Dynamist Blog

Eating My Spinach

Candy Sagon of the WaPost reports that "We've become a nation of Popeyes. We are eating record amounts of spinach -- five times more fresh spinach than we did in the 1970s and the highest levels since the 1950s, when parents urged their kids to eat spinach to be strong, just like the animated cartoon sailor."

This is a trend--arguably an aesthetic one--near and dear to my heart. Since my father loves spinach, as a child I faced the dreaded vegetable three or four times a week. We had to eat two bites of our vegetables to get dessert. So I developed the unusual ability to swallow a bite of spinach whole with a swig of milk. I hated spinach so much that I wouldn't even try spinach pasta until I was about 30.

Now I'd happily eat spinach every night, and often eat it three or four times a week. But the spinach I eat isn't the frozen kind my mother used to boil up for dinner. And I'm not alone. Sagon explains:

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, annual consumption of all kinds of spinach -- fresh, frozen and canned -- jumped 66 percent in the decade between 1992 and 2002. Canned spinach slipped to a minuscule portion of the market, but fresh spinach has exploded.

U.S. per capita consumption of spinach has reached 2.4 pounds a year, USDA researchers said in a January 2004 report. This is small compared with some other vegetables -- per capita fresh tomato consumption is almost 18 pounds per person, for example -- but still a huge jump considering that, in the bad ol' days of 1975, we barely choked down 5 ounces of the vitamin-rich, dark green leaves.

What's driving the growth is the popularity of those plastic bags of triple-washed spinach in the supermarket and, in particular, the "explosive growth in . . . baby spinach." Baby spinach increasingly shows up in salads at restaurants, salad bars and at home, says the government.

Even as a spinach-loathing child I liked the stuff as salad greens, but back then the only way to get fresh spinach was to grow it yourself, pick it early before it got bitter, and spend a lot of time washing the dirt out of the leaves' many wrinkles. The process was all very bioregionally correct but not exactly a recipe for year-round consumption.

For a great exploration of the nexus between good food, good nutrition, and technological and business innovation, read the whole article. And for more produce blogging, see this old post on grape tomatoes and this one on regulatory barriers to their spread.

Custom Cars

Thanks to distinct looks and lots of customizable options, Toyota's funny-looking Scion is paying off big-time, attracting the young customers the car was designed for. The Dallas Morning News reports:

The new division enters its second year with momentum. Last year, Scion--pronounced sigh-on--had sales of 99,259 vehicles, about 30 percent more than Toyota expected.

In addition, Scion says it's reaching young buyers. That's a significant accomplishment in the auto industry, which is dominated by baby boomers who keep the average age of buyers for most vehicles above 40.

Scion customers are among the youngest in the industry, with the average age ranging from 26 to 38 on the three models of vehicles the division sells, said Jim Farley, vice president of the Scion division at Toyota Motor Sales USA. Moreover, 85 percent of the buyers are new to Toyota, with most coming from Honda.

Those successes are important to Toyota, but the company is also learning something that may be more important: how to sell cars to finicky Gen Y. Over the next decade, the 63 million members of Generation Y--people born after 1980--will replace their baby boomer parents as the largest and most influential population group in the United States.

"These are people who customize their lives," Mr. Farley said. "They grew up with the Internet and high technology, and going to Best Buy and using liberal return policies. They are impervious to mass media."

Mr. Farley calls Scion a laboratory for understanding their quirks and demands. All three models--the amorphous xA four-door hatchback, the intriguingly odd xB four-door hatchback and the stylish, more mainstream tC coupe--cost less than $18,000. All are compacts that weigh less than 3,000 pounds and are powered by economical four-cylinder engines.

A big part of Scion's allure is the dealer accessories. There are dozens of ways to customize — from spoilers and LED interior lights to custom graphics, leather interiors, engine-performance parts and custom wheels.

About 80 percent of Scion buyers purchase at least one accessory, dealers say.

Error Correction

A rather important "not" was omitted in the post below on what Richard Thaler's work on Sweden's private retirement accounts says about private social security accounts here. The sentence should read: "It does not suggest we shouldn't have them." Thaler's work implies that a relatively small number of options, with defaults set to provide proper diversification, would be better than a one-size-fits-all politically administered plan.

Why I Don't Blog A Lot

The entry on the movie premiere took a full hour to put together, and that's with the Thorp quote handy. (I just typed notes from her book yesterday.) That time does not include photo manipulation, which I did last night.

Race, Ethnicity, and Movie Premieres

I'm in LA, where I'll be publicly fielding questions about The Substance of Style from Dwell editor-in-chief Allison Arieff tomorrow. (This and other Westweek programs at the Pacific Design Center are free and open to the public; details here.)


Last night, on my way to dinner in Westwood Village, I ran across the premiere of Sin City. It wasn't exactly Hell's Angels, but there were definitely screaming fans, mostly of the young, female persuasion--not what I expected for a Frank Miller movie. Standing in the crowd, I realized what a Latino cast the movie has, and what a huge appeal Robert Rodriguez and these actors have for the Americanized Latinos who make up much of younger Los Angeles. (Not that they aren't impressed by the non-Latino actors--though a young woman near me did lose interest in Rutger Hauer when she realized he wasn't Donald Trump.)

In his 2002 book American Skin, Leon Wynter highlights a scene in Rodriguez's Spy Kids where it suddenly becomes unmistakably clear that the kids are not just played by Latino actors but are, in fact, Mexican-American characters in a movie clearly intended for a mainstream audience. The movie simply assumes that its audience will see the family not as Other but as Us--only better. When, he wondered, will African-Americans have a similar Everyman experience?

Back in 1939, Margaret Farrand Thorp's America at the Movies examined the movies' appeal to their audience, an appeal based largely on escape and identification--on glamour. The movies then didn't feature black characters in sympathetic leading roles, she suggested, because the mostly white 85 million [!] Americans who went to the movies weekly neither identified with blacks nor fantasized about enjoying their lives:

Then there is the case of the screen negro. The eighty-five million are primarily white and no white American, the industry maintains, would ever make his escape personality black. "Stardom," Terry Ramsaye wrote in the Motion Picture Herald (July 8, 1939) is

a job of vicarious attainment for the customers. The staring player becomes the agent-in-adventure for the box-office customer. The spectator tends to identify himself with the glamorous and triumphant player, just as the tense, weakling little ribbon clerk in the last rim of seats clenches his fists and wins with the winner at the prize fight.

Inevitably the motion picture tends to place the negro in the screen drama in the same relation as that which he occupies in the nation's social and economic picture. In other words the screen public takes the negro as the average of 135,000,000 takes him.

With all due respect to Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle, I think the movie that actually broke the Wynter-Thorp barrier was last year's Collateral, in which Jamie Foxx played Everyman, in a very, very bad situation but not one where race was crucial. That Foxx so dominated the Oscars this year--"It's Jamie Foxx's world. We just live in it," was a common commentary--drove home the point. Race is slowly but surely turning into ethnicity, a cultural, personal identity but not a barrier to empathy. And, to take things back to Rodriguez, despite the best efforts of race-mongers left and right, Mexican-Americans are just another ethnic group.

I took some photos, but the lighting you see on TV, which is daylight bright, was only available to credentialed press. The rest of us had to make do with digital camera flash in the dark and a little photo manipulation after the fact:

Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez posed for the crowd just as a car drove by and blocked the view. If you think the quality of this photo is bad, you should have seen it before I fooled with it. Frank Miller has a big, happy smile, and Robert Rodriguez is holding the video camera that he was using earlier to shoot his adoring fans.

Robert Rodriguez gives an interview.

This guy came by and signed autographs and talked to the crowd, to the delight of fans. From the conversation, I take it that his girlfriend is more famous than he is. But I have no idea who he is--thus demonstrating my extreme age.

Reckless Disregard for Reality

Jack Shafer eviscerates David Shaw's latest anti-blog ravings. I particularly liked this point, since it jumped out at me when I read the story--and should have jumped out at Shaw's editors. (You do have editors, don't you?)

According to Shaw, regular journalists strive harder than bloggers for accuracy because of their greater legal exposure. He writes: "If I'm careless — if I am guilty of what the courts call a 'reckless disregard for the truth'--The Times could be sued for libel...and could lose a lot of money." Doesn't Shaw appreciate that Joe Blogger can be sued, too, and that if he loses his case could be forced to forfeit his house, his bank account, his car, and his Fiestaware collection? On the face of it, Joe Blogger would seem to have a greater incentive to avoid libel than Shaw, whose employer will cover his legal bills and take the financial hit in case of a legal judgment.

The chances of the LAT or any big newspaper losing a libel suit are virtually nil, given the difficulty of proving a reckless disregard for the truth. The cost is in fighting the suit, something the typical blogger couldn't afford.

The Lure of the Suburbs

In response to my comments about my neighbors moving to the suburbs, reader Kevin Maquire writes:

To carry the theme of your hotel upgrade column, yards and parks aren't equivalent goods, particularly fenced yards. Even if the park is across the street. While you could take your unfolded laundry or your domestic paperwork down to the park, it's a lot easier in your own yard. Your kids can leave their toys out overnight in your yard. You can watch your kids out the kitchen window while you wash dishes, cook a meal, or work on your computer.

Finally, it's not acceptable for adult or teenage strangers to be in your yard, particularly the living-in-the-park sort of strangers common to urban parks in some cities.

Not to mention the dog poop you find in our local park, thanks to dog owners who are only half-civilized.

Classroom Judgments

In an op-ed in USA Today, Bruce Kluger uses a PBS documentary about an inspiring teacher to lament current education policies:

More than just a fly-on-the-classroom-wall peek at an exceptional educator, however, Greatness serves as a cautionary tale about our nation's current education system, and the way in which policymakers' ongoing efforts to tinker with the process may be, at best, heavy-handed or, at worst, wrongheaded.

For instance, in the past year, the debate over social promotion reached high decibels in school districts across the nation, most notably in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted rigid policies to hold back third-graders who aren't keeping up with their classmates. But it wasn't until I watched Greatness that I truly understood how counterproductive such a policy can be. After all, classrooms are simply microcosms of families, and no family I know of jettisons its lesser members.

"I see (the classroom) as a wagon," Cullum explains early on in the film. "Your thoroughbreds of the class are going to pull the wagon--they're the leaders. But everyone is on that wagon, and everyone reaches the goal. No one is left out."

Granted, Cullum called roll in his classroom more than a generation before slashed budgets, plummeting scores and hallway metal detectors would become the stuff of modern education. But building a child's mind is inarguably as daunting a task as building a new system, and in this regard, Cullum made the grade.

The film also offers a decent argument about the potential myopia of modern-day standardized testing, which customarily cleaves to math and grammar as the true litmus of our kids' smarts. Though Cullum certainly didn't abandon these areas of study, he devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to the arts--and it paid off.

Leaving aside the questions of whether a classroom is in fact like a family and whether it's good policy to expect good students to "pull the wagon" for others, focusing on a single outstanding teacher misses the real dynamic of what's going on with education policy. It's a struggle created by the demand for objective, articulable standards.

If you want teachers to be judged on subjective qualities like their ability to inspire students, you have to let schools hire, fire, promote, and demote their teachers accordingly. That means paying not by objective criteria like degrees and seniority but by a boss's professional evaluation. It means allowing into the classroom great teachers who have subject knowledge but not a lot of idiotic education courses on their transcripts.

Of course, teachers as a group don't want to give their bosses the power to evaluate them. Certainly, the teachers' unions don't want that. So to create any connection between classroom performance and professional evaluations, we're stuck with objective criteria, notably test scores. The alternative, beloved by teachers' advocates, is to have objective measures of teacher "quality," including seniority and acadmic credentials, and no measures of teaching quality. Standardized tests and prescribed curricula are far from perfect, but they're better than no accountability at all.

Speaking Appearances: Dallas and LA

I'll be speaking at the University of North Texas tonight (Thursday) and at the Pacific Design Center in LA next Wednesday. Both events are free and open to the public. See the Upcoming Appearances page for details on these and future talks.

Department of Duh

The NYT discovers that people with kids would rather live in the suburbs than in cool urban neighborhoods like mine.

FURTHER THOUGHTS: The Times suggests the reasons for moving are strictly economic, and in hugely expensive places like San Francisco that may be true. But my Uptown Dallas neighbors generally hightail it to the suburbs as soon as their kids start walking, and these are people who already own spacious three-bedroom townhouses. They want yards (even though there's a park two blocks away), less traffic, and less crime. They want suburbia.

ArchivedDeep Glamour Blog ›

Blog Feed

Articles Feed