I want to make a quick apology, right at the start of this: Today’s post is NOT what I said it was going to be at the end of last Thursday’s post. Nor will Thursday’s. I pulled the mental equivalent of cleaning up a room only to discover you don’t know where anything is any more: I was so focused on delivering the end of that post that I COMPLETELY spaced that I had a plan for this Thursday’s post, and that it would be greatly diminished by doing it later. So everything I said was going to happen is happening NEXT week, and this week, we’re tackling other important issues. Today’s post is a holiday favorite in the O’Guin Household, and I hope it’s something that interests you: Spinach Dip.
I’m Strong to The Finish, Cuz I Eats Me Spinach
Fun fact that I can’t remember if I covered or not before, but the whole idea of Popeye getting strong from Spinach? Based on a typo. When Spinach’s nutritional data was first being compiled in the 1870’s, the German doctor running the tests and figuring out the numbers mis-transcribed Spinach’s 3.5 milligrams of Iron per serving into 35 milligrams. For comparison, a serving of red meat, the go-to recommendation for Iron consumption, is only around 2.5. The daily recommendation for Iron is 18 milligrams. So for about 50 years, people thought that a single serving of Spinach was equal to TWICE as much Iron as you needed in a day, and 12x MORE iron than in steak!
Which is presumably how he got those freakish fore-arms.
Eventually, someone double-checked that math, and realized the error, but that’s why they chose spinach for the cartoon: if you’re going to endorse kids eating SOMETHING, it might as well be a vegetable, and if you’re going to pick a vegetable, why not pick the healthiest one? Thus American cartoons were shaped by mistakes of German science. That sounds about right.
Now, I think it’s not by any means a surprise when I say that, in the main, I’m a guy who likes to try new things. In a culinary sense, at least. Sexually, I’m strictly Old Testament. “Sins so great God flooded the Earth” Old Testament, to be precise. But enough of my weekend plans. The point is that, for someone as consistently creative in the kitchen, my holidays are surprisingly unchanging. Sometimes I make ONE new dish, that people like, and then we never talk about it again, and we go back to doing the same thing the next year.
I’m honestly not complaining. There’s a lot of stress, pressure, and calculation going on with every year’s holiday meals, so I’m perfectly content with a “stick to the stuff we know” attitude there.
For instance, referencing multiple movies in the first part of a post about food.
Especially since, over the years, each member of the family tends to get at least one or two dishes they ‘claim’, and that are thereafter a part of the festivities. For example, my brother Nathan loves Brownie Trifle, while I love Peanut Butter Pie. And as such, those two dishes are ALWAYS on the menu, year after year.
And there’s one dish that’s on the menu that Nate and I, often men of very different tastes, are in agreement on. One that comes not at the close, but the open of the meal. And that dish is Spinach Dip.
I Have No Idea if Spinach Dip has a History, so this Section Might be Short
After 2 hours of food research, Spinach dip has A history, but it’s not a particularly new one. Still, as Stan Lee almost said: “each post is someone’s first”, so let’s recover some ground we’ve tread before.
Because I’m kind of lost, to be frank.
To understand Spinach Dip, you have to understand 50’s food culture. The 50’s were a rather interesting time for food, because, as I mentioned back in my Bone Marrow and Rendered Beef Fat Post (which is a lot weirder written out), the 50’s were being heavily affected by the mass war-time industrialization and ration-focused food creation of the 40’s. Powdered Juices, canned veggies, companies who had just made food easy to ship overseas for our boys started offloading the same goods to those boys now that they were home. Further, the advances that had changed industrial refrigeration exploded the domestic refrigerator market. While the first fridges, back in the 20’s, sold over a million units, by the 50’s, the market was in the tens of millions.
Piggy-backing off of that was the newest form of mass entertainment and communication: the television set. Just as families once gathered around the radio to hear the comforting messages of FDR, Howdy Doody, or the Lone Ranger, or any other now-problematic program, so the families of the 50’s began to watch television.
Maybe they should have watched weird uncle Wally a little closer…
And with the eventual creation of the wireless remote control, television prompted a specific need: food you could eat with one hand. Something you could have one hand consuming, while the other hand gripped the remote like a lifeline, lest your loved ones snatch it away and try and change the channel.
As such, chips started catching on as a snack food. And to liven them up/make you feel better about snacking on the couch instead of making a ‘real meal’, dips caught on. Specifically, a variety of dip I’ve struggled to name for some time, because my desire to be seen as ‘clever’ and ‘funny’ is sometimes more bother than it’s worth. For the moment, I’m calling them SCM Dips or ‘Dairy Dips’, but if you have better/funnier names, please let me know. The name refers to a wide array of dips that are built on the same culinary spine: 16 ounces of Sour Cream, and a Cup of Mayonnaise. And if that sounds stupidly specific to you, I dare YOU to go read a couple hundred dip recipes, and not see the same damn pattern.
The same, pale, Off-white pattern.
Spinach Dip was, in some ways, a fascinating conglomerate of all the weird little trends of 50’s foods, and also a big hit. So let’s get into the specifics.
Open Secrets, Like Open Relationships, Tend to Get Messy Rather Quickly
Now, since we’re all friends, I’m going to give you my family’s secret Spinach Dip recipe. Handed down to my mother from her mother, and passed through sacred texts to my brothers and I. Also, and I’m not joking here, it’s the same ‘secret recipe’ as dozens, if not HUNDREDS of family’s Spinach Dips across America. Because it’s not a secret recipe. It’s the recipe on the goddamn box. Or, well, “package”.
There’s something weirdly unsettling about the tear line in this shot. LIke, it feels like I edited two pictures together, but I didn’t. That’s just the difference between in-focus and out-of focus.
That is the torn back of a package of Knorr Vegetable Soup Mix, a product that, for at least 25 years, is probably bought for Spinach dip five times as frequently as it is bought for any kind of soup. An instant soup mix, Knorr was exploring new ways to use their product in the 50’s and stumbled on the idea of a simple dip. And they hit it HARD. I mildly lied in the previous sentence, because, from a technical sense, while I’m sure there are hundreds of families who, like mine, straight up use the package recipe, I can also guarantee you there are more whose secret recipe is “that one, but like, with half a cup less of one thing”. Seriously, while looking up Spinach Dip history, I found 3 different sites with “Spinach Dip recipes” that can be summarized as “make it like the package, but with half the spinach” (weird call on a SPINACH dip, but whatever) or “Make it like the package, but with ¾ of the sour cream”. (not ¾ LESS, mind you. Literally “instead of 2 cups, use 1.5”) I wouldn’t be surprised to find one that is “as the package, but with ¼ tsp ground black pepper”. Which is why I don’t feel bad that my recipe is “no, just do what the damn box says”.
I’m actually MORE confident about the recipe than the recipe itself: they have two of the ingredients as “optional”, but my family refuses to make the dish without them.
Made healthier with a package of frozen spinach (meaning that, in prime 50’s fashion, the dish needed not only Instant Soup Mix, but Frozen Vegetables), and some other fresh veggies. But that healthiness was really just to offset the deliciously decadent beginning. When you’re mixing full-fat dairy with a mixture of oil and egg, you unsurprisingly end up with something with a rather hefty caloric load.
One of the ingredients I really like in the mixture, however, is one that the package CLAIMS is optional, but I disagree: water chestnuts. If you’ve never really looked into them, good, because that’s my job, damn it. Water chestnuts are an aquatic sedge plant, whose corms are a rather popular in Chinese cuisine. To explain that last bit of jargon: sedges are a type of grass, and ‘corms’ are little nutrition vaults that plants grow underground to sustain themselves during rough seasons, droughts, etc. In short, it’s kind of like a garlic plant, or an onion: there’s a grassy part that sticks out into the water/air, and there’s an edible part down in the root.
They’re not actually related to chestnuts, but they do LOOK like them, in their unprocessed form. They’re popular in Chinese cooking because of the Chinese principle of hau-gum, or “mouth-feel”. We’ve talked about it before, but Chinese cuisine has a much bigger focus on different food textures than Western cuisine. Like, if I called a food “rubbery” or ‘slimy’, it would be generally understood that I didn’t like the textures. But in Chinese, not only are there positive words for those textures, there are distinctions and delineations. And water chestnuts are prized for their song, which, if I’ve read this correctly, refers to “refreshing crispness, like biting into an apple.” Because Water Chestnuts have a relatively rare plant cell structure that makes their cell walls highly stable, retaining their texture even when canned or cooked. Thus, they’re crisp when raw, boiled, sautéed, whatever. And that crisp snap is exactly what they add to the dip.
Because they sure as shit aren’t adding any color to it, I tell you what.
Also, and this is a side thing, it’s fun to see a prominently Chinese ingredient in a Western food formed in the 50’s, because it really speaks to the degree to which America was processing its cultures into a semi-cohesive unit, in some arenas. Even today, if you want Water Chestnuts, you have to go to the Asian food section of the grocery, but here it is, in an all American party dip mix. Some believe that the classic Spinach Artichoke Dip (the heated brother of this dip), was first created as a way for returning soldiers to revisit the flavors they had found and enjoyed in the European theater of WW2.
Other than that, it’s just some diced Green onions. Mix the soup mix, chestnuts, spinach, and onions with the mayonnaise and cream, and let it sit for at LEAST an hour for the flavors to permeate the mixture. During this time, you can cut the bread. And let me be clear on that: YOU can cut the bread. I’m not doing it. I have a bad habit of accidentally crushing the bread loaves trying to cut them. I’m just trying to hold the loaf firmly, and I end up squeezing the air out of it.
Speaking of accidental Squeezing, this year we tore the dish towel we used to wring out the thawed spinach because we twisted it too tightly.
IN the end, you serve it up with your bread cubes, and it’s a hit. It’s almost always a hit. It’s the kind of thing that people go “that’s really good, how’d you make it?” and you say “I just followed the instructions”, and somehow they’re always impressed. I don’t know, man. It’s like that orange juice commercial I keep seeing: “Sometimes, doing nothing is exactly the thing to do.” Every now and again, you find a recipe that just already figured out what it’s supposed to be. And maybe I’ll come back, and try and tinker with it another day, but during the holidays, I let it be. Keep it simple. It’s not a failure to just do things normal for a change.
Speaking of a return to Normalcy, last Thursday we skipped plugging our various digital entities, but we’re back at it again today! Over the last few weeks, Jon has acquired a more stream-lined process that’s going to let him post to Social Media much more frequently, so be on the look-out on our Facebook, Twitter, and our brand new Instagram page for more content. And more content is the theme of the season, as a return to stability in his living arrangements allows Jon to unveil a new Patreon content idea. For $1 a month, you can read Jon’s dissections of the food magazines he’s looking at, and what appeals to him, and maybe add your own comments. This month’s post showed no fewer than 25 potential posts Jon is considering making in the coming year, so check that out if you’re interested. And tune in this Thursday for more insights, ideas, and venues to suggest what you’d like to see. Because…
THURSDAY: OUR SECOND STATE OF CATASTROPHE, TO HONOR OUR 3rd ANNIVERSARY OF THE FIRST POST ON THE SITE! WE DISCUSS PLANS AND GOALS FOR THE YEAR, TALK ABOUT SOME FOOD TECH WE’VE SNAGGED, AND OTHERWISE DIVE INTO THE TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE.
MONDAY: JON ACTUALLY MAKES FRENCH CUISINE. KIND OF. HE MAKES A MAYBE-FRENCH DISH IN A NON-NORMAL WAY, SO AT THIS POINT, WHO KNOWS WHAT IT IS?
Makes 4 cups (roughly 16 servings)
1 (10 oz) container of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 (16 oz) container Sour Cream
1 cup Mayonnaise
1 package Vegetable Soup Mix
1 (8 oz) can Water Chestnuts
3 Green Onions
1 loaf French, Italian, or sourdough bread
1. Drain the can of water chestnuts. Chop Water Chestnuts and Green onions fine.
2. Combine all ingredients except bread in a mixing bowl, chill for at least an hour.
3. Cube the bread, and serve with the prepared dip.