People have been cultivating kale for more than 2,000 years, but up until a few months ago hardly anybody bragged about it. Sure, it grows well in winter, and it’s loaded with vitamins. But is that any reason to treat it like the foie gras of the vegetable kingdom?
“This is food whose texture screams to be rejected,” guest essayist Trisha Pancio Mead declares as she neatly slices and dices kale’s sudden rise to superstardom. That pale green mess on your plate just might be the medicine of bitter times. Or it might be an astringent garden genius, the Stravinsky or Picasso of the dining room. Either way, it’s kale and hearty – and it’s everywhere.
By Trisha Pancio Mead
Remember the eighties, when no power lunch was complete without thin half-moons of avocado and a sprinkling of sprouts and mangoes to elevate it from humdrum to haute?
Or the nineties, where we rebelled against all that California spa fusion and instead established a dish’s pedigree by name-dropping the obscure Southern roadside barbecue shack whose proprietor slipped us the recipe on a sweet-tea-stained napkin – but only after we swore on our meemaw’s grave not to reveal the secret of those melty, smoky collard greens? (The secret was, and still is, pork fat. Lots of it.)
At the turn of the millennium we became schizophrenics, giving lip service to the foams and mousses and architectural confections of the molecular gastronomy movement while actually spending all our money on increasingly elaborate macs, casseroles and turkey tetrazzini loaves in a Rachel Ray-inspired dash to the comfort-food-stuffed American middle.
Now we’ve turned a corner, very like Picasso when he stopped painting pleasingly forgettable realist and impressionistic portraits and started arresting people with the shattered ugliness of his canvases. Or like Stravinsky, who in 1913, with his jangling score for the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, made music that sent people rioting out of the theater. I love Stravinsky. And Picasso. But the art they created was not pretty. It was ugly, and it was only their genius for balance and composition that made the bitter dissonances and mineral sharp planes and angles resolve into a truly satisfying artistic experience.
Bitter … mineral … ugly … beloved by bohemians. … What is the current foodie version of Stravinsky? I think you know where I’m headed here.
KALE is the new avocado/bacon/mac. It is EVERYWHERE. In food cart muffins. In my brunch brunch at C Bar. In the Lyonaisse Onion Tart at St. Jack. In the Mussel Capellini at Nostrana. In the vegan entree at the last fundraiser I attended. Even Trader Joe’s has replaced its spinach dip with kale dip! At this point I fully expect my next cake order from Pastrygirl to include a kale filling.
So WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?
Yes, it’s seasonal, and current foodie values require that a serious restaurant feature produce that is locally sourced and having its appropriate moment on the Northwest garden calendar. But I don’t think that quite explains the recent ubiquity of this ugly, bitter, mineral-flavored vegetable. After all, pea shoots, fava beans, Swiss chard and collard greens are also of the moment, and certainly are milder and more accessible, even to people who pride themselves on their vegetable sophistication and appreciation for umami plant flavors.
But I think that’s it. It is kale’s very difficulty that is making it the darling of the moment.
Kale is the offal of the vegetable world. Chefs’ ability to make something edible with it is a mark of their distinction … and diners’ willingness to attempt it is the new measure of their sophistication.
Kale can be incandescent, used intelligently. It can also be embarrassing, or even frightening, when handled ham-fistedly. It’s nearly impossible to do something with kale that doesn’t make it look like a puddle of green/black mush on the plate. To ameliorate its bitterness you must go either tangy and sharp (a la Picasso) or uncomfortably unctuous (a la Salvador Dali) or just let it all hang out, bravely shredding some raw leaves on a plate with some artfully arranged seeds and oils and DARING the diner to understand what you are doing (a la Stravinsky).
The current moment’s perfect dish would probably be some kind of seared pork innards on a bed of wilted kale, garnished with fresh oysters, and some searingly hot pepper vinegar. This is food whose texture screams to be rejected (slimy, fibrous, fiery, spongy). It lies on the plate like a fat uncle soaking up beer on a Barcalounger. Yeah, it says. That’s my underbelly. What of it?
And like that fat uncle, these ingredients are anything but haute. Historically, bitter greens and animal innards have been cheap workingman’s food. What your peanut-picking great-grandfather would have eaten after a long day in the fields. What your Italian grandmother served during the Depression.
Hmm. Dali, Stravinsky and Picasso were riding high in the midst of the Depression too. The golden bubble of the Jazz Age had burst, leaving them with a world that felt like it would never be made whole again. Sound familiar?
So perhaps that’s the explanation. The current impulse isn’t to consume conspicuously in Baroque displays of expensive ingredients and exotic fusions. It can’t be. We’re all too exhausted and debt-soaked to believe in that sort of foie-gras festivity any more.
We are making do with what we have, with what is near to hand. We are elevating the scraps and humble necessities of our lives into expressions of artistic and culinary rebellion, rough edges and difficult textures and all. We are asking ourselves to grow comfortable with discomfort and uncertainty. Because we must.
We tell ourselves: This dinner is bitter, cheap and ugly. And I shall make it transcendent.
ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:
- Kale bundle. Photo: Evan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons
- Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Winter,” 1573. Louvre Museum/Wikimedia Commons
- Igor Stravinsky, as drawn by Pablo Picasso, 31 December 1920. Wikimedia Commons