Kale is Dead. Long Live Kale.


How publishing cycles and vegetable celebrity don’t always align.


My aunt called the other day. “I’m going to send you an article,” she said, “about how
cauliflower is the new —”

“Kale,” I said, before she could finish her sentence.

“How did you know?” she asked.

“Funny you should ask.”

Because, apparently, kale is now officially dead. In its place I’ve heard, well, besides cauliflower: Brussels sprouts are the new kale; broccoli is the new kale; kohlrabi is the new kale; seaweed is the new kale; watercress is the new kale.

Move over, kale; cabbage is the new rising star.

Why would I be paying attention to all this, aside from working as a food writer and recipe developer? Last September, I came out with a new book all about, yes, that’s right, kale (Kale, Glorious Kale, The Countryman Press).

I got the contract to write the cookbook in 2013. In retrospect, that was probably the height of the kale craze. Kale had become so popular in restaurants, in cooking magazines, and well, everywhere, that the spokesperson for Johnny’s Selected Seed company in Maine told me that a worldwide shortage of kale seeds had developed.

Originally I had planned for my next cookbook to be about a new passion of mine, and another trend: garden-to-glass cocktails such as Lemongrass Ginger Gin and Tonic and Beach Plum Mojito. As that proposal made the rounds, one of the publishers noticed two of my previous cookbook topics (Greens, Glorious Greens and Raising the Salad Bar), and asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on kale instead of cocktails.

“Sure,” I agreed. It’s trendy, I thought, but it’s a healthy trend. Vegetables have been maneuvering their way into the forefront of food trends in the past 5 to 10 years. Now   it was kale’s turn. Why not ride the wave? I even laughed to myself: I would be spending my days eating the healthiest vegetable out there, not crafting (and quaffing) cocktails. Maybe the universe wanted it that way. Because of my previous Glorious Greens and Salad Bar books, I was already an expert on greens and kale.

It typically takes 18 months to two years for a cookbook to go from concept to print. And it’s not a walk in the garden. I would have six months to develop the 95 kale-centric recipes — which meant conceiving, testing and writing a new, original, top-notch kale recipe every other day.

I was excited about the healthy recipes and combinations I was developing — kale and grains, baby kale dinner salads with fresh tuna or grilled chicken, granola with crispy kale, delicious kale smoothies, even a kale margarita (which, it turned out, was surprisingly good). During this testing period, my husband, son, and I ate kale in one dish or another every night for five months. Even after 150 days straight of eating kale, my enthusiasm was undiminished. I started to imagine that I was going to give this kale-crazed world the book everybody wanted, and in the process, become a best-selling kale queen.

I turned in the manuscript, along with 50 photographs taken by photographer Alison Shaw. There followed a period with lots of editing, and finally proofing. Then Kale, Glorious Kale was released.

This is almost immediately when I started to hear about new food trends, and most every single one, started with “__________ blank is the new kale.”

I was bombarded daily, as is typical for a food writer, with news about food trends. And almost every single one, it seemed, started with “__________ (fill in the blank) is the new kale.”

“Bacon and Kale Are Dead,” read an Eater.com survey headline. By December, the month of “What’s In and What’s Out” reports, kale was getting seriously hammered. One radio interviewer asked Chris Kimball, head of the Cook’s Illustrated empire, for his opinion on what would be new food trends in 2015, “now that kale is dead,” she said, chuckling.

They were laughing at kale, mocking and deriding it. “Kale, Will You Never Die?” appeared in a Google search for all to see.

Was this bordering on bullying?

Well, maybe it will hang in there, I thought, as I scheduled book signings. Kale is popular; it will never die. I told myself that people love kale. They’ll want to know the best ways to prepare it … But like Lady Gaga, and Paris Hilton and Madonna before her, the media had had its fill, and was ready to anoint a new (culinary) celebrity.

A 2014 New York Times column by Neil Irwin tracked the life cycle of food trends. Using what he dubbed the “Fried Calamari Index,” Irwin noted that foods that became the most popular didn’t disappear when their popularity waned; they became part of the food fabric. He tracked once obscure foods, such as fried calamari, sun-dried tomatoes, crab cakes, hummus, goat cheese, and pesto, that are now mainstream menu items, and measured public interest by looking at the number of times an item was mentioned in the New York Times. He wrote, “Fried calamari, for example, began its rise to mass popularity in 1980. The term peaked in 1996, mentioned in 56 articles, and has come down significantly since then.”

Interestingly, Irwin’s article pointed out that foods trending in that same time period of 50 or so years took an average of 24 years to rise, peak, and wane. Recent food trends — kale, ramen, beet salad, bacon, braised short ribs, for example — rise and fall on the average in only 10.4 years. As a result, we hear more about a particular food trend in a shorter timespan. In a word, overkill.

Kale will not disappear. I predict it will settle down, not as a sought-after superstar, but as a well-respected mainstream vegetable on par with broccoli, carrots, parsley, and romaine. Or should I say watercress, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage? (Not to be defensive, but kale is healthier than many of those vegetables put together, if you look at the published nutrient comparisons. In one, the Aggregate Nutrient Density index used by Whole Foods Market, which rates vegetables on a scale of 1 to 1,000, kale comes in at 1,000.)

I take comfort in the thought that kale has become so much a part of our daily lives that it is no longer a bright light fighting for our constant attention. More Madonna than Donald Trump, maybe. Which is a good thing, I guess. Just not for my book.

By the way, my aunt — dear Aunt Ellen — ended our phone conversation saying, “I’m going to go out and buy a head of cauliflower.”

And in case you were wondering what foods you’ll be hearing about next: bone broth, otherwise known as chicken stock and beef broth. There’s a new NYC joint called Brodo serving steaming hot broth instead of coffee in the mornings, and Kobe Bryant swears bone broth is helping his joints and keeping him in the game. Yogurt and other gut-promoting foods are another. A colleague of mine has written a whole book devoted to yogurt recipes, released this spring — probably right in the nick of time.

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