Cabbage: A blue-collar green

Nathan Baker • Mar 8, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Cabbage has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the garden.

It gets no respect from food snobs, but it’s been putting in hard work in our diets for thousands of years.

In “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” Mark Twain wrote, “cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” With that statement, Twain was making the argument that, given similar biological makeup, the way two people are nurtured can create stark differences in their personalities and stations in life.

Twain’s lower-class cabbage and more prestigious cauliflower are the same species, Brassica oleracea, but they’ve had different upbringings.

What we know today as the cultivars cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collard greens and kohlrabi started as the wild mustard plant in parts of western Europe.

People started eating it, then planting it for easier access, and selective breeding gave us our modern vegetables. Some chose seeds from plants with more leaves (greens and kale), some grew it for the thick stalks and flowers (broccoli), some liked just the flowers (cauliflower) and some prized the buds (Brussels sprouts and cabbage).

The Brassicas became popular crops and staples in European diets, and spread through trade and colonization to Asia and the Americas.

Heads of cabbage, because of their commonality, became known as a food for commoners. It’s cheap and filling and does the work it’s been bred to do, whether raw, boiled or shredded.

I’m planning on putting a couple of heads of this working-class vegetable in my raised beds this year. I’ve never grown cabbage, and I’ve been spooked by enough horror stories of caterpillars and other creepy-crawlies that I think I’ll invest in some netting and other control methods.

I started seeds for Brunswick cabbage indoors two weeks ago and had sprouts within a couple of days. I’m aiming to get them in the garden in another few weeks.

Cabbage has a big spread and is a heavy feeder, so I’m planning to leave a lot of room in the bed for it and will mix a healthy dose of manure into my soil before transplanting them.

I’ve also started a few tomato plants and a new-to-me variety of pepper called an Aji pineapple. The pepper is a Peruvian heirloom that’s supposed to be slightly hotter than a jalapeno with a slightly tropical taste.

If you want to share your cabbage tips or horror stories with me, send them to me at [email protected]

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