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Over the last couple of weeks, U.S. spinach growers have faced dire financial straits thanks to at least 150 cases of E. coli (including at least one death resulting from same) that were traced back to fresh spinach: the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) banned all fresh spinach, and the nation's grocers and restaurants pulled their spinach from their shelves and kitchens, and farmers were forced to plow their spinach fields under, since the leafy vegetable isn't noted for its longevity.

(Pretty odd that the FDA's "good growing practices" for lettuce didn't extend to spinach until now.)

Last Friday's (22 September) edition of On the Media, a syndicated NPR (National Public Radio) programme originated at WNYC-FM in New York City, included a six-and-a-half minute segment on spinach, and I learned a couple of things that surprised me: first, Popeye essentially saved the spinach growers' bacon (spinach and bacon salad, mmmm) during the Depression with his advocacy of spinach-in-a-can (canned veggies were seen as high class back in the 1930s); and second, "spinach" was one of the slang terms for marijuana, a factoid that has escaped the notice of Richard A. Spears' Slang and Euphemism: A Dictionary of Oaths, Curses, Insults, Racial Slurs, Sexual Slang and Metaphor, Drug Talk, Homosexual Lingo, and Related Matters (1981, 1982; I admit that this is the mass market paperback abridged edition, but still).

Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst waged a propaganda campaign against marijuana in the 1930s: he sought to demonize it and backed federal legislation criminalizing it because he feared that his paper mills and logging concerns would take a huge hit from the newly discovered process of making paper from hemp that was cheaper than making it from wood.

The OTM segment cites an article that appeared in the magazine Cannabis Culture ("Popeye the Pothead" by Dana Larsen; 2 Feb. 2005) that argued that animated Popeye cartoons from the 1930s to the 1960s snuck in sly references to spinach as marijuana. (I didn't know that Popeye was given a dog in the 1960s cartoons called "Birdseed" -- possibly anticipating the introduction of the frizzy-haired bird Woodstock in Charles Schultz's Peanuts strip -- either. Hmmm. "Down to Seeds and Stems Again," eh?)

Huh. I'd heard that marijuana was called "tea" in the 1920s and 1930s (as memorialized in such songs as "The G-Man Got the T-Man"); but my favorite term for pot (which comes from a Mexican Indian word, potaguaya; Spears, p. 322) of that era is "muggles." "Viper" (as in the great period song "Viper Mad") doesn't really count, since that referred to either a dealer or a smoker, especially one who's been at it for a number of years. Spears offers the word "vipe" as a precursor to "jones," specifically meaning "to crave a marijuana cigarette" (p. 424).

The Cannabis Culture article also references a song recorded in 1938 by Julia Lee and Her Boyfriends, "The Spinach Song," which OTM played (though only a snippet) at the end of the segment (c. 5:25 into the piece, out of 6:26 total). Maybe I'm just a dirty old man, but somehow, it wasn't the drug references that leaped out at me when I heard it; it was the sexual ones:

"I didn't like it the first time
It was so new to me
I didn't like it the first time
I was so young, you see
I used to run away from the stuff
But now somehow I can't get enough
I didn't like it the first time
Oh, how it grew on me..."


Okay, "spinach" as slang for "sex" or the human genitalia is a bit of a stretch, but no more so than, say, "soup and fish" to refer to a tuxedo with top hat and tails. Ganja?! You simple fools, that song's all about the seXX0r! Rrrrrrowwr!

(Hmm: spinach as sex in Popeye: "The Breakfast of Champions"..? I like it! And Popeye's no more freakish than the dwarves and hunchbacks that used to appear regularly in the more louche spank books....)

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