So what’s the story with kale? The Gucci-zation of kale has me and, dare I say, a lot of others, simply mystified. Somewhere in the South there are a group of elderly black women shaking their heads and saying, “White people have lost their minds.”
You would think kale was invented yesterday.
Kale has been a staple of the African-American community for centuries. It is usually prepared braised or boiled and typically mixed with other greens such as collard, mustard or turnip greens – or sometimes all three! As a student in college in the 80’s this dish of mixed greens was my specialty. It was cheap and easy to make, and my friends loved it!
Today kale can be found on almost every restaurant and juicing menu from the mall to Biscayne Boulevard to Beach Drive. It can be baked to make kale chips and juiced to make a smooth energy-type drink. It is so popular that the price of a bunch has soared since 2011 when it was first labeled in the United States as a “super food.”
According to one non-profit, feminist media organization, the price of kale has increased 25 per cent from 88-cents a bunch four years ago to about $1.10 a bunch today. For a bag of kale, you can pay upwards of $5. Be still my heart.
Things have reached a fever pitch with this one vegetable. The first National Kale Day – with its own national day advisory team – will be “celebrated” this October 7. And in case you are wondering, there will be several “kaleabrations” that day. (Okay. If you could only see the look of bewilderment and amusement on my face as I write this.)
From the Netherlands to Italy to Portugal (where kale is the centerpiece of the delicious caldo verde soup) to east Africa, kale has been a staple vegetable forever. It’s easy to find, cheap to buy and easy to cook.
During World War II, the United Kingdom promoted the cultivation of kale as part of the Dig for Victory campaign, which encouraged Londoners to grow their own vegetables to assist their families during hard economic times. That was a good idea then as it is now. The best way to cut grocery costs is to grow your own fruit and vegetables, a relatively easy task in sun washed southern Florida.
In many of the countries where kale has always been a prominent ingredient, including in the United States, it has long been considered a poor-man’s food. Today, it’s a long way from that!
On the one hand, it makes me happy that people are eating more dark green veggies, on the other, it makes me wonder about the impact of price increases on otherwise inexpensive and healthy food for struggling families.
According to a National Geographic report, one-sixth of Americans do not get enough to eat on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the magazine reports, the price of fresh fruit and vegetables has steadily increased – by 24 per cent since the early 1980s – while the cost of fried and sugary food continues to drop; and all of that amid ongoing cuts in the federal food stamp program.
The high cost of fresh fruit and vegetables should come as no surprise to us, though. You can get a fried chicken snack cheaper than a grilled vegetable sandwich!
Speaking of fried, to add insult to injury in the fancy-ing up of kale, one popular way now to cook it is to fry it.
Notes my long-time friend Hannah Lefkowitz of Vero Beach, Florida: “I think it’s fascinating that kale is being turned into kale chips – essentially taking a healthy food and turning it into a substitute for junk food,” she tells me via Facebook. “Now what does this say about consumption of fruits and vegetables? “That we have to disguise healthy food as not-so-healthy food? I’m waiting for Kale Vodka. It’s all the lobbyist’s fault! “
She adds: “I think non-organic kale is still pretty reasonable at the grocery store. It’s more what it has become. A kale smoothie recipe on Sparkpeople is 340 calories with over 7 grams of fat. Some people have been known to add a can of Sprite.”
She has a point about what it has become. There are not only kale chips, but kale mac n’ cheese, kale slushies, kale mashed potatoes, kale cookies, kale fritters, kale hummus and kale cake and, get this – kale sorbet. Jiminy Christmas. Really?
If I seem a little frenzied about the kale phenom, I’m not alone.
Here’s what some of my friends had to say:
“Kale is so trendy these days, people who have never even heard of it are searching for it in upscale grocers. They are baking it like chips, juicing it in morning power drinks and eating it in fancy salads — all without knowing the origins of this unassuming, modest plant. Reminds me of the southern plant American Pokeweed, the leaves of which can be eaten. However, Poke salad never fully reached the heights of upscale eating. Maybe singer Tony Joe White is to blame with his country-rock tune “Polk Salad Annie” about a backwoods girl and her favorite vegetable,” says Yvette Walker, who is from the south side of Chicago.
“I’m not big on kale myself. White folks were all Christopher Columbus on collards for a minute. This is just the latest ‘discovery.’ Wait ‘til they find out that fat meat is greasy. It will truly be the end of days then. Ha!,” jokes a friend in D.C.
“I’m interested in hearing whether or not kale growers had a hand in creating this boom,” says Rielly.
The marketing gurus, and no doubt kale farmers, have outdone themselves on this one.
My colleagues in the culinary world say the next big thing, the next propped up super food, will be collard greens.
God help us.
Alison Bethel McKenzie firstname.lastname@example.org is a veteran newspaper editor and former executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna, Austria.