Peak Index: The history behind the rise, and rise, and rise of kale

There is a phrase in economics ... when something has hit its high, saturated the market, it's peaked. We're starting a new economic indicator on our show, and we're saying it, we've reached Peak KaleWriter Jane Black explains



If you were a foodie at the dawn of the twentieth century - though, no one would call you a foodie - you probably would have paid attention to what Horace Fletcher had to say.

Fletcher was a wealthy businessman. But he was neither a scientist nor a chef. Still, he pioneered 'Fletcherizing,' or chewing each bite 32 times. It was soon accepted as a key to good health. "Nature will castigate those who don't masticate!" he warned.

The concept seems ridiculous today. But each food fad is a reflection of its time.

Now, we have kale: glamorous but respected; sexy but not in a cookie-cutter way. The Cate Blanchett of vegetables. Like any starlet that has hit the big time, kale is everywhere. It bumps romaine out of Caesar salads. It curls across pizzas and alongside locally raised pork chops. It's the muse for part-cookbook, part-love letter, 50 Shades of Kale.

Why kale? Why now?

To its credit, kale has a vibrant history. It emerged in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. By the Middle Ages, it became so popular in England and Scotland, 'kale' became another word for "dinner." During World War II, Britain urged home gardeners to grow kale for its "Dig for Victory" campaign.
 
Today it offers those who cook it a badge of honor. Rightly or wrongly, it signals a cook’s commitment to farm to table values, like buying local and, of course, eating your vegetables.


Yet, with every fad comes the inevitable backlash. The first haters are beginning to attack not kale’s pretensions of grandeur but its health credentials. Apparently, all those raw kale salads are a waste. To get the nutrients, you need to cook the stuff.

Yet, with every fad comes the inevitable backlash. The first people to hate on kale claimed it wasn't as healthy as everyone said. Then, they said .... 'only really snooty people eat it.'

Unlike France, Italy and China, the U.S. goes through food fads faster than a box of $4 cupcakes at an office party. So those critiques matter. And before kale was the "it" vegetable, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, portobello mushrooms and celery root each wore the heavy crown.

Still, the backlash has yet to change people's minds about kale. There's a petition on Change.org to make the first Wednesday of October National Kale Day. Folk artist Bo Muller-Moore is locked in a trademark battle with Chick-fil-A to allow him to keep selling T-shirts that read "Eat More Kale."

If the ubiquitous raw kale salad can't live up to its nutritious and culinary promise, perhaps the solution is to mix and match culinary fads.

Put that arugula, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes back into those bowls.

Anyone ready to Fletcherize?

About the author

Jane Black is a food writer in New York.

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