“Everyone thinks he knows what a lettuce looks like. But start to draw one and you realise the anomaly of having lived with lettuces all your life but never having seen one, never having seen the semi-translucent leaves curling in their own lettuce way, never having noticed what makes a lettuce a lettuce rather than a curly kale.”
Origins of Kale
Kale is a plant with a long history. It is one of the oldest plants in the Brassica family, which also contains some familiar leafy greens like cabbage, broccoli, and spinach. Kale leaves are usually a dark green color, though some varieties can be purple, white, or pink.
No one is exactly sure when and how Kale originated, however, some speculate that the Celts brought the leafy green descendant of wild cabbage back from Asia Minor to Europe in 600 BC. From there it became a great favorite of the Greeks, who boiled and ate the leaves as a cure for drunkenness, and the Romans, who may have placed it on the table of Caesar himself.
From there, kale’s popularity took off throughout Europe, and each country put their own stamp on the vegetable. The Russians created hardy, cold tolerant leaves, the Italians cultivated plants with “dinosaur” scales, and the Scottish bred frilly, ruffled leaves on their kale plants.
Kale was particularly loved in the United Kingdom, because it was a as a hardship food that was high in nutrients and hardy enough to make it through the winter. Kitchen gardens in Scotland are still sometime called “kale yards” because of the abundance of the kale plants once grown there. Their expression “to be off your kale” means to feel too ill to eat.
Kale was first mentioned in America in 1669, but have made the continental jump earlier. It soon also spread to Canada. At this point in time, kale started to lose its popularity around the world. The leafy green suffered because of its association with poverty, and as the wealthier members of society began to scorn kale, others followed suit. In some countries, it was almost complete forgotten.
Kale wasn’t completely gone though, and it wouldn’t be long before its popularity surged in the early 1900’s, with the start of WWII. The British encouraged their citizens to plant Victory Gardens to help the war efforts. Soon, the rest of the Allied forces followed suit, and gardens popped up in homes, public parks, vacant lots, and anywhere else where a few seeds could be put into the ground. Kale was a popular choice for wartime gardens because it was very easy to grow, and its nutrient dense leaves made up for the vitamin poor diets created by rationing.
Today, kale is just as popular as it was in the past. It’s found in dishes all over the world and is a common ingredient in soups, stews, stir fries, and salads. Its green leaves are even found in smoothies or made into a crunchy alternative to potato chips.
Kale in German Culture
Kale is beloved by many cultures, but perhaps no culture loves kale as much as the Germans. During the winter, the Germans practice Grünkohlessen which is a celebration of kale and involves drinking, games, and eating foods that include kale.
These celebrations will often feature kale tours, or Kohlfahrte,, where groups of friends gather together and go for long hikes. The walkers are accompanied by drinks (usually alcoholic), games, and snacks. The trek ends at local tavern, where the hikers eat a four course dinner together that consists of dishes like Boerenkool Stamppot (Kale Mash Pot) or Gruenkohl und Pinkel (Kale and Sausage). The person who eats the most kale is crowned the Kale King or Queen, and is responsible for planning the next year’s kale tour.
Another appealing aspect of kale is the high level of nutrients found in its leaves. Kale is very high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It contains high levels of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate and manganese. While not as high, kale is also a good source of thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, vitamin E, iron, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus.
The Story of How Kale Became the Most Beautiful Women in all of Greece
Kale was not happy. She was the living the embodiment of beauty. Her name, given to her by her father Zeus himself, meant “beauty”, but her sisters, Euphrosyne and Pasithea, had the gall to each declared themselves the most beautiful of the three Charities. She tried everything to get them to admit they were wrong. She recited the poems written about her splendor by the most renowned poets of Athens. She showed them the intricate paintings and sculptures inspired by her glory and created by the finest artists in all of Greece. She pointed to her impeccable clothing and flawless complexion. But they would not budge.
Finally, her rage built until she couldn’t contain it. “Why can you not admit what you see before your eyes! Not only am I the most beautiful of the three of us, by our father Zeus, I am the most beautiful woman you will find anywhere!”, she screamed in frustration.
As her cries faded, silence fell. Her sisters stared at her in shock. She blinked. No, they were not staring at her. They were staring behind her. Dread growing, she turned slowly.
One manicured eyebrow raised, Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, stood in the doorway of the sisters’ dwelling. The goddess was exquisite; every detail from the drape of her tunic to the shade of the paint on her nails was perfect. Her expression was calm, even pleasant, but something about her stillness reminded Kale of the way the air smelled just before a thunderstorm broke.
When she spoke, her voice, deceptively soft, cracked like a whip,”Do my ears play tricks on me? Here I was passing by on an errand for the Lady Hera, and I hear a woman claiming to be the most beautiful in all the world?” Aphrodite’s eyes gleamed, and Kale took a step back into the arms of her sisters. “Surely,” the goddess continued, “That could not be the voice of Kale the Charity. Kale knows to pay homage where homage is due. She would never dishonor Aphrodite with such an ill spirited remark. And yet…” She paused and Kale felt every snapped thread on her gown and misplaced hair on her head as the goddess regarded her. “…here you are.”
Kale was no scholar. She was not known for her wit or way with words, but if she wanted to live to see the end of the day, she would have to be as silver tongued as the titan Metis.
She spoke, “My Lady, please listen.” She made herself seem as small and guileless as possible. “What you heard was nothing more than a squabble between siblings. A childish argument over which of the three of us is the prettiest. I… We would never presume to compare ourselves to as lovely a flower as you. You are a beautiful, cultivated anemone, and we are but simply country wildflowers. There is nothing to compare.”
Aphrodite expression did not change. She spoke sharply, “And yet you said you were the most beautiful woman anywhere. Anywhere. That does not sound like a simple comparison between siblings to me.” She snapped her fingers. “Come, we will settle this elsewhere.”
Kale blinked, and when her eyes cleared, she found herself and the others standing on the edge of a large, pleasantly landscaped plaza. In the center of the plaza, an old man sat on the steps of a fountain feeding the birds scuttling on the ground in front of him. Without a glance at the terrified Charities, Aphrodite strode across the plaza toward the man. Kale gripped her sisters hard, and the three trailed after the goddess.
As Kale neared the elderly man, she saw that he was far older than she’d expected. His skin was deeply scored by time, his hair was white unrelieved by gray, and his clothing was of a style fashionable generations ago. As he heard the women’s’ footsteps, he lifted his head, and Kale saw that his eyes were white and sightless. She could not think what Aphrodite wanted with a blind man in a contest of beauty, but she was wise enough to keep silent.
Aphrodite spoke, her voice sweet,” My Lord Teiresias, I would beg a favor from such a wise seer as you for my friends and I.”
When he spoke, the man’s voice was powerful. “For the Lady Aphrodite, I would be honored to assist.”
Aphrodite blinked, clearly not expecting Teiresias to know her identity but continued, “Which of the four of us is the most beautiful?”
Teiresias did not hesitate. He closed his sightless eyes, and extended a hand. It wavered on Aphrodite before settling on Kale. She felt a thrill of triumph, followed by a rush of terror.
Aphrodite’s face was no longer beautiful. It was full of rage hatred. She could do nothing to Kale or her sisters. They had bested her in a contest of her own choosing, but Teiresias had no such protection. With a poisonous smile, she clapped her hands. When the sound faded, Aphrodite was gone and in the place of the old man, sat an old woman.
Kale looked at the Teiresias. The elderly woman seemed taken aback, but not distressed. Kale laid a hand on the Teiresias’ arms and spoke gently to her. “Are you alright?”
Teiresias sighed, “Yes, I had hoped to never be in this situation again, but I am unharmed.”
Kale smiled, “ Come, we will take you back to Crete. Maybe we can find someone who can help you. In the meantime, you are welcomed to stay with us.”
The three sisters lifted Teiresias to her feet, and Kale began the journey home with her companions, warm with the knowledge that she was truly the most beautiful women of all.
*Just a disclaimer. I couldn’t find any appropriate myths to go along with Kale the vegetable, so I improvised with one about Kale from Greek mythology. As far as I know, the two are not related, but I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless.
Kale does not have any ancient symbolism. Today, it is often a seen an a symbol of veganism and healthy lifestyles.