OF CABBAGES AND KINGS
New York, 5 January 2014
Kale is king of culinary cool this year in New York. Or so it would appear from a cursory glance at the offerings in the city’s food emporia: every restaurant seems to have a dish with kale in it, every supermarket a ready-made salad containing kale. Several articles tracking the growing popularity of kale have appeared in the New York Times, while a very recent article in the New York Daily News, reporting on a survey of 500 dieticians, has these worthy people predicting that kale (along with ancient grains and gluten-free diets) will be the top nutrition trends of 2014. Why, even a celebrity chef like Gordon Ramsey has weighed in, making lots of approving noises about kale. He went so far as to propose that a National Kale Day be instituted!
Which is all rather surprising to me, since I have always associated kale with something that you feed to cows. I don’t think I had ever intentionally eaten kale until a week or so ago when I picked up a take-away tomato and kale soup from a Hale & Hearty Soup outlet somewhere near Park Avenue and 45th Street.
Quite what is so remarkable about kale is not clear to me. It is purported to help you fight various cancers, lower your cholesterol, detoxify yourself, and I know not what else. Having been around a while, I am, like this reporter in the Huffington Post, somewhat skeptical of all these claims. How many foodstuffs have I seen over the years for which extravagant health claims have been made! It is true that kale is stuffed with vitamins K, A and C. So if you need those, kale might be your thing. But as for the rest …
To my mind, all the froth and frenzy about kale is nothing compared to the wonderful story behind its very existence. Around the northern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean, in what are now Italy, Greece, Turkey, and maybe further south along the Lebanese and Israeli coast, there lives a humble member of the large family of mustards. This species is known to science as Brassica oleracea, but we can call it cole (a name rooted in the Celtic-Germanic-Greek word for “stem”). With time and I presume human interference it spread from its original homeland and now can be found further north in Europe. Since it tolerates salt well and likes a limey soil, it tends to be found on limestone sea cliffs, as attested by this picture, taken on the chalk cliffs in the UK (I didn’t find a picture of the plant in its original homeland):
Anyone familiar with mustard plants will immediately see the family resemblance. And those long stems are what gives the plant its generic name of cole.
At some point, humans found that the plant was edible and presumably added it to their list of plants to gather. Some 3-4,000 years ago, maybe more, as part of the slow move to agriculture, humans began to domesticate the cole, and as they have done with just about every species which they have domesticated they began a forced process of natural selection to encourage desirable traits in their domesticates and eliminate undesirable ones. So far, so good. But the cole must have a very flexible DNA because over the millennia farmers were able to coax out of this one plant an astonishingly different array of vegetables. From the plant we see above waving on the cliff top, they managed to obtain our friend kale:
Its close cousin, collard greens:
The cabbage, which itself comes in several varieties, the common white cabbage:
the red cabbage, seen here with the green cabbage:
the Savoy cabbage:
Then we have broccoli:
and its close cousin the strange-looking romanesco broccoli:
And last but not least, the Chinese kai-lan, also known as Chinese broccoli:
Pretty amazing …
The following picture shows which bits in the original cole plant all those generations of farmers fiddled with to get these massively different vegetables:
When seeing all these vegetables sitting next to each other on a supermarket shelf, it might be difficult to believe that they are actually the same plant, but when you see them still in the field the family resemblance is more easily recognized.
And when these vegetables flower, which they should not, then you see the mustard-like flower coming through, as in this case of a red cabbage:
and of broccoli:
The early history of all these cole vegetables is shrouded in uncertainty. The Greeks and Romans wrote about one or more vegetables which sound like a cousin of kale and collards. The cabbage seems to have been developed in the colder parts of Europe some time in the early Middle Ages. Southern Italians seem to have developed broccoli quite early on, perhaps already during the Roman period, but it was many centuries before it migrated to other parts of Europe. It is generally thought that the cauliflower came to Europe from the Middle East, possibly via Cyprus and then Italy. As the name suggests, Brussels sprouts seem to have been developed somewhere in the Low Countries around the 15th Century, possibly earlier, but didn’t migrate to other parts of Europe until several centuries later. Kohlrabi seems to have been developed at about the same time, although quite where in Europe is unclear. And then there is kai-lan. Quite how this vegetable, the descendant of a Mediterranean plant, ended up being developed in China is a bit of a mystery. It is theorized that when the Portuguese came to China, they brought with them the cabbage. Chinese farmers then did a second cycle of selection to bring about something which looks and tastes more like broccoli.
Little is known of the history of these vegetables because early European chroniclers didn’t deign to follow the experiments in genetic engineering that the humble farmers were undertaking. In his poem “the Walrus and the Carpenter”, Lewis Carroll has the walrus say at some point:
“The time has come,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings”
But those who recorded history were interested in kings and not cabbages and their ilk, so we will never know who were those legions of farmers who patiently developed this cornucopia of cole vegetables which we have available to us today. I take this occasion to salute these nameless heroes and to thank them for putting such wonderful vegetables on my table.
Cabbage-green and red: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fa/Cabbages_Green_and_Purple_2120px.jpg/451px-Cabbages_Green_and_Purple_2120px.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabbage#History%5D
Brussels sprouts: http://ourtinyearth.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/12065713-brussels-sprouts-pile-on-white-background.jpg [in http://ourtinyearth.com/2013/01/08/stories-of-the-misunderstood-brussels-sprouts/%5D
Kohlrabi: http://www.chowlocally.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/kohlrabithroat2.jpg [in http://www.chowlocally.com/blog/2012/03/21/kohlrabi-the-loneliest-vegetable-in-the-world-of-healthy-eating/%5D
Collard plants: http://img691.imageshack.us/img691/1158/collards2.jpg [in http://www.homesteadingtoday.com/country-living-forums/gardening-plant-propagation/397580-ok-collard-greens-growing%85-now-what.html%5D