The Great Spinach Experiment – again

Gulping down that first mound of spinach from Dad's garden was a chore.

P. Kevin Morley/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP/File
Hearty greens: A man holds spinach grown on 180 acres of his farm in King George County, Va.

The year that Dad was forced to swallow his stories – and his spinach – I was almost 4. We lived in Billinghay, a sleepy village on the flat Lincolnshire Fens in eastern England.

On a still summer's day, you could see the steeple of St. Botolph's Church above a fur of yellow fields, 14 miles to the left of our back garden.

Dad spent lots of time in that garden tending his vegetables.

There were thick frills of broccoli; shallow, green rows of carrot feathers; and brown nuggets of beets that Mum turned into jars of glinting red rubies.

That year, Dad decided to grow something new.

"It's spinach," he said, showing me a freshly turned furrow. "What Popeye ate. It'll make you big and strong."

Popeye, my father explained, was a sailor. He had only one eye and a girlfriend called Olive Oyl. Popeye was very, very strong, on account of all the spinach he consumed.

I like to think that little as I was, I got a feeling of foreboding. After all, my Dad was very, very strong, wasn't he? Yet I'd never seen him spooning in the smallest shaving of spinach.

Early in their parenting days, Mum and Dad had agreed on an "eat everything on your plate before you leave the table" rule. It taught kids not to be fussy and meant there were no embarrassing scenes when dining out. The rule applied to everyone in the family.

The spinach, when it finally arrived, was dark green and limp, little lakes of leaves on my mother's white dinner plates with the brown rims.

It tasted bitter.

Mum says she felt a pang of guilt as she watched me silently wading through my slimy spinach pond.

My sister Sarah, who at 2 was the only one exempt from the "eat everything" rule, spat hers out as fast as Mum shoveled it in.

As for Mum, she was waging her very own spinach battle. How had she prepared the stuff, you ask? Boiled, with a bit of salt – just as Dad told her. He was only guessing that was how you did it, of course. Spinach was new to both my parents.

I finished before Dad did. "Let's not have that again for dinner," I said in a small voice, according to family history.

Dad put his fork down. "Tastes like grass," he muttered. And that was the end of the Great Spinach Experiment.

So you'll understand that I was less than excited when my husband returned home some months ago bearing green things in plastic bags.

"Spinach seedlings," he announced with a triumphant flourish.

We live in inflation-riddled Zimbabwe, where food prices skyrocket every day and wholesome meals must be gotten wherever they are available.

The garden is my husband's project. I do my part in bartering bags of secondhand clothes for sacks of straw-speckled cow manure from the callers at my gate. But mostly it's his baby.

I watched him plant his spinach seedlings.

They grew. And they grew. I checked them out of the corner of my eye, Popeye-style. They were flourishing better than the roses, I conceded bitterly.

My friend Sheila came to my rescue.

"Spinach is great, Kate," she said. One of the things I love about Sheila is that she is always such a positive person. "You know you have to boil it twice, don't you? To get rid of that bitter taste."

Sheila was right.

These days, as dusk falls, my husband returns from his vegetable patch with a handful of leaves. I rinse them, strip off the stalks and chop them widthwise, once, twice, three times. I plunge them into a saucepan of cold water and bring it to a boil, just as Sheila told me.

Then I drain and refill the pan with fresh water and a few grains of salt, bring it to boil, and cook the spinach again for three or four minutes. And hey presto, we have a mound of tasty greens, perfect for stirring into meat or vegetable dishes.

My father is coming to Zimbabwe later this year to read the Rupert Bear stories to his 3-year-old grandson.

I'm planning a celebratory meal, provided the power isn't cut: spinach in the local peanut-butter sauce, prepared with ginger and just a hint of garlic.

I want Dad to savor the present – in all its spinach-flavored glory.

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