These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder

Khalid Elhassan - August 12, 2023

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Spinach is not the super food Popeye led many children to believe it is. Imgur

The Spinach Super Food Myth

Generations of children were entertained by Popeye the Sailor Man. Thanks to him, many kids have dreamt that they could gain super powers by overcoming their distaste for spinach. Popeye’s love of spinach was popularized to a receptive public, primed by a widespread belief that spinach was an extraordinarily beneficial food item. Sadly, Spinach is nothing special – at least as a source of super powers. Kids who mastered their gag reflexes long enough to swallow the green stuff were not rewarded by an explosive increase in strength, prowess, or other abilities and talents. There was a silver lining, however, as the kids learned one of life’s early lessons: don’t believe everything you see on TV.

Popeye’s passion for spinach, as well as the popular faith in its exceptional qualities, was caused by a simple mathematical mistake. In 1870, German scientist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach and other vegetables. He discovered that spinach’s iron content was 3.5 milligrams per 100 gram serving. However, when he wrote his findings, Wolf misplaced a decimal point. He put down spinach’s iron content as ten times greater than what it actually was: 35 milligrams of iron per 100 gram serving, instead of 3.5 milligrams. It was not until 1937 that somebody double checked Wolf’s math, and spotted the error. By then, Popeye was already a cultural icon, and the spinach myth had taken hold.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Thomas Jefferson. Time for Kids

Thomas Jefferson Controlled His Slaves With Food

The control of food has long been a means to exercise power, and slave owners throughout history knew that. Take Thomas Jefferson. The Founding Father and leading member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence penned some of the most stirring words in advocating freedom, liberty, and equality. The phrase “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has moved and inspired idealists for centuries. On the other hand, Jefferson pursued his happiness in a slave-operated plantation. Although he called slavery a “moral depravity” and “a hideous blot“, Jefferson lived a life of luxury that was only made possible by the labor of hundreds of chattel slaves.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Plantation slaves. National Geographic Society

Jefferson argued that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, by which all humans have a right to personal liberty. He told all who would listen that it was necessary to end slavery. Those views were quite radical in the environment in which he grew up and lived. Nonetheless, Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life, with all the violence that accompanied that. He also used food as a means to control and compel his slaves to do his bidding. Throughout his life, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves. Over 400 of them lived and worked in his Monticello estate. He constantly monitored his human property to extract the maximum labor out of them, and strove to increase their numbers through procreation – sometimes with his own personal participation.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Enslaved children. News Dog Media

Food as a Means to Manipulate Child Slaves

Thomas Jefferson’s child slaves toiled in his tobacco fields: children were the right height to reach and kill tobacco worms. When Monticello shifted from tobacco to wheat, which required less manual labor, Jefferson had the children taught trades as an alternative to field toil. As he put it, his slave children must “go into the ground or learn trades“. He used food to make the kids work harder: if they did a good job, they got more food. If they were particularly diligent, they might also get new clothes. Jefferson had a clock installed on a Monticello wall that only had an hour hand. Jefferson, who believed that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” figured that hour increments were all that the slaves could understand or needed to know.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Monticello today. Monticello Org

Jefferson had cabins built for the house slaves about a hundred yards from and facing the mansion. Blacks who worked the fields were housed further away. That way, they and their backbreaking labor would be out of his sight in both the literal and figurative senses. Originally, Jefferson’s slaves lived in two-room cabins, with one family per room and a single shared doorway to the outside. From the 1790s onwards, the slaves were housed in single-room cabins, each with its own door. By the dismal standards of American slavery at the time, the lives of Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello were less terrible than average. Their lot was still quite horrible, but not as horrible as the lot of most other slaves with most other masters.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – Adolf Frederick: The Swedish King Who Ate Himself to Death

Atlas Obscura – When Tomatoes Were Blamed For Witchcraft and Werewolves

BBC – The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Status Pineapple

Catton, Bruce – Bruce Catton’s Civil War, Three Volumes in One (1984)

Bear, James A. Jr. – Jefferson at Monticello (1967)

Biography – Gary Gilmore

Brodie, Fawn McKay – Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974)

CNN – ‘Game of Thrones’ Author George R.R. Martin: Why He Wrote the Red Wedding

Encyclopedia Britannica – McDonald’s, American Corporation

Encyclopedia Britannica – Columbian Exchange

Gabriel, Richard – Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General (2004)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Harari, Yuval Noah – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)

History Collection – How George Cheyne Created the First Fad Diet, the Georgian Diet

Kroc, Ray – Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s (1977)

Library of Congress – Civil War Thanksgiving Foods

National Geographic Genographic Project – The Development of Agriculture: The Farming Revolution

National Park Service – Fort Scott: Cooking Food Rations

Nordstjernan – King-Sized Meal: A Cautionary Tale

NPR – When the Supreme Court Decided Tomatoes Were Vegetables

Paris Review, April 25th, 2018 – The Strange History of the “King-Pine”

Ranker – Old School Fast Food Photos That Remind Us of ‘The Way We Ate’

Ranker – Unconventional Foods People Ate to Survive the Civil War

Salon – Drinking Culture: Why Some Thinkers Believe Human Civilization Owes its Existence to Alcohol

Slingerland, Edward – Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (2021)

Spoon University – The 9 Items on McDonald’s Very First Menu

Times of India, June 9th, 2014 – The World’s First McDonald’s Restaurant

Williams, John Alden, ed. – The History of Al-Tabari, Volume XXVII: The Abbasid Revolution, AD 743-750 (1985)