The 31st Annual Spinach Festival in Crystal City, Texas

The 31st Annual Spinach Festival in Crystal City, Tex.Crystal City, Texas is a speck on the map, but it’s got a big reputation. It is the self-proclaimed spinach capital of the world, was home to the largest United States internment camp during World War II, and became a hotbed of activism (considered by many to be the birthplace of the Chicano movement) in the 1960s.

In the early 1930s, the Winter Garden area chamber of commerce, of which Zavala County was a part, agreed to send a letter to  E.C. Segar, the cartoonist who created Popeye the Sailor. They wanted to thank him for promoting their staple cash crop with the cartoon. Segar replied, explaining that he wrote spinach into the Popeye cartoons to encourage his kids to eat it. The letter made it into the San Antonio Express, raising interest and even donations from readers toward the construction of a Popeye statue in Crystal City town square. The statue was approved by Segar and erected at the very first Spinach Festival in 1937.

Since then, the festival has continued annually (with a hiatus during the war) on the second weekend of November. It is a big deal in the tiny town of 7,000, taking over the entire downtown area (which isn’t much, considering the entire city is a mere 3.6 square miles) and drawing lots of former residents from all over the country. My best friend Mindy goes every year with her parents who were both born and raised in Crystal. Around 2002, I got my first invite in high school and have been going back sporadically since.

Ironically, I’ve never seen a lick of spinach at the festival. There’s a parade featuring the annually elected Spinach Festival Queen and the rest of the royal spinach court and a nightly fiesta that along with a colorful selection of carnival rides and games, also highlights an entire separate area full of food vendors. But no spinach to be found. There’s fajitas and gorditas and corn in a cup and funnel cakes and deep fried cheesecake on a stick but no spinach. I’ve always found this entertainingly puzzling.

Lucky for me, the theme of this year’s festival was “A Tribute to Beginnings,” and the festival program (which always includes a schedule, info on the festival, and several spreads of ads for local businesses and thank-you’s from the royal spinach court) included a ton of great historical information and old archival photos of Crystal City, Zavala County, the Texas Wintergarden Area, and spinach festivities over the years.

It explains that the first four acres of spinach were planted as an experiment in Crystal City in 1918 after the area’s original staple crop, onions, fell in price dramatically. The first commercial crop was grown the following year and did so well that acreage began to grow, eventually putting Crystal City on the map as the “Spinach Capitol of the World.” Shortly after the Great Depression set in, blue mold plagued the fields. Crystal hasn’t consistently produced fresh spinach since.

However, it is home to a large Del Monte plant, which produced its first batch of canned spinach in 1946. Today, they also pack green beans and carrots and are the only Del Monte facility that produces spinach in North America. So the title lives on.

I’ve heard rumors that the festival includes a spinach cook-off, but I’ve never been able to hunt the thing down. In years past, I was told that the cook-off takes place on Thursday, while we usually drive in on Friday night or Saturday. But this year, the schedule said it was going down at 10 a.m. Sunday morning. I was kind of ecstatic. At last, I would find spinach at the Spinach Festival.

Mindy drove me into town that morning, but as we ambled up to the official Spinach Festival office, there was zero activity. Not a soul. A small crowd had gathered for Sunday morning cantos (worship songs) by the stage, but no sign of a cook-off. We asked someone inside, and they said to come back at 11.

So we did and found a long, empty, covered table. And nothing else. We poked our heads inside again, and they said to give them 30 minutes. I walked around snapping photos and talking to a few vendors setting up for the day and eventually noticed that an arrangement of Del Monte spinach cans and category placards had been set up on the long table.

After another hour had passed, Mindy’s family was packing up to head back home, and my long-awaited spinach encounter seemed to be slipping from my grips. I stopped by the covered table one last time on our way out of town and behold! A couple of judges were taking bites of a spinach feta pizza and making notes. The cook-off had begun. And here’s what it included:

Kind of anti-climatic, but kind of charming. A few other pre-made dishes were put down as I walked away, apparently all made with Del Monte canned spinach. The entire cook-off event seemed to be an inconsequential part of the festival. The folks inside the office seemed downright confused that we were so interested in it.

The Crystal City Spinach Festival may have been originally founded around their once-star crop, and Popeye may still be a prominent part of it. But today, the festival is much more about celebrating the small town’s history and close-knit community than it is about any actual spinach. All the better, I like aguas frescas and fresh-fried gorditas way better than canned spinach, anyway.

But we’ll talk more about the food you can find at the Spinach Festival next week.