April 23, 2017

The Optimism of a Cabbage Patch

A lovely head of cabbage and some peppers

Janine Pineo Photo | A lovely head of cabbage and some peppers

• By Janine Pineo •

“I want death to find me planting my cabbages.”

Hmmm.

There are so many ways one can interpret what Michel de Montaigne wrote a few centuries back. He was a French essayist who lived from 1533 to 1592 and, according to “The Quotable Gardener,” was a man of reason.

Hmmm.

If one is an optimist, then one could always say that the dear monsieur thought there could be no happier task than planting his cabbages and that he could die in blissful peace knowing his cabbages were in for the season.

If one is a pessimist, then one could think that cabbages were the bane of the monsieur’s existence. And you can figure it out from there.

Mark Twain, on the other hand, slapped the cabbage right upside the head with his words: “A cauliflower is a cabbage with a college education.”

Yikes.

And then there was an entry in “The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary” from 1906, written by Ambrose Bierce, who was described by “The Quotable Gardener” as a “sardonic” American writer who composed short stories and journalism articles. Then he went off to Mexico and disappeared.

Anyway, he wrote – and I quote – “Cabbage: A familiar garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.”

Ouch.

The poor, misunderstood cabbage.

I’ve always liked the cool vegetable. Perhaps it was because my folks and grandfolks always told me that I was found in the cabbage patch.

And I’ve turned out OK.

Quit that snickering.

I picked my first two cabbages last weekend, marveling over their perfection as I sliced them up for frying (butter, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal). The leaves were so densely formed that it seemed as if each head were solid instead of layer upon layer of crisp leaves.

As I chopped, I realized first that I still didn’t have a topic for this weekend’s column and then that I didn’t know much about cabbage, other than it is good in a boiled dinner New England-style and it is a must for St. Patrick’s Day. I also like to make a lively Polish stew whenever I can (see the recipe here), which isn’t easy when my sister complains about the “eau de stew” that permeates the house when I am cooking it.

I say it is good for the sinuses.

Perhaps cabbage doesn’t get the respect it deserves because there aren’t a thousand variations on the theme in the seed catalogs or even more than a couple of varieties grown in local greenhouses. In fact, I usually grow just one variety – late – although I grew a second variety this year: Early.

Such practicality. Although I can hardly imagine a cabbage named with such flowery imagery as a rose would be: “Introducing the new Hot Princess cabbage.”

Instead you’ll find no-nonsense names such as the heirlooms Brunswick, Early Jersey Wakefield and Marner Allfroh.

Cabbage, or Brassica oleracea v. capitata, began its journey to domestication thousands of years ago. While cabbage probably originated in the Mediterranean, it likely was the Celts who made the hard-heading cabbage what it is today. According to “Our Vegetable Travelers” (http://plantanswers.tamu.edu/publications/vegetabletravelers/cabbage.html), the names used for cabbage in a variety of cultures can trace their roots back to Celtic words. Even the Latin name, Brassica, is from the Celtic word “bresic.”

Jacques Cartier introduced the cabbage to the Americas in 1541-1542. He was somewhere in Canada when he sowed the seeds, but it isn’t until 1669 that the first written record on cabbages shows up for these United States.

It seems to have been all downhill from there. Cabbage has been relegated to coleslaw and St. Patrick’s Day, for it isn’t a seductive vegetable like the mysterious eggplant or the exotic tomato. Even the potato has been getting good press with its multitudinous array of colors and textures.

So I shall do what I like and revel in my lowly cabbages, admiring the sheer practicality of their dense heads and the bloom on their frosty leaves. I shall enjoy my fried and boiled cabbage and I shall endeavor to make a Polish stew while I can.

And, as a woman of reason, I say: If I must die, then I would rather it be in my cabbage patch after the harvest and a good meal.

Since I came from the cabbage patch, it makes sense.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in September 2006.