach is able to lower blood cholesterol levels. Spinach also counteracts hyperacidity and activates pancreas, intestinal lining, and gall secretion. Cooked spinach juice helps against a dry cough. And as for its oxalic acid content: quickly blanching the leaves loses a lot of the acid.
In any case, one should eat only organic spinach that has been fertilized naturally with compost. It is also best to pick the leaves on sunny afternoons, when the nitrate content in the leaves is lower.
CULTIVATION: Sow seed in the open ground as soon as the soil can be worked. Thin plants and then begin to pick for table use by cutting every other plant, giving a chance for the others to spread out. Mulch is especially important for keeping the soil cool and the weeds down. (LB)
SOIL: The idea is to give spinach plenty of water and nitrogen, grow it quickly, and harvest before hot weather comes along. Spinach cannot tolerate an acidic soil, and so enough limestone should be incorporated to raise the pH to a neutral condition. Nitrogen is especially important for fast and tender growth.
Spinach Strudel with Juniper Sauce ✵ 4 SERVINGS
STRUDEL: 21 ounces (600 grams) fresh spinach ✵ 2 tablespoons butter ✵ 1 ounce (50 grams) cranberries ✵ 1 teaspoon honey ✵ 1 tsp. vanilla marrow or extract ✵ herbal salt ✵ pepper ✵ 10 ounces (285 grams) pastry dough ✵ egg yolk, whisked ✵ SAUCE: ½ cup (115 grams) onions, chopped ✵ ½ cup (115 grams) red beets, cubed ✵ 4 small pine twigs or 20 juniper berries ✵ 2 tablespoons honey ✵ 1 tablespoon vinegar ✵ 3 ounces (80 grams) gorgonzola ✵ 2 cups (½ liter) red wine ✵ 2 cups (½ liter) vegetable broth ✵ 1 shot glass gin ✵ 1 to 2 tablespoons lentil flour for binding ✵ herbal salt ✵ pepper
SAUCE: Put the onions, beets, pine twigs, honey, vinegar, gorgonzola, red wine, vegetable broth, and gin in a large pot and simmer on low heat for about 1 hour. Pour the sauce through a sieve into another container; discard the pine twigs in the sieve. Return the sauce to the pot and thicken with lentil flour. Bring to a boil once more. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
FILLING: In a small pan on medium heat, briefly sauté the spinach in butter. Let cool. Add honey and cranberries and mix together. Season with salt, pepper, and vanilla to taste.
STRUDEL: Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Grease a baking sheet. Roll out the pastry dough to ¼ inch thick. Spread the spinach mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a half-inch margin around the edge. Roll into a strudel shape and place on the baking sheet. Brush with the egg yolk (whisked with a few drops of water for more sheen) and bake for about 45 minutes at 350° F (175°C) or until golden brown. Transfer the strudel to a serving dish.