Friday, July 12, 2013

Popeye the sailor man (and Betty Boop to boot)

Working-class hero Popeye and his gawky inamorata Olive Oyl became a sensation when they began appearing in comic strips in the '30s. Soon Popeye merchandise was everywhere.
This singular duo—along with Bluto/Brutus, Wimpy, the weirdly wild and wonderful goons, and more—became instant hits when their iconic voices were added and their exploits transferred to the silver screen by cartoon pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer. We currently have two sets of DVDs  chronicling the pipe-puffing sailor's first two decades—as well as another one combining Popeye with another unforgettable Fleischer character, Betty Boop. All have lots of extras and are, needless to say, loads of fun. If your mama never let you watch all the cartoons you wanted, now's your chance!
I have Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings to thank for pointing out a curious fact re the choice of spinach for spurring scrawny Popeye's physical prowess. She found this info in Samuel Arbesman's The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.
Popeye, with his odd accent and improbable forearms, used spinach to great effect, a sort of anti-Kryptonite. It gave him his strength, and perhaps his distinctive speaking style. But why did Popeye eat so much spinach? What was the reason for his obsession with such a strange food?
The truth begins more than fifty years earlier. Back in 1870, Erich von Wolf, a German chemist, examined the amount of iron within spinach, among many other green vegetables. In recording his findings, von Wolf accidentally misplaced a decimal point when transcribing data from his notebook, changing the iron content in spinach by an order of magnitude. While there are actually only 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100-gram serving of spinach, the accepted fact became 35 milligrams. To put this in perspective, if the calculation were correct each 100-gram serving would be like eating a small piece of a paper clip.
Once this incorrect number was printed, spinach's nutritional value became legendary. So when Popeye was created, studio executives recommended he eat spinach for his strength, due to its vaunted health properties. Apparently Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third!
This error was eventually corrected in 1937, when someone rechecked the numbers. But the damage had been done. It spread and spread, and only recently has gone by the wayside, no doubt helped by Popeye's relative obscurity today. But the error was so widespread that the British Medical Journal published an article discussing this spinach incident in 1981, trying its best to finally debunk the issue.
Kale anyone?


  1. I feel duped. All those years of blind faithedly eating spinach, and it turns out I should have been munching on paper clips instead!

    1. If you, like me, scarfed down carrots in the hope of improving your eyesight, Dr. Oz had some really bad news. It's a myth. The green leafies are better than carrots for your eyes.

  2. oh well, it's still very good for you--just not off the charts!

  3. Since the subject is, improbably, spinach--has anyone noticed that the spinach I had as a child was curlier, darker green, with leaves that were brittle, and a reddish stem? Today, the thing called spinach is smooth-edged, with a lighter shade of green, and oval leaves.
    These are clearly 2 different plants, yet the name is the same. The taste is different, too.
    This is not unprecedented. Twenty-one species of fish qualify as "sardine"--if the fish fits in a can, it's a sardine!

  4. As a child, I clearly remember being the last one at the table because I had the hardest time finishing my overcooked spinach.

  5. I too sat at the table looking gloomily at my plate of spinach. Ewwww! And the nights my mother's entrée included liver...uuugh. Needless to say I went to bed hungry that night.