Many Italian-Americans/Canadians may remember their school lunch hour with anguish. When hunger would finally overpower their fear of embarrassment, kids of Italian stock would be forced to sheepishly pull exotic meals from their lunch bags and surrender to the stares and comments of the whole cafeteria.
Needless to say, their meals were miles away from the neatly packaged TV dinners and ziplocked Mr. Christie’s cookies coming from their classmates’ lunchboxes. Forget about any superlative goodies such as commercial granola bars or packaged fruit juices. Most of the time a young Italian-American/Canadian’s lunch consisted of a single gigantic “sangwich,” wrapped the good old-fashioned way in a “nappa-kin” and carried to school in a plain, brown paper bag.
Even eating their extra-large sausage and rapini panino they could never quite find the words to explain to non-Italian schoolmates how this was actually their families’ version of a hot dog... Come cavolo (how the heck) could they explain these weird types of mustard greens, dripping with olive oil?
The closest thing to it would probably be spinach. But then again, rapini (known in English as broccoli rabe) also looks like broccoli... “If only everybody spoke Italian” they might think, recalling the genius of Italians in coming up with that generic term “verdure,” which basically stands for everything that’s both green and good to eat, including even odd plants like ciccoria (chicory), a close relative of the dandelion.
Rapini are a common staple in any Italian household. And orecchiete con cime di rape is probably among the all-time favourites of any hardcore Italian food lover. But selling these bitter, dark-green vegetables to high-school friends, or worse yet, locker room enemies, is a whole other story.
It is no stretch of the imagination to say that most Italian-Americans/Canadians would probably have loved to throw their bullies one of Popeye’s whirling, iron fist punches and maybe even a couple of “schiaffi”, Lino Banfi Style, for good measure to all those haters of their precious Mediterranean diet.
Now, I don’t want to burst your bubble 60 years after the fact, but believe it or not, the myth peddled by the famous sailor man – that spinach carries 10 times more iron than any other green, leafy vegetable – has no basis in fact.
Despite being lauded for its supposedly steroidal effects, it so happens that spinach, while containing high levels of iron and calcium, is also full of oxalic acid, a substance that prevents effective absorption of nutrients into the body. Azzecata ! for that one...
Rapini on the other hand can be found on the top ten “Superfoods” list, promoted enthusiastically by the most notorious foodies and nutritionists in their new food science. These super vegetables are even said to be among the most nutrient dense foods on the planet.
They say you are what you eat and while no real Italian would ever eat spinach out of a can, you can bet they crave any fresh rapini-based dishes. So maybe Popeye creator Elzie Crisler Segar should step out of his tomb, go back to his storyboards and do it right, because my gut tells me that our salty ol' sea dog was actually Italian.
And despite the fact that the names Popeye or Bluto hardly sound Italian, neither did their alter egos’ Bud Spencer & Terence Hill, famous in Italy in the 1970s for staring in silly Spaghetti Westerns filled with cheesy fighting scenes.
Moreover, some have argued that Popeye’s notorious accent might actually have been inspired by the distinctive, three-octave voice of Italian-American vocalist and animation voice actor of the 1930’s, Candy Candido, famous for his tagline "I'm feeling mighty low" on Jimmy Durante's radio show.
Finally, one can only wonder why Popeye and Bluto always fought over Olive Oyl, Popeye’s beloved goyl'friend, since to be frank, she is no Olivia Wilde. The answer probably lies in her candid character and cooking skills.
Were Olive Oyl herself Italian, it is not hard to guess what Bluto and Popeye might ask her to prepare for dinner. Bluto would almost certainly be a great fan of penne all’arrabiata. As far as Popeye (Braccio di Ferro) is concerned, he would likely prefer a gigantic, tasty sausage and rapini panino instead of a nasty can of mushy spinach!