Jan 172018
 

Popeye the Sailor, created by Elzie Crisler Segar, first appeared in the daily King Features comic strip, Thimble Theatre, on this date in 1929, and Popeye became the strip’s title in later years. Popeye has since appeared in cinematic and television animated cartoons. Segar’s Thimble Theatre strip was in its 10th year when Popeye made his debut, but the one-eyed (left) sailor quickly became the main focus of the strip, and Thimble Theatre became one of King Features’ most popular properties during the 1930s. After Segar’s death in 1938, Thimble Theatre was continued by several writers and artists, most notably Segar’s assistant Bud Sagendorf. The strip continues to appear in first-run installments in its Sunday edition, written and drawn by Hy Eisman. The daily strips are reprints of old Sagendorf stories.

In 1933, Max Fleischer adapted the Thimble Theatre characters into a series of Popeye the Sailor theatrical cartoon shorts for Paramount Pictures. These cartoons proved to be among the most popular of the 1930s, and Fleischer—and later Paramount’s own Famous Studios—continued production through 1957. These cartoon shorts are now owned by Turner Entertainment, a subsidiary of Time Warner, and distributed by its sister company Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Over the years, Popeye has also appeared in comic books, television cartoons, arcade and video games, hundreds of advertisements, and peripheral products (ranging from spinach to candy cigarettes), and the 1980 live-action film directed by Robert Altman, starring Robin Williams as Popeye.

Differences in Popeye’s story and characterization vary depending on the medium. Originally, Popeye got his strength from rubbing the head of the Whiffle Hen, changing to spinach by 1932. Swee’Pea is definitively Popeye’s ward in the comic strips, but he is often depicted as belonging to Olive Oyl in cartoons. There is no absolute sense of continuity in the stories, although certain plot and presentation elements remain mostly constant, including purposeful contradictions in Popeye’s capabilities. Popeye seems bereft of manners and uneducated, yet he is often depicted as capable of coming up with solutions to problems that seem insurmountable to the police or, most importantly, the scientific community. Popeye has, alternatively, displayed Sherlock Holmes-like investigative prowess (determining, for instance, that his beloved Olive was abducted by estimating the depth of the villains’ footprints in the sand), scientific ingenuity (as his construction, within a few hours, of a “spinach-drive” spacecraft), or oversimplified (yet successful) diplomatic arguments (by presenting his own existence—and superhuman strength—as the only true guarantee of world peace at diplomatic conferences). Popeye’s pipe also proves to be highly versatile. Among other things, it has served as a cutting torch, jet engine, propeller, periscope, musical instrument, and, of course, a whistle with which he produces his trademark toot. Popeye also on occasion eats spinach through his pipe, sometimes sucking in the can itself along with the contents. Since the 1970s, Popeye is seldom depicted using his pipe to smoke tobacco.

Popeye’s exploits are also enhanced by a few recurring plot elements. One is the love triangle among Popeye, Olive, and Bluto, and the latter’s endless machinations to claim Olive at Popeye’s expense. Another is his near-saintly perseverance in overcoming any obstacle to please Olive, who often renounces Popeye for Bluto’s dime-store advances. She is the only character that Popeye will permit to give him a thumping. Finally, Popeye usually uncovers villainous plots by accidentally sneaking up on the antagonists as they brag about or lay out their schemes.[citation needed.

Thimble Theatre was cartoonist E. C. Segar’s third published strip when it first appeared in the New York Journal on December 19, 1919. The paper’s owner William Randolph Hearst also owned King Features Syndicate, which syndicated the strip. Thimble Theatre was intended as a replacement for Midget Movies by Ed Wheelan (Wheelan having recently resigned from King Features). It did not attract a large audience at first, and at the end of its first decade appeared in only half a dozen newspapers. In its early years, the strip featured characters acting out various stories and scenarios in theatrical style (hence the strip’s name). It could be classified as a gag-a-day comic in those days.

Thimble Theatre’s first main characters were the thin Olive Oyl and her boyfriend Harold Hamgravy. After the strip moved away from its initial focus, it settled into a comedy-adventure style featuring Olive, Ham Gravy, and Olive’s enterprising brother Castor Oyl. Olive’s parents Cole and Nana Oyl also made frequent appearances. Popeye first appeared in the strip as a minor character. He was initially hired by Castor Oyl and Ham to crew a ship for a voyage to Dice Island, the location of a casino owned by the crooked gambler Fadewell. Castor intended to break the bank at the casino using the unbeatable good luck conferred by stroking the hairs on the head of Bernice the Whiffle Hen. Weeks later, on the trip back, Popeye is shot many times by Jack Snork, a stooge of Fadewell’s, but survives by rubbing Bernice’s head. After the adventure, Popeye left the strip but, due to reader reaction, he was quickly brought back.

The Popeye character became so popular that he was given a larger role, and the strip was expanded into many more newspapers as a result. Initial strips presented Olive as being less than impressed with Popeye, but she eventually left Ham Gravy to become Popeye’s girlfriend and Ham Gravy left the strip as a regular. Over the years, however, she has often displayed a fickle attitude towards Popeye. Castor Oyl continued to come up with get-rich-quick schemes and enlisted Popeye in his misadventures. Eventually, he settled down as a detective and later on bought a ranch out West. Castor has seldom appeared in recent years.

In 1933, Popeye received a foundling baby in the mail, whom he adopted and named “Swee’Pea.” Other regular characters in the strip were J. Wellington Wimpy, a hamburger-loving moocher who would “gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” (he was also soft-spoken and cowardly; Vickers Wellington bombers were nicknamed “Wimpys” after the character); George W. Geezil, a local cobbler who spoke in a heavily affected accent and habitually attempted to murder or wish death upon Wimpy; and Eugene the Jeep, a yellow, vaguely dog-like animal from Africa with magical powers. In addition, the strip featured the Sea Hag, a terrible pirate, as well as the last witch on earth (her even more terrible sister excepted); Alice the Goon, a monstrous creature who entered the strip as the Sea Hag’s henchwoman and continued as Swee’Pea’s babysitter; and Toar, a caveman.

Segar’s strip was quite different from the cartoons that followed. The stories were more complex, with many characters that never appeared in theatric cartoons (King Blozo, for example). Popeye rarely ate spinach, and Bluto made only one appearance. Segar would sign some of his early Popeye comic strips with a cigar, due to his last name being a homophone of “cigar” (pronounced SEE-gar).

After Segar’s death in 1938, many different artists were hired to draw the strip. Tom Sims, the son of a Coosa River channel-boat captain, continued writing Thimble Theatre strips and established the Popeye the Sailorman spin-off. Doc Winner and Bela Zaboly, successively, handled the artwork during Sims’s run. Eventually, Ralph Stein stepped in to write the strip until the series was taken over by Bud Sagendorf in 1959.

Sagendorf wrote and drew the daily strip until 1986, and continued to write and draw the Sunday strip until his death in 1994. Sagendorf, who had been Segar’s assistant, made a definite effort to retain much of Segar’s classic style, although his art is instantly discernible. Sagendorf continued to use many obscure characters from the Segar years, especially O.G. Wotasnozzle and King Blozo. Sagendorf’s new characters, such as the Thung, also had a very Segar-like quality. What set Sagendorf apart from Segar more than anything else was his sense of pacing. Where plotlines moved very quickly with Segar, it would sometimes take an entire week of Sagendorf’s daily strips for the plot to be advanced even a small amount.

From 1986 to 1992, the daily strip was written and drawn by Bobby London, who, after some controversy, was fired from the strip for a story that could be taken to satirize abortion. London’s strips put Popeye and his friends in updated situations, but kept the spirit of Segar’s original. One classic storyline, titled “The Return of Bluto”, showed the sailor battling every version of the bearded bully from the comic strip, comic books, and animated films. The Sunday edition of the comic strip is currently drawn by Hy Eisman, who took over in 1994. The daily strip began featuring reruns of Sagendorf’s strips after London was fired and continues to do so today.

Even though Popeye did not use spinach to gain strength in his earliest incarnation, spinach and Popeye are now completely wedded. Spinach is an extremely versatile food, and is one of my favorites. I always grew it in containers in my garden in New York, and used it primarily for salads. Because raw spinach contains oxalic acid, which blocks absorption of iron and calcium and may contribute to the formation of kidney stones, there was a time when health nuts avoided spinach that was not cooked. It is now understood, however, that the amount of oxalic acid in spinach is not as deleterious as once thought, and regular eating of probiotics in natural yoghurt and kefir counteracts the acid. On the other hand, if you boil or steam spinach you should discard the water, as well as the liquid it is packed in if you use canned.

I will put spinach in pretty much anything if I have it on hand: soups and stews, omelets, pots of lentils or beans. Curries in India can be made with all the ingredients cooked slowly for hours and if they have spinach (sa’ag) in them, it becomes silky and smooth, almost blending into the sauce. Or you can lightly steam spinach on its own. I cook it by rinsing it thoroughly in a colander, then placing it in a dry saucepan over high heat covered, and letting it steam for a few minutes until it cooks down. Drain off the excess juices and serve it hot or cold as a side dish – plain or dressed with a little sesame oil (although in keeping with the Popeye theme it ought to be olive oil — no comment on extra virgin please). You can put chopped, steamed spinach in sour cream or yoghurt as a dip, or use it as the main ingredient in cream of spinach soup. Spinach will go with anything. Eggs Florentine are like eggs Benedict except you replace the ham with spinach – delicious. “Florentine” is the culinary shorthand for “with spinach.” Hollow out a baked potato and stuff it with spinach and cheese for potatoes Florentine. Use your imagination.

Apr 092017
 

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, and the last Sunday in Lent. These days, ever since I left the U.S. and stopped preaching, Palm Sunday sometimes creeps up on me unawares.  Not this year, because I am paying attention, but in past years it has often caught me by surprise because I have been traveling for my birthday or the like. In 2012, for example, I was in Cusco for my birthday trip to Machu Picchu, and on the Sunday following I walked down to the center of town and came across dozens of women sitting in the street weaving crosses, crowns, and other decorations from palm fronds.  Everyone in town was carrying palms of some sort, and there was a generally festive atmosphere. At midday there was a gigantic parade of church and civic groups before the town’s dignitaries with hundreds of onlookers all around the main square and side roads.

The following year, again by surprise, I bumped into a local church procession in Buenos Aires near my apartment with congregants carrying olive branches and singing as they toured the block around the parish church. Palms are traditional in many countries because of the gospel narrative, but in quite a few places where palms were difficult to come by in the past, people carry, and wave, branches of olive, yew, box, willow, or other local native trees. Olive branches are standard in Rome and I believe that the custom was transferred to Argentina by Catholic monks from the Old World in colonial times even though palms are plentiful there. In fact in the gospels only John specifies palms. In the others they refer to “branches” and in Spanish this day is called domingo de ramos (Branch Sunday).

The narrative of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before the Passover when he died is found in all the canonical gospels.  Here’s John (12:12-15):

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

The quotation at the end comes from Zechariah’s messianic prophecy (9:9), and the shouts of the people come from the Psalms (188:25-26), leading a great many Biblical historians to question the historicity of the event. Did this really happen or is this a wishful (theologically apt) construction of the gospel writers to make a point, underscoring their beliefs concerning the upcoming Easter events? Jesus proved himself to be the foretold Messiah, so he must have entered the city as a peaceful king as foretold by the prophets.

There’s a lot of ancient symbolism thrown together here and the gospels do not exactly agree on specifics. In some cases there is clear confusion. Matthew for example commands his disciples (21:2-3), 2Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me.And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” Later (21:7) the disciples lay their clothes on the donkey AND the colt and set Jesus on BOTH of them – seemingly. How they managed this is a miracle in its own right. How does one ride two animals simultaneously? What seems likely is that Matthew’s Hebrew was not up to snuff and he misread (or misunderstood) the original from Zechariah which reads:

See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey

The original Hebrew is poetry using the frequent Hebrew poetic device of duplication for emphasis. Zechariah is not saying that the king comes riding on a donkey AND a colt, but that the donkey in question is a colt, the offspring of a donkey. Duh !! The fact that the triumphal beast of burden is a donkey and not a horse is also significant. The horse as a king’s mount is a symbol of war; the donkey is a symbol of peace.

It was not uncommon in the ancient Near East for people to spread clothes and branches in the path of a conquering hero. The specific identity of branches as palm fronds is unique to John. The palm was a very complex symbol in ancient times in both the Greco-Roman and Egyptian worlds which John was presumably familiar with. In the Roman Empire, which strongly influenced Christian tradition, the palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory. It became the most common attribute of the goddess Nike or Victory. For contemporary readers of John, the procession would likely have evoked the Roman triumph, when the triumphator laid down his arms and wore the toga, the civilian garment of peace that might be ornamented with emblems of the palm. In ancient Egyptian religion, the palm was carried in funeral processions and represented eternal life. The palm branch later was used as a symbol of Christian martyrs and their spiritual victory or triumph over death.

This juxtaposition of life, death, and triumph brings us back to the events of Holy Week. Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week which is a bittersweet moment in the Christian calendar observed by Catholics, Orthodox, and many mainstream Protestant denominations alike (even those that are not especially keen on Lent).  Holy Week is the climax of Jesus’ ministry when his role is made fully manifest. He preaches to huge crowds, performs miracles, and cleanses the Temple of moneychangers. He is both a hell raiser and pacifist bringing a new dispensation to the world. As such he is both praised and reviled: by the mob on the one hand, and by the Temple authorities on the other. The gospels cast the mob as terminally fickle, however. They are awed and excited by Jesus at the start of the week, and howling for his death by the end.

Jesus plays a cat and mouse game with the Temple authorities all week, openly preaching in the center of Jerusalem by day where he is kept safe by the crowds, but spiriting away in secret to the isolated suburbs at night where the authorities cannot find him until he is betrayed by one of his own. This is a teacher/preacher who has made a name for himself in the provinces but is now a grand celebrity in the capital and is making the most of it. Of course in Roman Imperial times this was an exceptionally dangerous game to play. The Romans were ever fearful of a Jewish uprising and there were many secret rebel groups bent on violent action. The Romans had no compunction in killing off ringleaders if they caught them. Scholars debate endlessly to this day as to whether it was the Romans or the Temple leaders who were responsible in actual historical fact for Jesus execution and I will have much more to say about this on Maundy Thursday. For now I will note that starting with the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday the gospel writers are setting the stage for a showdown between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, and the Romans are very much in the background, seemingly innocent bystanders. I suspect that the Romans were taking much more notice than they are reported to have been.

My Lenten wreath today has only the central Christ candle lit as a stark reminder that while the world temporarily rejoices, the light of the world is moving on to face his death alone. Holy Week was a very lonely time for Jesus despite all the hustle and bustle in Jerusalem. I will extinguish the Christ candle on Good Friday.

Hearts of palm are the obvious ingredient of choice for today. Heart of palm is harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees (notably the coconut (Cocos nucifera), Palmito Juçara (Euterpe edulis), Açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea), sabal (Sabal spp.), pupunha and pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes) palms). Harvesting of many non-cultivated or wild single-stemmed palms results in the death of the tree (e.g. Geonoma edulis).  Some palm species, however, are clonal or multi-stemmed plants (e.g. Prestoea acuminata, Euterpe oleracea) and moderate harvesting will not kill the entire clonal palm.

An alternative to wild heart of palm are palm varieties which have been domesticated as farm species. The main variety that has been domesticated is Bactris gasipaes, known in Ecuador as chontaduro, in Brazil and Costa Rica as palmito, and in English as the peach palm. This variety is the most widely used for canning. They are self-suckering and produce multiple stems, up to 40 on one plant, meaning that modest annual harvesting does no damage to the main plant. Another advantage that the peach palm has over other palms is that it has been selectively bred to eliminate the vicious thorns of its wild cousins. Harvesting is still a labor-intensive task, and thus palm hearts are regarded as a delicacy in many parts of the world. In the U.S. they are readily available canned and are not expensive. I always kept a can or two on hand when I lived in NY.

As is common, I used to use hearts of palm in salads, or on their own with a simple dressing. As a salad component the sliced hearts add some texture and flavor to a salad. They come packed in an acidulated liquid (typically ascorbic acid), so they can be a bit astringent. I used to like to drink the canning liquid but it may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a lot sweeter than pickle juices which I know some folks like. Salads made with all crispy components such as hearts of palm, green beans, and asparagus make a welcome change from their leafy brethren. As a simple side dish for the day – dripping with Holy Week symbolism – I suggest plain hearts of palm dressed with the flesh of passionfruit.

Hearts of palm can also be cooked. They can be plain grilled, or baked. In the latter case, slice them thickly then toss them with olive oil, finely diced garlic, chopped fresh parsley, and grated cheese. Bake in a hot oven until they are nicely golden.