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21 october 2019

Cabbage is one of two foods I truly dislike. Coconuts are the other, but in both cases it's a focused dislike for a particular preparation. I do not like coconut raw, and have a strong antipathy to raw sweetened coconut (which extends to coconut waters and other fashionable drinks). And I do not like basic headed cabbage when it's raw, making many salads abhorrent to me. The worst is cole slaw, which is basically garbage and should be tipped directly into the bin.

I like coconut curries, though, and I like not only cooked cabbage but also cauliflower, broccoli, kale, turnips and their greens, mustard greens, and other cabbage cultivars. A handful of shredded white cabbage dumped into a skillet (or as a basis for those popular "Mongolian grills" where you cook your own dinner off a buffet table) makes for the start to a very satisfying meal. I love sauerkraut, and have come to appreciate kimchi and other fermented cabbage dishes. So I was on the whole delighted with the range of cabbage culture on show in Meg Muckenhoupt's recent book Cabbage.

Many foods, like oysters, cheese, organ meats, and soups, feature in the diets of both the very poor and the very rich. Cabbages are somewhat unusual in being the worldwide diet of the poor without ever producing a haute cuisine tradition. They grow anywhere; they notoriously hybridize and go feral. They are loaded with more nutrition per unit cost than almost any other food. They smell terrible. They store well but in processed form travel badly, except as sauerkraut, which to many people smells worse. Cabbage is simply infra dig.

Muckenhoupt notes that cabbages are odd in having a certain appeal to still-life painters and photographers (because of their mesmerizing symmetries), while having almost none to highbrow chefs. A plant of visual beauty, they are downright nasty to the other senses. Some diners have true aversions to cabbage, unable to tolerate its aromatic compounds. (I don't think this is true of me, or I couldn't eat raw broccoli; I think it's the synergy of salad dressing and cabbage that I find most disgusting.)

Cabbages are coarse to the touch and tongue. Kale swept foodie social networks in the 2010s, leaving lots of bitter tastes and bellyaches behind, but a lot of people couldn't get past the mouth-feel of kale, in some varieties a cross between vinyl and shoe leather. Cabbage gives you wind. Honestly, it's remarkable that there's anything to be said for cabbage at all, let alone a whole book to be written about it.

Yet cabbage is the basis for many a regional tradition, from Portugal through France, eastern Europe, and China to Korea, where it is the central national dish. (Yet, as Muckenhoupt notes, kimchi was still very much a humble tradition till a few years ago, when it began to catch on beyond the peninsula.)

And some cabbage preparations are lovely. In Ireland I used to get wonderful green savoy cabbage, quickly boiled and smashed a little with butter. (Mashed into potatoes, this becomes colcannon, which is something you can create on your own dinner plate if you like.) Sauerkraut in a Reuben sandwich is pretty much heaven. Brussels sprouts are starting to evolve, year by cooking-magazine year, into something more appealing than the old-fashioned boiled balls. Chopped, roasted, braised, smothered, paired with all sorts of other vegetables and garnishes, sprouts are on their way to becoming the foodiest of cabbages.

Cabbage is another Reaktion Edible book where I tried none of the recipes. The most approachable, a Ukranian recipe for cabbage rolls, needs three hours of slow cooking in a Dutch oven, and I don't have the time. It does sound like the kind of thing my Slovak grandmother used to make. But you can't always go home again.

Muckenhoupt, Meg. Cabbage: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2018.