“Wait until I make you one of my delicious kale smoothies,” someone wrote on the Google doc our group of volunteers had filled out so we could take turns delivering food to an acquaintance in the hospital. Of course a person having a major health crisis lying in a sickbed is the perfect candidate for a kale smoothie: too weak to swat the proffered drink away, perhaps dehydrated and desperate enough to try to take a sip, the way lost hikers in the desert try to drink their own urine. And someone newly and unexpectedly admitted into a hospital is far too confused and anxious to say, “Oh honey, there is no such thing as a delicious kale smoothie.”
At this point, we all need less kale in our lives. Many of us are invited to more than our fair share of queer potlucks in which more than one person brings kale salad. These people have to be stopped– or abide by the following rule: if you bring salad to the potluck, salad is the only thing you are allowed to eat at the potluck.
I’m not one of these folks who will suggest that you forego kale and eat a nice side of beef instead. I’m a decaf-green-tea-drinking, raw-food-eating, vegan-baking stereotype who is sick of kale being in every damn thing, the way oat bran was in every damn thing when I was younger. Eventually oat bran petered out, but kale is still going strong.
People are enamored with kale for much the same reason they once were with oat bran: kale is the Cliffs Notes version of healthful eating. Back in the day, I can remember sub shops had the option of a “heart-healthy” oat bran roll. The only thing besides the bread that was “healthy” was the olive oil poured onto it before being smothered with cold cuts and cheese. Now a serving or two of kale gives people a kind of nutritional “get out of jail free” card, so they can eat pulled-pork and bacon exclusively for the rest of the week.
The same people who wax rhapsodic about the place with the ham-and-egg cheeseburger will, in the next breath, talk about a very different restaurant, the one which always has a line out the door and a name like “Vital Vitality!” or “Green and GOOD.” They’ll say to me, “You’ll absolutely love it,” though the food there is the opposite of the type of cuisine that elicits love.
The “green,” “GOOD” patrons (most of whom are women, as they are in cupcake shops and artisanal chocolate cafés) are, instead, looking for a little absolution for the beef chimichangas and eggs Benedict they ate the Sunday before. So they have a workday lunch of punishment food, either a “healthy” wrap on a bed of kale, or a pile of assorted greens — always including plenty of kale — with shredded carrots and sesame seeds sprinkled on top, as a treat.
In my city the restaurant group that opened one of these places also runs the sit-down, fancy, foodie place (also always packed) which serves fare that might have appeared on the table of a Middle-European baron 150 years ago: wild boar and everything but dessert roasted in duck fat. I suspect some of their customers visit both establishments on the same day.
When I am in one of the “vital” places I can practically hear the diners, as they crunch their way through their meals thinking, “Something so fibrous, so hard to choke down must be good for me.” The end of the meal brings sighs of relief and maybe a silent prayer of thanks that they don’t have to eat this way all the time.
The near-deification of kale came to be because of the extreme “cleanses” and “clean eating” (the old name was “crash diets”) which people (again, mostly women) undergo after they binge on artery-busting foods. The popularity of over-the-top, clean and “super” foods make finding actual, delicious food harder for those of us who are trying to eat “healthy,” but don’t wish to atone for a lost weekend of pork bellies. People who serve and sell “healthy” food assume all of us have taken a vow of (at least temporary) asceticism.
On a hundred degree day, I walked across a bridge that offered no shade and then, like a mirage, a cart offering frozen sweets appeared. When I looked at the menu I saw the ice-cream flavors were chocolate, coconut and butterfinger, and the sorbets were lemon and peach. I might have had been in the early stages of heat stroke, but I was thinking clearly enough to know: lemon sorbet is not an adequate substitute for chocolate ice cream. I would have become violent if the cart had offered what a Google search tells me does indeed exist: kale sorbet.
At a function where the entree choices were beef or chicken I ordered a special vegetarian plate and ended up with a plate full of…vegetables without sauce, seasoning or discernable flavor. I guess I should have been grateful the kitchen staff hadn’t just set down a leafy tree branch for me to nibble on.
When famed primate researcher (and one of my earliest crushes) Dame Jane Goodall was raising awareness and funds for the animals she studied, she complained that she often had to sit down to a spartan vegetable plate too. She was trying to shake some money out of the people who arranged these dinners, so she probably didn’t say to them, “Just because I spent most of my life studying wild chimpanzees doesn’t mean I want to eat like one.”
When I tell people I don’t like kale, they make attempts to convert me, like I’m the lone, unsaved person in the revival tent. They ask, “But have you tried kale chips?” Yes, I have and I’ve enjoyed them because, like their delicate, crispy texture, their taste: “nacho,” “teriyaki” or fake-but natural-“cheeze,” is nothing like kale’s.
“But they love kale in Portugal,” kale evangelists say. I’ve never been to Portugal, but I have seen art films that take place there. I remember one scene in which farm laborers sang, to the rhythmic hack of their hoes against the clay-colored, hard ground of a steep hill, a haunting song that expressed the vain hope they might be able to grow something besides kale. At least, I think that’s what they were singing about: I don’t speak Portuguese. Also Portuguese people wouldn’t have been eating kale all these years if they hadn’t combined it with sausage to mask the taste.
I’ve heard all the cooking tips: “Just sauté it in olive oil with a little minced garlic and salt.” In the long-past days before “Eat More Kale” t-shirts, before the farmers’ market became overrun with pastry vendors and soap makers, I used to make the same recommendation to the people who wondered aloud how to prepare kale. Then one night during a home-cooked dinner, I gagged on a mouthful and realized the olive oil and the garlic weren’t the problem. I had a similar epiphany some years before, when I gave up on fat-free, fruit-juice sweetened, whole grain, carob-flavored, health food store cookies because, no matter how “healthy” they were, they still tasted like they were dipped in shit.
I worry we will never be rid of kale because kale as a crop deludes urban backyard farmers into thinking they have a talent for growing things. They don’t realize most insects would rather feast on poisonous plants than eat kale. And like Michael Myers in Halloween, kale won’t die no matter how much effort one puts into killing it.
One spring, after a particularly cold and snowy New England winter, a friend reported the kale she had neglected to harvest from her garden in the fall was still good, if anyone wanted it. I don’t doubt that she was right, though I might quibble with her definition of “good” — and “still.” I noticed no one took her up on her offer.