All About Kale

Love it or hate it, this intensely flavored brassica isn’t just a flash in the pan — it’s been in demand for hundreds of years.


| Winter 2017-2018



Kale Red Russian

The number of U.S. farms growing kale jumped from under 1,000 to more than 2,500 between 2007 and 2012.

Photo by RareSeeds.com

“I wish people would stop calling kale a fad,” says Jennifer Iserloh. “Fads are things that don’t have legs to them, but kale has a long history.”

Iserloh is the co-author and chef behind Fifty Shades of Kale, a cheeky collection of simple yet modern recipes designed to smuggle the health benefits of kale into the bellies of people she calls “veggie haters.” She smothers kale in apricot jam and olive oil, blends it into creamy pastel-green “kale-onaise,” and tucks it unnoticed into chocolate popsicles, beef chili, and cheesy pastas. “Kale has a place in everyone’s diet,” she says.

Fifty Shades of Kale was published during what The New Yorker hailed as the “Age of Kale.” Between 2012 and 2014, National Kale Day became a thing. First lady Michelle Obama taught Americans how to make kale chips, actress Gwyneth Paltrow touted kale as “one of the best things you can put into your system,” and, according to the MyFitnessPal app, on an early January day in 2014, Americans consumed the most kale per capita in all recorded history. Quickly, kale went from unfamiliar and unappetizing to becoming the subject of memes and a popular pun for T-shirt designers.

Even vegetable growers, researchers, and breeders were unprepared for the rise in demand. “The kale movement caught a lot of people by surprise, so nobody was really working on [developing kale cultivars],” says Phillip Griffiths, a vegetable breeder at the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station. “Even the people who are the suppliers of kale seeds didn’t see it coming.” Between 2007 and 2012, the number of U.S. farms growing kale jumped from under 1,000 to more than 2,500. Farmers harvested more than 2,200 additional acres of kale during this period — and about 1,600 of those acres were in California alone. So many farmers scrambled onto the kale wagon that seed supplies actually ran out.

The media predicted kale would share the same fate as eating half a grapefruit for breakfast. But Iserloh is right: Kale’s been around a lot longer than the online dieting community remembers. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers produced only marginally more kale in 2007 than in 1889. In 1909, Americans consumed 10 percent of their calcium in the form of dark leafy greens. No one was using MyFitnessPal back then, but it’s likely 2014 wasn’t actually the all-time record of kale consumption.

Most researchers believe kale is the earliest domesticated form of Brassica oleracea, the species that has also been transformed into broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts by humans selecting for larger flower size, or fatter stems, or leaves that clump together to form heads. Kale looks the most similar to the wild cabbage ancestor, and was eaten in ancient Greece. By A.D. 100, the Romans had recorded 12 distinct kale-like plants.





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