by Anne Dailey
Issue 43 (October-November 08)
[Copyright © 2008, The Valley Table]
Perhaps one of the first cultivated vegetables, cabbage has a long and storied history dating back thousands of years. Referenced frequently in Greek and Roman texts and mythology, even represented in Egyptian hieroglyphics, this hefty crucifer figures prominently in the traditional cuisines of many of the world's cultures, from Russia to Korea, Ireland and Germany. As the cultural melting pot of the world, one would think that the United States, home to millions of descendants of cultures that have long considered cabbage a staple food, would elevate it to a special status--a national vegetable, perhaps. Yet, here, cabbage is often widely misunderstood at best, and despised at worst.
In spite of this, cabbage, by some combination of its characteristic stubbornness and flexibility, has managed to hang on through some of our biggest culinary shakeups (the 1950s, for example) and, thanks to the rise in knowledge of traditional, whole foods and a renewed celebration of preserving techniques like fermentation, it is even beginning to make a resurgence with a new generation of advocates, anxious to reclaim the humble, versatile vegetable.
Still, the cabbage's culinary position is tenuous. It's highly likely that the average person on the street (perhaps even an enlightened farmers' market shopper) would still make a face at the suggestion of cabbage. Especially for those who don't have a rich family history with cabbage, a mere mention of it conjures up images of lifeless, pale sauerkraut, splashed on top of a hotdog, of dingy tenement houses or poor Charlie Bucket sharing watered down cabbage soup with his bedridden grandparents in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. ("I'm fed up with cabbage water, it's not enough!") Cabbage has not yet entirely shaken its connotation as an undesirable and tasteless poor man's food.
But cabbage has been done a great disservice saddled with such stereotypes. It has graced the tables of kings as well as peasants; it's been celebrated and maligned in equal measure. Love it or hate it, cabbage has staying power, and cannot be linked to any single cuisine or preparation.
The cultural history of cabbage is complex, varied and delicious. A member of the Brassica family, cabbage was, and is, integral to Korean, German, Chinese, Irish and Russian cuisines, among others. There is colcannon and corned beef and cabbage in Ireland; kimchi in Korea; sauerkraut in Germany; choucroute in France; cabbage soup in Russia (a far cry from that which Charlie Bucket had to stomach); and in dumplings, soups, and fermented foods in China. Dozens of varieties have been bred over hundreds of years of careful farming in each of the regions that cabbage calls home, and new varieties continue to emerge.
It was human intervention that originally transformed the cabbage into the vegetable we know today, coaxing a plant that initially resembled kale into forming a head, a marvel of human innovation.
Cabbage always has been relatively cheap, as foods go--one reason it has long been used to evoke poverty and desperate situations. Arguably, a single seed can produces the largest volume of harvestable product of any vegetable, with varieties producing up to a 4- to 6-pound (or larger) head. "You get more bang for your buck," is one way of looking at it, but that is only a small part of cabbage's widespread appeal. Its long-term storage qualities, delicious flavor (when properly cooked) and health-giving properties all have contributed to cabbage's devoted following around the world.
The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed cabbage as something of a panacea, and they were more right than wrong with their claims that cabbage was a useful remedy for everything from boils to cancer, ulcers and headaches. Modern science has since proved many of the claims true. Cabbage has been found to have anti-carcinogenic properties and is a terrific source of Vitamin C, K, glutamine, potassium and calcium. It becomes even healthier when fermented, as in kimchi or sauerkraut. Unproven but intriguing is Cato the Elder's contention that, "If you want to drink a lot and eat copiously at a party, eat as much cabbage as you want, raw and dressed with vinegar, before dining. Then, when about to dine, eat about five leaves. You will feel as if you had eaten nothing, and you can drink as much as you want." To this day, many people swear by cabbage as a hangover cure.
Healthful properties aside, cabbage has been an important food throughout history primarily because it stores well, long after tomatoes and summer squash have gone the way of the canning jars or the compost heap, or the first frosts. Fall cabbages, which actually sweeten and improve after a frost, sometimes can remain in the field, ready for picking, into January or February. If harvested in November or December, they can be stored for months, certainly until fresh food appears again in the spring, whether in an old-fashioned root cellar or a modern refrigerator. Older generations viewed cabbage and its storage qualities in a very practical way--it would feed the family during the cold winter months when fresh vegetables were unheard of. Putting cabbage by, whether packed in straw in a root cellar, bedded down in the field or fermented in crocks, was just something you did, a culinary tradition born out of necessity, not nostalgia.
When Mark Ruoff, owner of Mountain Brauhaus in Gardiner asked his mother, a German immigrant, why she and her family had made sauerkraut, she replied, simply "So we'd have something to eat in the winter." Jeanette Sauer, the matriarch of Sauer Farm in Saugerties, remembers making pounds of sauerkraut each year, putting it up in big glass mason jars; neighbors arrived around Christmas to pick up the kraut. It's been years since she's made any, and she almost seems relieved at having left that annual duty behind. (That a younger generation is just discovering the pleasures of making sauerkraut seems to amuse her. "Well, you're young," she quipped, "I've got other things to do.") Perhaps it's easier to love making sauerkraut when you don't actually have to.
The sense of nostalgia around traditional food production has been felt largely by a new generation--children and grandchildren of those who preserved foods the old way out of necessity. Old fermenting crocks, impregnated with years of flavor, or descriptions of traditional kimchi containers, buried under the ground, holding the cabbage at the perfect temperature for fermentation, draw ooohs and ahhhs from younger generations. Those who actually used such items as part of a daily routine (not a hobby) are generally happy to have let them go, and yet there is pleasure in their voices when they hear of a new generation getting back into the old ways of food preparation and preservation.
"When we put cabbages into the CSA basket this year, I wasn't sure how they would go over," says Barbara Laino, of Midsummer Farm, in Warwick. "But people were really excited--everyone seems to have a recipe from an old relative, from a particular country, that they have to make with the cabbage." Chef Kevin Casey, of Mountain Brauhaus, cooks German cuisine but quickly points out "my mother, who's Irish--her grandmother has a red cabbage recipe." Susie Park, who works at Toro, a Japanese and Korean restaurant in Fishkill, has perfected a kimchi recipe passed down by generations before her. "It's good for health," she says. "Very good for digestion. Our ancestors were much smarter--they didn't have anything, but they were smart."
Seth Travins, the krautmaster of Hawthorne Valley Farm, has sauerkraut in his genes. "My great great grandfather on my father's side came over from Krakow, Poland, so I have a taste for it," he says. His great aunt on his mother's side had a farm on Staten Island, and made sauerkraut regularly. As could be expected, Travins ate sauerkraut growing up, but he didn't experience real fermented sauerkraut until 10 years ago, when he sampled some raw kraut at a conference. "It was usually so salty and limp," he says, recalling the kraut of his youth. "But this had so much life--it turned my head a bit." He's been making traditional sauerkraut, as well as a jalapeno kraut and his own version of kimchi, ever since, and has found a wide market for his product. "A lot of interest comes from the Weston A. Price Foundation," he says. (Devotees of the foundation consider fermented vegetables to be a key component to a traditional, healthy diet.) "It hits the raw foods market, it gets the meat and potatoes crowd because it has so much over conventional sauerkraut, and vegans have embraced it because it has no animal products."
Traditionally fermented cabbage, whether kimchi or sauerkraut, doesn't lend itself to mass marketing, and as a result, what most people have experienced isn't anything like the real thing. "[Real sauerkraut] can be a bit of a loose cannon," Travins notes. "It's a product that is alive and may be a bit temperamental." Conventional, store-bought sauerkraut starts out as the real thing, according to Travins, but is cooked before canning and packaging, rendering it lifeless, both scientifically and in terms of taste and nutrition. His product, along with various traditional kimchis now found in some natural food markets, have to be transported by refrigerated truck, and must be kept cool in the store and after purchasing. In exchange for the careful treatment, you get a living, delicious, healthy food.
In Korean cuisine, kimchi is a necessary complement to dishes that are based around small amounts of meat and rice. "We have all different kinds of side dishes," she says. "But kimchi is always on the table--it has to be." One traditional dish, kalbi, features sizzling Korean barbecue short ribs on a platter, surrounded by an array of condiments, including pickled radish, steamed watercress, bean sprouts, fermented bean paste, rice, shredded scallion and, of course, spicy kimchi. Large lettuce leaves are provided for rolling up the ingredients. In Korea, she recalls, kimchi was regularly prepared fresh, then packed into large clay containers, which were buried up to the lid in the ground, keeping the cabbage at the perfect temperature for fermentation. "Everyone has their own recipe," Park says.
Koreans have been known to consume a quarter pound of kimchi a day, but it's been a harder sell for Park in the United States. "Americans don't like fermented things too much," she says. But still, "when people order Korean food, we put it out right away."
The sense that there is an intrinsic knowledge in the old ways of preparing food is helping to keep cabbage on the table. So, of course, are the farmers. Over the three or four thousand years of cabbage's past, farmers have gently coaxed and specialized hundreds of varieties. Recipes often remain very specific to a region and its own cabbage varieties. "It's amazing when you look at the varieties," says Laino. "Every country has its own set." Even so, ask a farmer what types they grow and you're likely to get the same response: "A green, a red, and Napa."
At Midsummer Farm, Laino, like many farmers, plants summer and fall cabbage. Summer varieties tend to be more tender and are well suited to coleslaws and fresh salads. Fall cabbage varieties tend to take much longer to grow (100 to 120 days for an heirloom like January King), but they also last much longer. "They can stay fresh for a year in the right conditions," Laino says. At Phillies Bridge Farm Project, in New Paltz, Jessica Pascual also grows the requisite green, red and Napa (or Chinese) cabbages. (Napa cabbage has become quite popular, and this year the farm sent out a recipe for kimchi in one of their newsletters. Now dozens of members are fermenting their own.) "It's a really versatile vegetable," Pascual says. "Many people don't necessarily use their imagination with it, but you can eat it in so many ways--fresh or cooked or fermented. It's something we can keep giving out all the way until the end of the season."
Even with the resurgence of cabbage at local farms and CSAs and the success of books like Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, by Sandor Ellix Katz and Sally Fallon (Chelsea Greene, 2003; $25 paperback), a bible for the new generation of fermenters, there are many people who have yet to become cabbage converts. "Our shareholders get really excited about [cabbage] until about the third head," Pascual laughs.
Chef Kevin Casey of Mountain Brauhaus, who uses cabbage in dozens of dishes, notes that many people still don't have appreciation for the vegetable. "They've probably had the disgusting sauerkraut on a hot dog, or some bad coleslaw," he says. At the restaurant, he prepares dishes that highlight cabbage in both traditional and unique ways. "Cabbage holds up to long cooking," he says. "We do a lot of slow cooking and braising, and cabbage has an acidity and a sweet component that works well with [our cuisine]. It's real comfort food." His mother-in-law, who ran the kitchen before he arrived, grew up on a farm in Germany and has showed him how to make many of the dishes that are the basis of the menu. Casey, trained in traditional German cuisine, and recipient of an old Irish recipe, has also dabbled in kimchi, "with varying degrees of success."
At Phillies Bridge, Pascual's favorite coleslaw recipe is more like a cultural hybrid, using honey, fennel, soy sauce and apple cider vinegar; she made two gallons of kimchi that she's been eating since spring. Cabbage may no longer be a necessity to survive the winter or a staple at every meal, but its varied cultural traditions live on under the enthusiastic watch of today's locavores. If our ancestors--Chinese, German, Korean or Irish--are looking over our shoulders somewhere, they're probably smiling.
Mountain Brauhaus Restaurant, 3123 Route 44-55, Gardiner (845) 255-9766 www.mountainbrauhaus.com
Toro Japanese & Korean Restaurant, 1004 Main Street, Fishkill (845) 897-9691
Hawthorne Valley Farm, 327 Route 21C, Ghent (518) 672-7500 www.hawthornevalleyfarm.org
Midsummer Farm, 156 East Ridge Road, Warwick (845) 986-9699 www.midsummerfarm.com