When I was growing up, we always had a vegetable garden out back. Dad fitted pipes together for a living, in oil refineries and power plants and submarines; but he’d been raised on a farm and felt that land was to be put to use. So there were always onions and tomatoes in the yard; sometimes squash and pumpkins and peas. And roses and calas along the fence for my mother.
For one or two years he planted almost all the yard in corn — half-a-dozen rows or so. I allowed that cornstalks didn’t yield as much produce in our small yard as tomatoes might, and he said: “I know. But I like to stand in (the corn) and listen to it move in the wind.”
Sometimes I’d see him standing in the rows before dinner, the wind ruffling his hair like cornsilk. He was not a happy man; but he might have been happier had he stayed on the farm.
The corn rows were for more than atmosphere; Mom and Dad revered fresh corn on the cob as some value caviar or Kobe beef. I was merely tolerant; but anything that you can drown in melted butter has its points. I make an exception for snails.
Mom planted vegetables, too. She didn’t leave it all to my father. And one year two lines of tall, spindly plants appeared out by the onions. Strange jagged leaves, bumpy and green like the skin of alligators, drooped from tough, woody stalks; nothing about them spelled “food.”
“Kale,” Mom explained. “It’s for soup.” Mom was big on soup, if not variety. She had four recipes; soon there would be five.
A few weeks later I sat down to lunch and was served a chicken soup filled with green filaments. I lifted one out with my spoon. It may have been a leaf at some point, but its inherent nature and Mom’s penchant for overcooking vegetables had turned it into green slime.
“It’s the kale,” Mom explained. “It’s good for you.” I did love my mother; I tried it for her sake.
God, it was awful; indifferent in taste, and precisely as slimy as I’d feared. Had I possessed my adult wit in those days, afterwards I would have croaked out, “Tastes as good as it looks.”
But Mom loved it; she was Portuguese, and they favor kale. If you were poor, as her people were, you’d favor it, too. It grows like a weed, and it keeps you alive. Given all that, and the fact that you have nothing else, you’re going to get to like it. What other choice do you have?
I never got to like it, however, even though bowls of Chicken ‘n Slime would appear before me at regular intervals for years to come. I tried eating around the slime: but it couldn’t be done.
Eventually I left home behind, and Chicken ‘n Slime as well, thank God. Although Mom would occasionally ambush me with it when I came home for a visit. Otherwise I never ate kale again. Given a choice, why?
As the years went by I learned to love vegetables, especially when not cooked to mush as was Mom’s preference. The turning point came in college, where our dining hall frequently produced hot entrees so vile that I could not bear to eat them. For me, that’s pretty vile.
The salad bar beckoned, with its greens and beans and vegetables and hard-boiled eggs and shredded cheese – not to mention the garlic croutons. To this day I’ll eat florets of uncooked brocolli with pleasure and no dressing. Raw or lightly-cooked vegetables can be delicious; sorry, Mom.
But there are exceptions. Kale is one.
I cannot say “Kale is back.” Because it had really never been here in the first place. Think back 20 years. Was there much kale in your life? Didn’t think so.
But the snakey, reptilian kale plant is now the media superstar of the vegetable kingdom. And not because of its taste or texture.
Kale, it is now told, will cure all your ills. It’ll skim the crud from your arteries, kick cancer to the curb, pull the plug on high blood pressure, and even soup up your body’s cell repair apparatus so that you will LIVE FOREVER.
Oh, all right. Nobody actually says that last bit. But it’s implied. Kale is the latest miracle bolt-on accessory to your otherwise unhealthy life that will make up for everything else that you do or don’t do. Just like Vitamin C, or grape seed extract, or green tea.
You can’t put kale in a tiny capsule like the other supplements. But you can put it in a big one. Glistening plastic tubs of grab ‘n go kale salad now appear front and center at the local markets. I actually tried some.
And to my amazement, after all these years, I have to cut Mom some slack. As far as kale is concerned, boiling it to slime as she did? That’s the soft option.
Because raw kale has the taste and consistency of heavy-gauge plastic sheeting. With sawtooth edges. I’m not even sure the stuff actually breaks down in your stomach. I’ve eaten collards, a notably chewy green; compared to kale, collards have the consistency of lunch meat.
Nobody eats raw kale it for pleasure; they couldn’t. I’ve had coastal kale salad, kale caesar salad, kale ‘n quinoa salad, and several others. Kale ‘n quinoa was tolerable, but only because there wasn’t much kale in it.
No, people are eating kale as medicine. Hollywood stars and hedge fund managers and professionals of all sorts are choking the stuff down like there’s no tomorrow. Because somebody told them it’d keep them alive and healthy. In a heartless and treacherous time when it is disastrous to be weak or sick.
And they eat it raw because raw is better, right? And they don’t have the time to cook the stuff. Nor care much for slime. There’s a theory that it can be sautéed into something halfway between slime and plastic; you’re welcome to try.
But Mom never did. She boiled the stuff into submission, as she did all other vegetables, and as her ancestors had done before her. She’d no sooner eat raw kale than raw corn. And truth to tell, Mom and the ancestors almost had the right idea about kale. Almost.
Because the experts say, first, that kale is healthier cooked than raw. Cooking disables a chemical in kale (gotrin) which interferes with thyroid function and can cause hypothyroidism in people who guzzle too many glasses of juiced kale per day.
And second, they say that the best way to deal with kale is indeed to put it in thick soups and stews. But only after you have chopped it so finely that you can’t actually tell it’s there.
Poor Mom. If they had only existed at the time, I’d have bought her a Cuisinart. And we’d all have been happy.
Or I would been, at least.