Flash in the Pan 

Like father, spinach worthy of love, despite facts

On April 26, 1972—a month before my second birthday—President Richard Nixon signed the Father’s Day holiday into law. My father worked in a physics lab at Harvard. That June, when America’s first legally sanctioned Father’s Day arrived, newspaper headlines were stolen by the now infamous break-in at Democratic Committee Headquarters at the Watergate hotel complex.

Soon after, a team of Watergate investigators tracked down my dad, hoping he could help them analyze an audiotape recorded in Nixon’s White House, 18 minutes of which had been erased.

“There was a bottle of ‘magna-see,’” explained my dad. “It’s a solvent with iron filings in it. You dip the audiotape in; the iron filings stick to it and show the magnetic field. I helped them locate the bottle. It was in the machine shop in the bowels of Harvard.”

Some people spend their lives seeking greatness. But when you’re as great as my dad, heroic moments seem to come and find you. But alas, this moment never made the final cut of history, because even with dad’s help, the investigators failed to recover the audio. 

Nearly 40 legal Father’s Days later, the missing 18 minutes remain lost. But for some reason, until last week I was under the impression that dad’s magna-see had helped recover important evidence.

It’s with a nod to this minor bit of personal mythology that I’m celebrating spinach in honor of Father’s Day. Because like my dad’s role in the Watergate investigation, the reputation of spinach has also benefited from a memory, of sorts, that’s as persistent as it is wrong.

First, a few more historical details:

Given Father’s Day’s connection to the nadir of Nixonian foul play, it’s tempting to think the holiday was created in a smoke-filled room by a conspiracy between the hardware store lobby and Hallmark greeting cards, as part of the plot to defeat George McGovern in the upcoming general election.

But though he signed the law, Nixon isn’t the mother of Father’s Day. That honor goes to Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Washington, who along with her five siblings was raised by their father after their mother died in childbirth. Dodd’s dad, forced by fate to be both mother and father, rose to the occasion, and Sonora created Father’s Day, in 1908, to honor heroic fathers like hers.

Today, Father’s Day is celebrated in mainstream society with manly things, like power tools, golf, and barbecue. This is ironic when you consider a man who developed his feminine, maternal side, without forfeiting his Y-chromosome—which is arguably manlier than jogging home from your own vasectomy—inspired the holiday.

What does all this have to do with spinach? Not much, except that both Father’s Day and spinach are in season. And both, like my dad’s near-heroic location of that bottle of magna-see, have been misunderstood, misremembered, and mythologized into a flattering but false parallel historical reality.

You’ve probably heard that spinach is high in iron. This rumor, which led to Popeye the sailor man’s frequent self-medication with spinach when he needed some extra-manliness, is based on an 1870 study in which a misplaced decimal point amplified the iron content of spinach by a factor of 10, putting it on par with red meat. Nearly 60 years later, and 10 years into Popeye’s career, a team of German chemists re-investigated the so-called “miracle vegetable,” and returned the decimal point to its rightful place. While today, a 100 gram serving of cooked spinach is believed to contain 2.7 milligrams of iron, not 27, spinach retains its meaty reputation.

Though I won’t bore you with a litany of its true nutrient content, spinach remains an awesome food—indeed, you just can’t go wrong with dark green leafy vegetables. The other day I hit my spinach patch with a bowl of salad dressing. I’d pluck a leaf, dip it into my bowl, and savor the sight and flavor of each deep green leaf, gracefully shaped, buoyant with life, and coated with Caesar dressing.

To save my patch, I bought two pounds of spinach at the farmers’ market, planning to eat spinach in place of meat for a few days. This was last week, when I still believed that spinach was full of iron, that my dad’s iron-clad bottle of solvent helped topple Nixon, and Father’s Day was a celebration of men, and not girly-men.

I heated some butter, chopped onions, and a tablespoon of garam masala—a spice mixture from India—in a pan. 

I found some last-summer tomatoes and shell-peas in the freezer, added them to my pan, and when everything merged into a thick sauce, added chunks of feta cheese and a mountain of fresh spinach, a shot of sherry, and stirred until the spinach wilted.

If my impromptu rendition of the classic Indian dish saag paneer is too vague for you, please consult one of the 38,460 recipes you can find via Google.

And while spinach doesn’t contain heroic levels of iron, and my dad’s iron-filled magna-see didn’t aid the Watergate investigation, they’re both heroes. Father’s Day and spinach are both in season, so why not celebrate them together?

Ask Ari: Sensitivity police round up unusual suspect

Q: Mr. LeVaux,

I am offended by your March 15 article. Sir, the Clark Fork River Farmers’ Market (it is not called the “meat market”) does not have a “veggie ghetto,” and I cannot believe that you would use such a wretched term. The word “ghetto” is used to describe an area where marginalized and oppressed people live, and it sounds as if you are using this word because the vegetable farmers at the River Market are mostly of Asian heritage and tend small farms. The “latte-clad table and gossip circle” area that you so favor also commands a higher price for vendors to set-up, and so is only economically feasible for those who produce bigger dollar goods such as meat and cheese, not radishes and arugula.

I thought you had a higher consciousness than you displayed in this hypocritical article in which you both ask readers to tip farmers and also shove several hard-working farmers into your own self-created ghetto. You are pretty smug for a guy who recently took his name-sake from a can of bad ravioli, and I wonder if you will display the integrity to publish this letter in its entirety and venture forth an honest reply.

Missoula is very fortunate to have two gorgeous and thriving farmers’ markets, and the farmers, ranchers, bakers, and gardeners who work hard to provide us with the finest foods around deserve better than to be mocked by you, sir.

Disappointed & Offended,

Ghetto-ized Grower

A: Thanks to your demand that I print your entire letter, GG, you didn’t leave much room for the honest response you also demanded.

For reference, here is the sentence you objected to in my article:

“In the Meat Market’s veggie ghetto, away from the latte-clad tables and gossip circles, things were slower.”

Readers—especially “Asian farmers who tend small plots”—please feel free to weigh in here. Is Mr. “bad ravioli” a smug, farmer-mocking punk?

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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