Does anyone remember the kale craze circa 2016? I was thinking about it recently and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how and why it became so popular. The way it was back then, it was almost as if it was a newly discovered species of plant and not something that had always existed. I tried kale once and it was absolutely disgusting. Why did people put themselves through that?! Don’t get me wrong, I love my cruciferous vegetables: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, arugula. But kale is one I have never been able to enjoy. I honestly would rather stick to spinach as my rich salad green than put myself through the bitter, fibrous mouth-shattering experience that is kale.
The History of Kale
A good food story always starts with the origin of the item in question. The thing about kale is that, unlike other crops that have greatly influenced society, kale doesn’t have books dedicated to its history. It’s almost as if it’s just a hype crop with no great societal effect. Either that or no one has found the time to write extensively and properly about it. Nevertheless, I’ll go through the brief history of kale I have been able to find online.
Kale has been known to man for more than 2000 years and its origin can be traced back to eastern Mediterranean or Asia Minor. The leafy green found its way to Europe and the Americas through various trade routes. Apparently, the earliest mention of kale in America was in 1669 but I haven’t been able to find a reliable source that properly explains this encounter. In Europe, kale was (and is) popular amongst the Scots. Since it thrives well in cold weather and is easy to grow, it was a garden stable amongst Scottish families. For most of history, kale had served the function of a garnish, nothing too fancy.
Why The Craze?
If you guessed that celebrities got their hands on the plant and the masses followed suit, you guessed right. There are only a few options that propel a relatively unknown food to the forefront of the conscience of the masses in “first world” countries: 1) the food industry needs to push a specific product so that they don’t lose money or so that they make more money 2) famous people have gotten their hands on said food. The culprits in the case of kale are Gywneth Paltrow, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé. I believe that the longevity of the kale craze was because each of these celebrities endorsed kale are different points (Gywneth in 2011 — the first wave, Michelle in 2012, and Beyoncé in 2014). 3 extremely influential and good-looking women say that kale is amazing, the masses didn’t stand a chance. Kale was like a new miracle plant that was going to change people’s lives. It’s a superfood, a little goes a long way, has one of the highest vitamin C content amongst leafy greens, can be eaten in different ways, allegedly has anti-cancer properties. I mean, what’s there not to like about the plant? The problem is that it’s not an easily palatable plant, especially to be eaten raw. People were forcing themselves to enjoy kale at the expense of their palates. Do you know who I feel sorry for the most? Kids whose parents introduced it to the dinner table as the new green. If you thought broccoli was bad, kale was definitely the devil. Eating kale had become a new badge of honour. If you could eat and “enjoy” kale daily, you would be seen as a healthy eater who had their life together (this is a personal opinion, it’s just the vibe I was getting from the food community back then). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that kale isn’t good or eating kale is bad. I’m just saying that the hype around the plant was unnecessary. There are other reliable and awesome leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables that have faithfully been with us for centuries and have never gotten as much attention as kale, simply because they are so reliable.
But the main issue I have with kale is the hype. We need to stop hyping up foods without thinking about the consequences they’ll have on communities. Look at avocado and coffee. They have now become blood money crops. The only saving grace of kale is that 60% of the U.S consumption of kale was produced domestically. They did not have to import a huge amount of it to meet up with demand. Hyping up a plant leads to a rapid increase in the production of a crop, which sometimes leads to the clearing of more land, which in turn affects the climate. When the hype dies, demand decreases sharply and next thing you know, waste increases and all the nice things that come with it ensue. Only a few hype plants/crops have stood the test of time (e.g. avocado) because they are 100% worth it, but it came at a cost to the communities that had to be converted to avocado farmlands. I don’t know if that was worth it.
Let’s think carefully before joining the hype around a crop, it’s not as harmless as it might seem.