The Rise of Kale

LENTEIN will be the first to remind our readers to eat our vegetables. But recently, there’s one veggie that’s taking over the spotlight: Kale. If you’re plugged into the “foodie culture” you’ll find it hard to deny that we have become kale obsessed. Whether it is chips, smoothies, or cakes, there’s nothing this leafy green can not do.

All of this obsession begs the question: how did it become this popular?

When brunch joints in Brooklyn started slapping it on the menu a few years ago, the green had already been around the proverbial food block. According to the Agriculture Department at Texas A&M, the Ancient Greeks and Romans grew it. In fact, kale’s history might even stretch farther back than that; some say it dates back to 600 BC when the Celts brought it back to Europe from Asia Minor. Since it is resistant to frost, it comes as no surprise that kale has done well in colder regions, and it played a role in early European history before making its way to North America in the 17th century.

It wasn’t long ago that Americans scoffed at the sight of it. We reserved it for garnish. Iceberg lettuce was the “green” king, and if you needed something a little bit healthier, you went with Popeye’s spinach. Other cultures, however, have been digesting it for quite some time, like Germany where there’s an annual Grühnkohlfahrt, basically a celebration dedicated to eating a lot of cooked kale, or the Netherlands, where traditional dish stamppot boerenkool, mashed potatoes and kale, graces winter tables. The green was such a staple of Scottish fare that in the local dialect kail means “food” in general, and the expression “to be off one’s kale” implies that you are ill.

So how did it make its way over to the United States? Eventually, we did get on board, and in the last few years the spike in it’s popularity has been hard not to notice, even if you aren’t much of a foodie. Here’s a brief timeline showcasing the travel of this veggie to the heights of United States popularity:

  1. The Los Angeles Times publishes a poem dedicated to the leafy green, entitled Oh Kale
  2. Kale makes its way into some organic CSA boxes and people are confused what to do with it
  3. Whole Livingdeems kale a “powerfood”
  4. 539 babies in the US were named Kale
  5. Martha Stewart published a recipe for Kale Slaw
  6. Vegetarian Timespublishes a recipe for Crispy Kale Leaves.
  7. The kale salad at Northern Spy in New York City inspires a New York Times kale salad recipe
  8. Gwenyth Paltrow makes kale chips onEllen
  9. Bon Appétit names this the year of kale
  10. The first annual National Kale Day is celebrated on October 2

We could equate the rise in it’s popularity to an increased awareness of health. As Jennifer Iserloh, co-author of 50 Shades of Kale, puts it, “Kale is the king of the superfood kingdom. People are incredibly interested in health and more and more people are cooking at home—kale is cheap, versatile, and one of the best foods you can put in your body.”

But it’s not just because of a desire to eat better. Kristen Beddard Heimann, founder of The Kale Project, sort of agrees. She equates the soaring rise to a combination of health awareness, an increased popularity in farm-to-table restaurants and the rise of the internet and high profile food bloggers and celebrities. As she puts it, a lot of it has to do with stars “creating a lifestyle that people aspire to.” Case in point, Gwenyth Paltrow makes kale chips on Ellen. People go crazy.

Then there’s the influence of our personal relationship to food and our ability to share that relationship; thanks social media! “If Instagram had been around when sundried tomatoes (1985) or arugula (1990) were hot, I’m sure there would have been more backlash because the trend would have spread so much like it has with kale. Kale just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” says Beddard Heimann.

Using Google Analytics for search terms like “kale salad” or “kale chips” over the last eight years, we can pinpoint the beginning of the official trend somewhere between 2007 and 2009. In fact, according to the Bon Appétit article that Beddard Heimann is referring to, 2012 was the Year of Kale. So while some would argue that we may have reached “peak” with this leafy green, maybe we should look to another vegetable trend, beets, for more insight. The red root snagged this title in 1982, and we still see those in abundance from upscale restaurants to standard home cooked fare. Kale, we might be in it for the long haul. People, let’s prep those kale chips and bake them with pride.

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