Dear Readers, I have being watching the rising popularity of curly kale with some astonishment. Who’d heard of the stuff five years ago, apart from a few hardy allotment owners who wanted a change from the usual spinach and cabbage? Nowadays, you can’t go to a café without being offered the chance to purchase a ‘green smoothie’ that bears an uncanny resemblance to that drink that everyone lived on in the film Soylent Green. I have been buying curly kale for some time, partly seduced by its promise of maximum nutritional ‘bang for my buck’ and partly because of how pretty it is. The curly leaves have a fractal-like quality, and the taste is so bitter and green that surely it’s doing me good.
Curly kale is, as you might expect, a member of the brassica family, and belongs to the sub-group of ‘headless cabbages’, because it doesn’t form a nice round compact head like a Savoy or a white cabbage. It is thought to be closer in form to the wild cabbage, and this doubtless increase its appeal to those who want to get away from the more highly-bred vegetables. I’ve never grown it, but I suspect it’s one of those crops that you could possibly harvest leaf by leaf – let me know, gardeners! Curly kale is also essentially the same subspecies as collard greens that are grown in North America (Brassica oleracea var viridis).
Wild cabbage is a plant of the limestone sea cliffs of southern and western Europe – it has a high tolerance for salt and lime, and a strong dislike of competition from other plants. Hence, it thrives in a very niche environment. It is biennial, forming a rosette of leaves in its first year, and storing up nutrients and water in its tough, leathery leaves, which have evolved to combat the tough, exposed spots that the plant grows in. In its second year, the cabbage uses all those stored nutrients to send up a flower stalk that can be three metres high and covered in yellow flowers. Wild cabbage is a rather nondescript-looking plant, but it is the mother of everything from broccoli to cauliflower, brussels sprouts to our subject today, kale.
It didn’t take our ancestors long to realise that this was a plant worth cultivating: it had a reputation for being healthy long before we had the science to understand why. Humans took the basic wild cabbage and started selecting for different qualities, such as leaf size – it is believed that recognisable kale already existed in the 5th century BC. By the 1st century AD, humans had decided that they rather liked a plant where the leaves were gathered together into a head, and had produced the cabbage. At about the same time in Germany, a taste for the stems had led to breeding for this feature, and that most alien of brassicas, the kohlrabi, appeared.
In Europe, humans started to become fond of eating the buds of cabbage, a preference that resulted in cauliflower in the 15th century, broccoli and the magnificent Romanesco in the 16th century.
And finally, the Belgians turned to the only part of the plant that had not been transfigured into a completely new vegetable, the lateral buds along the stem of the plant, and turned it into brussels sprouts in the 18th century.
But back to our curly kale. Have you noticed the pretty ornamental cabbages that turn up in bouquets at this time of year? They are also members of the kale group, although they are not particularly palatable, their leaves being even tougher than curly kale.
The nutritional value of kale is beyond question. It provides approximately four times your daily requirement of Vitamin K, half of your Vitamin C, and 11% of your Vitamin B6. It also gives a healthy dose of manganese, iron and calcium. Is it better for you than other greens? Spinach is higher in folic acid, which is important if you are pregnant. Kale is lower in vitamin A than romaine lettuce or spinach. Swiss chard has 4.5 times more magnesium. So, the answer is to have a variety of greens, rather than relying on just one. This article from the Harvard Medical School gives a helpful list of greens and their relative nutritional values. However, for anyone dealing with an audience who doesn’t appreciate the assertive flavour of the cabbage family, bear in mind that romaine lettuce seems to have a surprising number of the virtues of the brassicas without the sulphurous taint.
Kale is a robust plant, and has been used to fill the ‘hungry gap’ that comes before the spring crops are ready to be harvested. In Ireland it was mixed with potatoes to make colcannon (and for me, anything that involves potatoes is already a good idea). In some Scots dialects, the word ‘kail’ is synonymous with food, and ‘to be off one’s kail’ is to be lacking in appetite. In Tuscany, a delicious variant on kale called cavalo nero (becoming increasingly popular here) is used to make ribollita, a delectable vegetable soup, and in Portugal caldo verde is made with potatoes, kale, salt and broth. It’s making me hungry just thinking about it all.
Although kale is now ‘trendy’, it has been part of our lives in the British Isles since at least the Middle Ages, and several folkloric tales have grown up around it. In Scotland, young men and women of marriageable age would sneak into a kale patch at Halloween and pull up a stalk without looking at it. The youngest person would then hang it above their bedroom door, and examine it in the morning for a clue as to the kind of person they were going to marry. A stalk with lots of soil on it might indicate a rich spouse, while one with a black centre might mean that the person had a temper. The height of the partner-to-be could also be determined by the length of the stalk. Children who wanted a brother or sister would pile kale outside their parents’ door in the hope that it would result in a sibling, bless them.
In Ireland, charms could be added to the colcannon at Halloween – if you found a ring charm, it meant that you would marry within the year, but a thimble charm meant that you were destined to be a spinster. Women would also take the first and last spoonful of colcannon and hang it in a stocking above the door. The first man to walk through it the following day was destined to be her husband, although if the nail that secured the stocking failed I imagine all bets were off.
And finally, a poem. This is by Jordan Davis, and it’s one of those poems that is so simple that it seems almost effortless, but hints at something else underneath. There is so much in here about disappearance, regrowth, about what to take and what to leave, but it’s also about such an ordinary event. See what you think. And eat your kale! It’s good for you.
by Jordan Davis
I hear James but can’t see him so
I call out his baby name, Jamey-James
and he pops up from behind a plow
bank. We walk down the driveway
past the barn to the fenced-in
garden, iron rail, green metal grid,
red thread for the deer. The black
mama cat with the extra toes comes
running past us.
“The ones buried
in snow are insulated,” James
tells me, as if quoting from
“The Pruning Book.” He might be.
“If you cut a butterfly bush
down to nothing it grows back
the next year twice as high.”
There are five or six tall stumps
of the flat variety, and eight or nine
low curly ones. We fill a plastic
popcorn bowl and leave as much
behind still growing.
Originally published in The New Yorker, October 14, 2013, p. 52
Photo One by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=119948
Photo Two by By el Buho nº30 – originally posted to Flickr as Repolos, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71207432
Photo Three by By MPF – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=442342
Photo Four by By MOs810 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50151120
Photo Five by By Jitze Couperus – Flickr: Unknown Vegetable, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24508465
Photo Six By Terren – Kale, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3445771
Photo Seven by By Original uploader was LupoCapra at it.wikipedia – Transferred from it.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5469356
Photo Eight by By Mateus Hidalgo – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 br, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2263361
Photo Nine by By VegaTeam – Colcannon, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84663750