Green fables

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

Soon after, a team of Watergate investigators tracked down my dad, who worked in a physics lab at Harvard. They hoped my dad could help them analyze an audio tape recorded in Nixon’s White House, 18 minutes of which had been erased.

“There was a bottle of ‘magnasee,’” my dad explained, “It’s a solvent with iron filings in it. You dip the audio tape 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 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 official Father’s Days later, the now-famous missing 18 minutes remain lost. But until last week I was for some reason under the impression that dad’s magnasee 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 apex of Nixonian foul play, it’s tempting to suspect that the holiday was created in a smoke-filled room. A conspiracy hatched by the hardware-store lobby and the Hallmark greeting card company as part of a plot to defeat George McGovern that

But while he signed it into law, Nixon is hardly the mother of Father’s Day. That honor goes to Sonora Smart Dodd of Washington State, who along with her five siblings was raised by their father after their mother died in childbirth. Dodd’s dad 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 barbeque. This is ironic when you consider that the holiday was inspired by a man who developed his maternal side without forfeiting his Y chromosomes — which is arguably even manlier than jogging home from your own vasectomy.

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 magnasee, have been misunderstood, misremembered, and mythologized into flattering but false parallel historical realities.

You’ve probably heard that spinach is high in iron. This rumor, which explained Popeye the Sailor Man’s frequent self-medication with spinach when he needed some extra-manly oomph, 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. Though a 100-gram serving of cooked spinach contains about 2.7 milligrams of iron, not 27, spinach retains its meaty reputation.

I won’t bore you with a litany of its true nutrient value, but spinach is an awesome food. 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 preserve 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-speckled bottle of solvent helped topple Nixon, and that Father’s Day was a celebration of men, not girly-men.

I heated some butter, some chopped onions, tamarind paste, and a tablespoon of garam masala in a pan.

I found some tomatoes and shell-peas from last summer in the freezer, added them to my pan, and when everything merged into a thick sauce, I added chunks of feta cheese, 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 (or see the Current recipe).

No, spinach doesn’t contain heroic levels of iron, and my dad didn’t actually aid the Watergate investigation with his iron-filled magnasee, but they’re both still heroes. And Father’s Day and spinach are both in season, so why not celebrate them together?


Wikipedia Commons


Our variation on the recipe:
Saag Paneer

8 ounces queso fresco or feta
2 c cooked spinach
1 sweet green pepper, cored and seeded
6-8 T olive oil
1/3 c all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c finely chopped onion
2 t grated or crushed fresh ginger
1/2 t turmeric
4 hot green chilies, minced
1/2 c water
1 t coarse salt
2 medium-size sweet red peppers, cored, seeded, and sliced into strips
2 t garam masala

Puree spinach and green pepper. Fry flour-dusted cheese slices in about four tablespoons of oil in a nonstick pan on medium heat. Place pieces to the side once they are golden. Add a few more tablespoons of oil to pan and brown onion. Stir in ginger, terneric, green chiles. Cook for two minutes, then add spinach puree, water, salt, and red peppers. Blend well and boil. Then, immediately bring heat down to “low,” cooking for two minutes. Toss in the fried cheese and cook for two more minutes. Finally, mix in garam masala and enjoy!

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