Saturday, September 16, 2006

Superman is to Kryptonite what Popeye is to....fresh spinach?!

The recent spinach scare makes me wonder what would happen if Popeye got a bad batch.

IMAGE: Still frame from Fleischer's animated cartoon "Little Swee' Pea" (1936). The film has fallen into the public domain, as its copyright has expired. It is available at the Internet Archive and in many unlicensed videotapes and DVDs.

As I taught my students in "Introduction to Mass Communications and Media Ethics," pop culture both shapes and reflects reality and provides a treasure trove of resources for making sense of madness. Take the recent outbreak of illnesses from the dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria 0157, which has been blamed on fresh-bagged spinach, and the examples of relevant, pop culture references below.

  • Survivor - tagline: 39 days... 16 people... ONE... Survivor!

As of today, the rising tally of tainted spinach victims is: 171 sickened, 25 states, 1 fatality (in Wisconsin). A second death is under investigation. It reads like a twisted version of the tagline for Marc Burnett's hit CBS television show.

Substituting the word "spinach" for "daisies" in the title of Jean Kerr's lighthearted book, Doris Day's movie (1960) and NBC television's situation comedy (1965-1967) sums up FDA and CDC warnings to "bag" (as in avoid eating) fresh spinach (e.g., see Medical News Today - Fresh Bagged Spinach E. Coli Warning By FDA).

I'm strong to the "Finich" / 'Cause I eats me spinach / I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.

- "Popeye the Sailorman" lyrics

Popeye - Wikipedia describes a recurring storyline associated with Elzie Crisler Segar's corn-cob pipe-smoking cartoon character:

A villain, usually Bluto (later renamed Brutus for a time), makes a move on Popeye's "sweetie", Olive Oyl. The bad guy then clobbers Popeye until Popeye eats spinach, which gives him superhuman strength.

The sailor man so popularized the green leafy vegetable that two grateful spinach-growing communities erected Popeye statues. Ed Black's Cartoon Flashback - THE LITTLE MAN AND THE ONE-EYED SAILOR explains:

Popeye is perhaps the only non-Disney character to have more than one statue erected in his honor. The people in the spinach-growing area of Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue of the one-eyed sailor there in 1937, grateful that mothers all over the country bought spinach so their kids could ''grow to be big and strong like Popeye." Spinach sold as fast as the farmers could harvest it. Witnesseth the power of a cartoon character.

A second statue was erected in Alma, Arkansas, the self-proclaimed "Spinach Capital of the World" and home to Allen Canning, which markets Popeye-branded canned spinach. A third statue was erected to honor Popeye's creator. It was unveiled June 25, 1977 in Elzie Segar Park in Segar's hometown, Chester, Illinois. The town's motto is "The Home of Popeye."

According to Popeye the Sailor Man Turns 75, the one-eyed mariner debuted in 1929, in a minor role in the comic strip "Thimble Theater." Popeye's immediate popularity with readers inspired his creator to promote him to star of the strip by 1931. The same source says:

But it was the Max Fleischer short films, 109 in all, that ingrained the spinach-chomping sailor into the national consciousness. The first one debuted in 1933, and Popeye became such an instant icon that spinach consumption in the United States jumped 33 percent during the 1930s.

Fleischer Popeye Tribute describes another outstanding Popeye feat:

By the mid-1930s, the one-eyed sailor surpassed even Disney’s Mickey Mouse in popularity.

It's ironic, given what's going on, that spinach could be Popeye's Achilles Heel. Sure, Iron Arm scarfed his spinach from a can, which - like frozen spinach and premade meals manufactured by food companies - the FDA says is safe to eat. And Allen Canning (which distributes Popeye branded spinach), posted a weblink that reads:

Concerned about Spinach? Canned is SAFE! Click Here.
[Clicking the link accesses a Canned Spinach Safety Holding Statement.]

I'm certain those reassurances are true. But my vivid imagination (and survivor instinct) is sparked by statements such as this one by Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition. He has said of E. coli-poisoned spinach:

"If you wash it, it is not going to get rid of it."

Apparently, the bacteria is as tightly attached to tainted spinach as Popeye's tattooes are to his bulging biceps, and it's virtually impossible to wash off. Consequently, federal advisories warn against eating fresh spinach - whether it comes in a bag or not - and some experts (such as Washington Post food columnist, Robert Wolke) - warn the only way to outwit, outlast and outplay the potentially fatal bacteria is to avoid all spinach - fresh, professionally processed and home-cooked. Consequently, I can't help imagining what would have happened if Skipper Skraek had gotten hold of a bad batch, and the terror at sea that would have ensued.

NOTE: Some say the "spinach" Popeye was puffing in his pipe was really pot. But that's another story.

Eating E-coli tainted bacteria could be as crippling to the one-eyed Sailorman as Kryptonite was to Superman (another 1930s icon). Even worse, there's a possibility the toxic bacteria could "finich" the tough Gazookus just as Superman's ultimate nemesis - Doomsday - fatally felled the Man of Steel.

Some lessons learned from pop culture: Even superhuman cartoon characters like Popeye and Superman are not invincible. Mere mortals must take special precautions to avoid pushing up daisies, getting blown down (a Popeye term), or extinguishing our torches (symbolizing death to Survivor outcasts).