When did pickles become sexy? When did every self-respecting hipster spend weekend afternoons making jam? And at what point did kale become the new arugula and start showing up in salads at farm-to-table restaurants, fetching $6 a half-pound at local farmers markets and introducing the public to a vocabulary that sounds like names of racing thoroughbreds—Lacinato, Red Russian, Nero? Pity, traditional curly kale, a mere 99 cents a pound at the grocery store and the market. It’s now the poor kale cousin from across the tracks.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes kale the next new thing. Is it a reaction to the bad-for-you bacon craze? An extension of the decade-long comfort food trend? Or is it just the next in a long line of new leafy greens of the moment? Following on the heels of the aforementioned arugula, which was the new spinach, which was the new romaine, which was the new iceberg, which is now showing up again in thick wedges doused in blue cheese dressing.
I’ll admit I don’t recall eating kale at home (chalk that one up to my father who thought he didn’t like it), though my mother remembers her mother serving kale blanched and sautéed in bacon grease. And while I probably ate kale at barbecue joints where it was served up under the more generic heading of “greens,” kale first consciously passed my lips only five or six years ago at the house of a friend who says he was inspired to chop and sauté the greens with onions and garlic after tasting it at another friend’s table. Soon after that meal, I found myself fingering the sturdy greens at the market, marveling at how much a pound of the leaves really was in volume, and taking the pillow-size bag home to, yes, chop and sauté it. Large amounts of kale started showing up in my sister’s CSA portion, too. And on the Sunday I took the plunge and served kale to both of my parents, my father discovered that it was close enough to spinach to be palatable. Guess who now has it on their table semi-regularly?
Perhaps this is how all food fads start. Someone notices a new (or often “ethnic”) ingredient or dish—or rediscovers an old one—and the arc begins. The trend peaks when every restaurant and foodie table serves kale chips and ends when Nabisco bags them and Applebee’s offers them as starters, ushering the food into the mainstream, where it either takes hold (Buenos dias, tortilla chips and salsa!) or fades out again (Arrivederci, pesto!). Beverages are hardly immune to this either. All those malbec drinkers used to sip pinot noir and, before that, merlot.
Some food fads are boosted by a celebrity connection positive or negative, like the jelly beans and broccoli made popular (or notorious) by two of our former presidents. Still others result from trendy diets. Would cauliflower have made such a remarkable comeback if steamed and mashed it hadn’t been the perfect substitute for mashed potatoes (themselves a recent fad in all their garlic or horseradish-imbued creaminess) for Atkins Diet subscribers?
Food trends also mirror our national mood, and I can’t help but wonder if the last 10 years of the comfort food craze isn’t the result of post-9/11 grief and the adjustment to a new economy. Even if we could afford to eat caviar, somehow macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and hamburgers, however gourmet, feel more appropriate. We’ve even scaled down our desserts to reflect shrinking bank accounts and expanding waistlines (see cupcakes).
Then there are food trends that seem a remarkable reflection of economics and celebrity, values and consumerism. Consider Jell-O, a textbook case of creative marketing. Although gelatin first became popular in the 19th century (prompting a rage for molded jellies and the fluted tins in which they were made), Jell-O’s 20th-century popularity was boosted first by Jell-O cookbooks (precursors to the famous 1970s “Joy of Jell-O”) and ads in women’s magazines—and later, by its remarkable rise as a status symbol. You had to have a refrigerator to make Jell-O, and well into the 20th century, in some working communities, both urban and rural, reliable refrigeration was not a given. So the church lady who brought Jell-O to Bible study was not only telling everyone she was aware of and could afford a new, trendy and store-bought product, but that she had the means to make it as well.
In a sense, this is not so different from the gourmet, Julia Child-inspired dinners chronicled by Betty Fussell in her memoir “My Kitchen Wars,” where the beef stroganoff and chicken kiev made by Ivy League wives were a mark of worldliness, economic wherewithal, skill and leisure time—in a word, class.
Yet there are also the modest foods—“poor people foods,” we called it in my family, with respect to our working roots —that somehow achieve the nadir of chic. What most folks know as polenta, we called cornmeal mush, a dish I first ate courtesy of my grandparents, neither one of them the least bit Italian. It makes the best breakfast ever sliced, dipped in flour, fried in butter and drizzled with maple syrup.
It’s tempting to try to predict what the next food trend will be. Will we build on the charcuterie movement and fall in love with liver and onions? Will tiny hand pies ride the coattails of cupcakes? Will Polish food become the new Mexican? It’s tough to say. All I know is that kale’s popularity bodes well for other vegetables and fruits normally seen as difficult. Brussels sprouts, rhubarb and grapefruit have had their day. Can okra and kohlrabi be far behind?
A not particularly healthy but very delicious way to eat kale
1 pound kale (any variety), rinsed thoroughly and trimmed
6 slices of bacon
1 onion, chopped
Pepper, to taste
Bring a large pot of water to boil and blanch kale for 2 minutes. Drain kale and chop coarsely.
In a skillet large enough to hold the kale, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove bacon from skillet leaving rendered bacon fat behind. Saute chopped onion in bacon fat until brown. Add kale and saute until it is crisp tender. Season with black pepper or even red pepper flakes, if you want a little punch.
Yield: 6 servings.