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Definition: spinach from Philip's Encyclopedia

Herbaceous, annual plant cultivated in areas with cool summers. Spinach is used as a culinary herb and as a vegetable. Family Chenopodiaceae; species Spinacia oleracea.

Summary Article: SPINACH
From Cambridge World History of Food

A green leafy vegetable, spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a native of southwestern Asia. The plant reached China as a gift from Nepal during the first years of the Tang dynasty (the early seventh century A.D.) and was introduced in Sicily in 827 by invading Saracens from North Africa - they having first encountered the plant in Persia. However, spinach seems to have been in no hurry to spread out over the rest of Europe, although it may well have done so without recorded mention during those centuries of the Middle Ages that food historian Reay Tannahill has called “The Silent Centuries.” The vegetable probably reached Spain with the invading Moors, but it was not until the very end of the Middle Ages that spinach showed up in a cookbook published anonymously in Nuremberg in 1485. After this it caught on rather quickly on the Continent, probably in no small part because spinach made its appearance in early spring, when other fresh vegetables were still scarce yet human bodies were desperate for vitamin C after a winter of deprivation. Spinach was first planted in England in 1568, and within a century it had become one of the few vegetables that appeared on the tables of the wealthy. Presumably, the plant was carried to North America long before 1806, when seed catalogs mentioned three varieties. However, it was only after another century had elapsed that a food encyclopedia stated that the vegetable was becoming “increasingly popular.”

Part of the difficulty in tracing the history of spinach is that there are so many spinach-like vegetables (such as the amaranth of India and Japan, the kang kong or water spinach of Southeast Asia, and New Zealand spinach) that one is not always certain which “spinach” is being confronted, and even “real” spinach comes in two basic types. The fresh spinach encountered in most markets is the crinkle-leafed Savoy kind, but there is also the flat, smooth-leafed variety that is generally employed for freezing or canning. In addition, there is a sort of “semi-Savoy” spinach that is a cross between the two basic types. Young, tender spinach leaves make fine salads. Sautéing and steaming are great ways to prepare the vegetable so that it does not become overcooked and develop a characteristic limp and washed-out appearance. Spinach also makes splendid soufflesés; oysters, broiled on the half shell with a mixture of spinach, some other ingredients, and a sauce become “Oysters Rockefeller”; and when foods are served on a bed of spinach, they are known collectively as florentine.

With apologies to “Popeye the Sailor-Man” (whose appearance as a cartoon character in 1929 increased spinach consumption by 33 percent among children), spinach is not a “miracle food” - not even a particularly good source of iron. But it is rich in beta-carotene, calcium, folacin, and a number of important minerals.

Common names and synonyms: Savoy spinach.

© Cambridge University Press 2000

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