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  • Food in the 'Hood

    Head of Its Class: The Cabbage

    The Romans revered it. “Cabbage is a vegetable that surpasses all others,” the Roman statesman Cato, wrote. An opinion that would jolt many of us today who either ignore cabbage altogether or dismiss it as a lowly vegetable.

    Enjoy them raw dipped in vinegar, Cato urged his readers. They also help with digestion, he added. Cato preached that eating the leaves would prevent the ills of excessive eating and drinking. “If you wish at a dinner party to drink a good deal and to dine freely, before the feast eat as much raw cabbage with vinegar as you wish, and likewise after you have feasted, eat about five leaves. It will make you as if you had eaten nothing and you shall drink as much as you please.” Cabbage was also curative. “Put crushed cabbage leaf on all wounds and tumors,” Cato advised. “It will cure all these sores and make them well without pain.”

    The vegetable the Roman extolled was not the modern cabbage. The large leafy plant, more like kale and collards, was headless. The Latin name of the curly leafed kale and its sister, the smoother leafed collard, means “cabbage of the vegetable garden without a head.”

    In later years, the cabbage lost some of its luster. The Roman satirist Juvenal scoffed at the poor man supping on his “nauseous dish” of cabbage while his patron devoured “excellent fish” garnished with olives. Lucullus, a government official, argued that the vegetable was ill suited for gentlemen.

    The Roman invaders brought the large leafed cabbage to Britain. Migrating through Europe, transported by merchants, sailors, and armies, it soon sprouted in monastic gardens. In northern and central Europe, the hardy plant thrived better than any other vegetable in the chilly climate. By the end of the Middle Ages, cabbage had become the mainstay of the peasant diet. Cheap and filling meals were constructed around it. The Irish concocted “champ,” buttery mashed potatoes laden with cabbage, a Halloween favorite. French and German women made soups and stews that melded potatoes, pickled pork, salted goose or duck, and cabbage leaves.

    Medieval physicians used cabbage leaves to stanch infections. They applied cabbage plasters to ulcers. The sulfur in cabbage, which caused its smell, made it an effective healing agent. In the maritime age, cabbage also protected sailors on their dangerous voyages. The ship doctors put cabbage compresses on wounds. On Captain John Cook’s first expedition in 1769, 40 crew members were saved by the prophylactic.

    Cook, who planted cabbage in New Zealand to use for future voyages, was an enthusiastic convert. Containers of pickled cabbage were loaded onto his ships, and his crews were directed to eat the rations. The vitamin C-rich vegetable, Cook believed, would keep them from getting scurvy.

    Cabbage came to the rescue during long European winters when little fresh produce was available. The German tribes devised a method of preserving cabbage by fermenting it in a salty brine. The end product was sauerkraut. (Centuries before, the Romans had pickled cabbage in a solution of sour wine, vinegar, and salt.)

    Originally, sauerkraut was prepared at home. In Holland, historian Sue Shephard points out, tubs of steeping cabbage sometimes sat in the warm living rooms of homes before being shifted to the pantry or cellar. In time, workshops were processing it. The British navy became a major customer.

    By the 17th century, the cabbage family had taken on its now familiar form. The cabbage, whose leaves were now tightly folded to make a head, had evolved through several stages from the scraggly wild plant that grew on the rocky coastlands of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Through selectively breeding cabbages for distinctive features, a diverse group was developed. The cauliflower, which Mark Twain called a “cabbage with a college education,” featured a head of undeveloped flower buds and stems. The kohlrabi, a cabbage with swollen stems, was also cultivated. (A German word, kohlrabi means “cabbage turnip.”) Mark Twain also satirized Brussels sprouts, another family member, which stood out because of the budding heads on its stems. Eating a Brussels sprout, he wrote, was to rob the cabbage of its young.

    Cabbage found a new home across the Atlantic. During the 18th century, a Swedish traveler in New York state was struck by an odd dish offered by his landlady: “An unusual salad tastes better than one can imagine . . .  cabbages . . . cut in long thin strips.” His Dutch host was serving Peter Kalm a salad her fellow nationals had introduced to the New World. Kool sla, the Dutch words, respectively, for cabbage and salad, was served both cold and warm. The warm salad consisted of shredded greens cooked in butter and oil, accented with vinegar, onion, salt, and pepper. Taking the English word for cabbage, cole, Americans started calling the dish cole slaw.

    Cabbage, first planted in North America along the St. Lawrence River in 1540 by the French explorer Cartier, was later grown along the Hudson River by Dutch settlers. English colonists took it to Virginia, where it was planted in the gardens of Washington and Jefferson. Collards, a favorite of the African slaves, became a staple of the southern diet.

    “Sauerkraut suppers” were introduced by the Pennsylvania Dutch, German-speaking immigrants who arrived in the 18th century. The church gatherings became a fall tradition wherever the newcomers clustered. So tied were they to their beloved cabbage that Southern soldiers during the Civil War called the Pennsylvania Dutch “sauerkraut Yankees.”

    Sauerkraut anchored Pennsylvania Dutch meals and highlighted festive dinners. It accompanied pork in the fall, salt pork in late winter, and fish in the early spring.

    The ethnics celebrated Thanksgiving with turkey and sauerkraut. New Year’s, however, demanded pork and sauerkraut because, as the saying went, “the pig roots forward.”

    The European peasant dish gradually gained wider acceptance until it was branded as alien during World War 1. The Pennsylvania Dutch and other German speakers were pressed to call sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.” The poet Charles Zeiger came to its defense:

    “‘Liberty Cabbage’ now’s the name
    But the thing remains the same.
    Has it not the old aroma?
    Is not “Liberty” a misnomer?

    “Why discard the name as hellish
    When the thing itself you relish?
    You may flout it and may scold —
    No name fits like the old.”

    Who would have thought it: a war of words over the humble cabbage?

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Curious about Cabbage?:

    Café Mozart (1331 H St., NW; 202-347-5732). This German restaurant offers red cabbage as well as sauerkraut among the choices for sides to go with their entrées.

    Domku Bar and Café (821 Upshur St., NW; 202-722-7475). This bistro, which features Eastern European and Scandinavian food, offers a number of dishes that provide cabbagey flavors. They include their Ukrainian borscht, Polish kielbasa, and their bigos — dinners accompanied by sauerkraut.

    Mandu (1805 18th St., NW; 202-588-1540). This Adams-Morgan Korean eatery offers a kimchi of pickled cabbage among their ensemble of small dishes called banchan. The restaurant also serves kimchi bokum bap — fried rice with this fermented vegetable.  

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    Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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