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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

An Ode to the Cabbage, a Worthy and Delicious Brassica

An Ode to the Cabbage, a Worthy and Delicious Brassica
Illustration: Benjamin Currie
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The National Palace Museum in Taipei is a hulking edifice plunked into the side of a mountain, designed to look like an actual palace, though it is just a museum and nothing more. Deep within its walls are various treasures, most of which I found uninteresting when I visited in the winter of 2018, on a tedious but ultimately rewarding trip with my family. In general, we are not a museum-going bunch, but the weather was spitting rain and humid, and the museum a good place to kill a little time before heading to a night market, to eat as much chou doufu as possible before waddling back to our Airbnb. Rounding a corner I stumbled upon what appeared to be the hottest ticket in town, indicated by the large group of tourists crowding around a vitrine in the middle of a darkened room, cameras phones at the ready. They were straining to get a glimpse of the museum’s most popular—and prized—attraction: the Jadeite cabbage.

Part of the spoils brought to Taiwan by the Kuomintang in 1949, the cabbage had been packed amongst crates full of imperial treasures taken from the Forbidden Palace after the end of the Chinese Civil War. The Mandarin word for “cabbage” is baicai, which sounds similar to the word for “hundred wealth.” Cabbage is traditionally a symbol of prosperity and so the fact that the Jadeite Cabbage is the star of the show makes perfect sense. Still, I was bemused that tourists were clamoring to see a small cabbage carved from stone. Because I was bored and likely hungry, I waited for the crowds to part before muscling up to the front to see what all the fuss was about.

Image for article titled An Ode to the Cabbage, a Worthy and Delicious Brassica
Image: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP (Getty Images)

Up close, the cabbage was beautiful. Jade is most valuable when the stone itself lacks imperfections, as my mother has informed me many times. The anonymous artist who created the piece understood the nature of the raw material innately, using the cracks and blemishes to create a remarkably realistic rendition of a bok choy, in its wrinkly, multi-dimensional glory. Pressing my face close to the glass, I saw that there were two insects perched atop its leaves—a locust and a katydid, two symbols of fertility.

I could not stop thinking about the cabbage, so much so that I returned home from Taiwan with a little plastic replica of the jadeite iteration, which now lives in a place of pride in my kitchen. I look at it when I am dutifully chopping cabbage or slicing the butts off the anemic bok choy I buy from the grocery store for dinner. The stir fry dish that I’ve created over the past year and make with alarming regularity pays homage to the priceless works of art I saw in Taiwan: cabbage of any sort, stir-fried with ginger, garlic, and thick-cut bacon, a recipe that I’ve written down and forced upon friends who weren’t really asking, but gamely accepted my offering because they are kind.

Stir-fried cabbage served with those tiny dried shrimp, like my mother makes, is one of the many dishes that make up the elaborate banquet I’d request for my final meal on earth. Stuffed cabbage—little rolls of ground meat and rice wrapped up in a blanched cabbage leaf and simmered in tomato sauce—tastes like comfort, as it was a staple of my best friend’s mother’s arsenal of recipes, which also included noodle kugel (sweet not savory) and a killer stuffed mushroom recipe that involves a liberal use of Wishbone Italian salad dressing and an awful lot of parsley. Though my preferred cultivars are Napa cabbage and bok choy, I am open to the ruffled charms of the Savoy and enjoy sauerkraut when the moment dictates. I am hardly evangelistic about the glories of fresh produce and a farmer’s market in the summertime is beautiful but generally not for me, but when winter comes and I find myself retreating to endless bowls of pasta and red sauce, cabbage is the one bright spot.

But my passion for cabbage has less to do with the vegetable itself and everything to do with its reputation, which, despite the effigy in Taipei, is virtually non-existent in American food media. Food media’s history of vaunting unassuming ingredients seemingly missed cabbage completely. Consider the mid-2010s bacon craze, where seemingly every restaurant, fast food or otherwise, put bacon on everything they could get their hands on. Bacon lube, bacon socks, and bacon-flavored chapstick were all easy ways to signify that the wearer paid attention to food culture—or was at least sophisticated enough to understand the difference between thick-cut and Sunday-style. Bacon, previously an unpretentious ingredient, was transformed from humble breakfast meat to the height of gourmet sophistication.

It makes sense that it’s easier to sell a fatty, luscious protein like bacon over a vegetable that is best known for smelling like sweat socks when cooked. Brassicas like cabbage and its friends are generally thought of as bitter-tasting and stinky. Broccoli, a brassica despised by former president George Bush, smells like farts when overcooked. Brussels sprouts were the scourge of my childhood dinner plate, boiled or steamed within an inch of their lives from their frozen state. My sister and I would push the sprouts around our plates and then feed them to the dog when my father wasn’t looking. Despite their reputation, though, brassicas like kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are very good for you and have, at varying points in time, been branded as cool.

Kale was, until fairly recently, seen as a garnish or decoration at salad bars, until it fell prey to the hype machine. One woman, an indefatigable New York-based PR professional named Oberon Sinclair, is responsible for elevating kale to dizzying heights. Sinclair, the founder of My Young Auntie, a New York City-based PR firm, founded the American Kale Association, which is less an actual organization and more a masterclass in creating, marketing, and packaging hype, but making it seem completely and totally organic. “It’s my proudest campaign ever,” she told mindbodygreen. “I’ve been trying to convert people for years to eat in a healthy way. I’ve always loved [kale]. It is an amazing vegetable.”

The demand generated by Sinclair’s PR push led to the mainstreaming of other brassicas like Brussels sprouts, which rode in on the tail end of kale’s dominance. The 2010s bacon-mania contributed to Brussels sprouts’ popularity, as this informative article aimed at vegetable growers notes. Celebrity chefs like Momofuku’s David Chang put Brussels sprouts on their menus and into their cookbooks, getting the maligned vegetable in front of people like me, by dressing it up with fatty pork and bold flavors. My battered copy of the Momofuku cookbook now serves as a plant stand, but when the book first entered my life, I made Chang’s delicious Brussels sprouts with pureéd kimchi and bacon more times than I’d like to remember—a happy convert to the little veg that I’d previously fed to Maggie, the family dog.

Yet even with the rise of the brassica, cabbage is always the bridesmaid. Though by now it is cliché to invoke to the beans and sourdough movement of the pandemic’s earlier days, it is essential to take that small trip down memory lane, if only to try and understand why. When supermarkets and bodegas were sold out of beans and yeast, cabbage was still there, waiting its turn. While I understand the appeal of shelf-stable and nutritious staples, I lack the enthusiasm many others share for legumes. Dried beans are fussy and require soaking but in a surplus of free time, ambitious cooking projects that might’ve been a one-off on a weekend became routine. For three to four months, a sourdough starter lived in the refrigerator, thanks to my sister, who spent much of her downtime attempting to perfect bread. The cabbage I bought sat alone in the fridge, relegated to panic meals I made after I tired of takeout or lasagna.

None of the people I knew who were making bread recreationally were doing it because they feared the supply chain would shut down and we’d be stranded, carb-free, and adrift, forever. Cabbage is not glamorous like a brothy bowl of beans scattered with dill and topped with a dollop of yogurt or a crusty sourdough boule nestled in a rough-hewn tea towel is. Cabbage is, in America, marketed as a diet food, sitting alongside other relics like the grapefruit diet and newer iterations like keto, the Paleo diet, and Atkins. Named after Dolly Parton for an inexplicable reason, the Dolly Parton Cabbage Soup Diet consists of eating cabbage soup for almost every meal, rounded out with some vegetables and fruit for filler. In 2015, writer Rebecca Harrington tried the Dolly Parton diet and found that the soup was both disgusting and also ugly to look at. “I lost a bunch of weight on the Cabbage Soup Diet, but I also lost something more important—the ability to be in my kitchen for any length of time without smelling like cabbage,” she wrote.

Cabbage soup is the preferred sustenance of Charlie Bucket’s grandparents, who sleep four to a bed, as conceptualized by noted antisemite Roald Dahl. This was another signifier that cabbage, integral to the cuisines of many countries and cultures, is the ingredient of the lower class, which is to say the immigrant class. In Jane Zeigelman’s history of the foods of tenement dwellers, 97 Orchards: An Edible History of Five Families in One New York Tenement, cabbage was food truly for the masses, eaten by the tenements’ inhabitants in preparations derived from their ancestral homes. German immigrants made sauerkraut and served cabbage as a necessary filler to pad out the rest of their plates. Irish immigrants bought corned beef from Jewish grocers and served it with cabbage, creating a new tradition for St. Patrick’s Day, where revelers celebrate by eating the stuff out of styrofoam clamshells before heading to the bars to drink gallons of green beer, just as St. Patrick himself would’ve wanted.

Cabbage’s humble roots and bad PR are probably why no one was really checking for cabbage in general. Bacon is a breakfast staple straight from the farm that lends itself to romanticization—a pig butchered in the early morning light turns into food for an entire family for the winter, a thick, streaky rasher of bacon cooking in a cast-iron pan on a wood stove. Brussels sprouts, tiny little cabbages themselves, are very cute when you can buy them still clinging to the stalk at a Whole Foods or a farmer’s market. Cabbage is just a squat little vegetable known for being both cheap and filling—poverty food is far less chic when it does not photograph well or when its origins are less romantic.

I considered this while reading David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula, an in-depth, breezy history of American food culture, from James Beard to food trucks and the sort of half-baked multi-culturalism approach to food as represented by say, a fast-casual, bowl-forward lunch spot that serves watered-down Asian fusion to office dwellers or shoppers at fancy malls. But to fully understand why cabbage might not ever get the shine it fully deserves, I am forced to consider the legacy of Alice Waters, arguably one of the most influential figures in American food, who has informed the way we eat now in so many ways.

When Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, she was cooking simple, elevated French peasant food, using the freshest ingredients, cooked simply and with care. Waters is the kind of woman who cooks a single egg over a roaring fire with a hand-forged egg spoon, and championed micro-greens well before they were fetishized by the masses. Gourmet’s 1975 review of Chez Panisse called it a “simple little place,” which was a correct description of its carefully curated interior and menu. Waters and later, Jeremiah Tower, introduced the idea of California cuisine, with its focus on just-picked fresh vegetables and local ingredients, changing American notions of both fine dining and French food by eliminating most of the heavy butter and cream in order to let the textures, flavors, and scents of the food itself shine. The food that inspired Waters was that of the French countryside, humble fare made less so for Americans by the quality of the ingredients. The trend of elevating European peasant food continued when Dean and DeLuca opened in New York, popularizing Italian food and creating the first real pantry store that catered to gourmet-forward urbanites interested in incorporating balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes into their everyday meals.

What both Chez Panisse and Dean and DeLuca had in common is that the food cultures they championed had humble roots—but the poverty of the French countryside or the rugged coasts of Sicily is more palatable and easily idealized than the poverty associated with the people and cultures who eat a lot of cabbage. Dragging a French breakfast radish through butter sprinkled with fleur de sel is a nice way to pretend you are in France; tucking into a plate of cabbage calls to mind gulags and the frozen steppes of Eastern Europe, where winter lasts forever and no one ever sees the sun. When the poverty is romanticized or would look nice on a postcard—and, more specifically, white and Western European—the food of that culture is cast as somehow more palatable for a general audience. Cabbage, with its unsavory associations with Irish people in tenements, Russian babushkas, and Chinese people toiling in rice paddies has never been framed as glamorous because of the kind of poverty it’s associated with—abject, dirty, and not particularly photogenic for a wealthy white audience.

There has been so much praise for a vegetable from the exact demographic targeted by food media’s buzzy darlings and recipes, but cabbage has not enjoyed the kind of fame I think it deserves, despite an article from the Huffington Post declaring it to be quarantine’s breakout hit. In April, Smitten Kitchen published an official recipe for a dish created by Helen Rosner, a New Yorker writer, that was first seen on her Instagram story—cabbage, quartered, salted, and stuffed into a cast-iron pan, with a chicken roasted right on top. Later in 2020, a Bon Appétit cabbage recipe made the rounds through my cooking-focused group chat. I’ve made the latter at least three times and will likely never get sick of it. These incidents are aberrations, though for me cabbage has always occupied an important space.

I value cabbage not only because it tastes good, but because of its durability. Cooking for one person is not as easy or carefree as I thought it might be, and a head of cabbage can live, quite happily in the back of the refrigerator for at least a month. There’s a sweetness to cabbage that presents itself when cooked long and slow, smothered in liquid, or when charred quick in a hot pan with a lot of salt. While I think nothing of snacking on a raw cabbage leaf in the middle of preparing said cabbage for dinner, the earthy quality of the veg shines when cooked well and properly. Though it does not taste “fresh” in the same way a summer salad does, it’s at the very minimum, a vegetable. Bok choy, sauteed quick in the wok with garlic and ginger, is a lunch that takes five minutes and tastes like store food, even though it was produced in my unglamorous kitchen: a miracle! If left unchecked, I will eat chicken cutlet sandwiches from the deli for every meal. Cabbage is my way of staving off an early death. It has not let me down.