Once upon a time in America kale was maligned, confined to a cameo role as a garnish.
It lined the displays of fast-food salad bars. It was mocked as inedible, a punch line at parties. It has taken decades, but it is a superstar vegetable now, seizing the center of the plate in fancy restaurants. And it has done it raw. How does a food make the journey to the top?
To set the record straight, before kale made a name for itself in America, it was already famous in Scotland. It was so popular there that it was common to characterize someone who wasn’t feeling well as “off his kale.” An honored Scottish tradition involved young men and women going blindfolded into kale patches to pick plants at random. What they pulled would predict the disposition of their future spouse. Was the kale in their hands short or tall, dirty or not, sweet or bitter? Do you doubt me? Robert Burns wrote about this in his poem “Halloween.”
The ascent of kale is an example of a story we tell ourselves about food. There are many such stories; every food that has made a name for itself has one. The ballpark hot dog. Mom’s chicken soup. The narrative conflict between New York and Chicago pizza. Kale has been championed by Thomas Jefferson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé, and Michelle Obama. It has its own narrative.
The first mention of kale in America occured in 1669, but it suffered silently in the produce bin until a New York Times writer named Melissa Clark sat down in a Brooklyn restaurant named Franny’s in 2007 and decided to challenge herself to eat raw kale. The article she wrote after the meal contains the now-iconic line, “If a chef dares to offer something as unappealing as, say, a raw kale salad, chances are it’s fantastic.”
There’s your nugget of information right there revealing why kale has rocketed to the top. It’s supposed to taste bad, but when a chef makes it taste good, it’s a minor miracle. Kale is a foodie challenge fit only for the brave. Clark’s article headline brought the meme home: “If It Sounds Bad, It’s Got to Be Good,” she wrote.
Andrew McFadden admits that his life was changed by the raw kale salad eaten that day by the New York Times writer. Once written up in the Times, there was an “unending hunger” for kale salads. Kale launched his career as a vegetable-forward chef. He’s made a name for himself with cookbooks like Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables.
But all compelling biographies have conflicting elements, and that means that the origin story of kale in America is more complicated than one daring chef deciding to make a salad. More than one person was working on a raw kale salad. Great ideas, calculus, television, and the raw kale salad, seem to be born in several places, and in several minds, at once.
Chef Mark Ladner, cooking at Mario Batali’s Lupa restaurant, had been all over the kale thing since the early 2000s. In the January 2007 issue of Gourmet, Batali was quoted about “working on using every cooked vegetable in a raw state at that time.” Kale was a good fit with Batali’s Italian-centric food, since the type of kale he was using, and McFadden also, is known as Tuscan kale. In Tuscany, however, it was a humble braising green. A bit player. That would soon change with kale’s first tv appearance.
It made it into the national spotlight when Gwyneth Paltrow made kale chips on Ellen’s eponymous talk show in 2011. This was an act that positioned kale to vault into greater things. Then and now, Paltrow heads up a movement of healthy eating (also makes dubious health claims, but that’s another story). The idea that a cup of chopped kale might reward you with 2.2 grams of protein, 10,302 IU of Vitamin A (that’s 206% of your recommended daily requirement), and 80.4 mg of Vitamin C (134% of your daily requirement), fit the healthy food narrative. Just a year after the Ellen show, Michelle Obama authorized a kale salad for the White House menu, banning macaroni and cheese. This also fit the healthy food narrative. The storyline is harder to track when Beyoncé steps on-screen, wearing a sweatshirt that said “KALE” in the iconic lettering used Yale University, for her “7/11” video in 2014. You might argue that Kale had gone rogue at that point, able to do what it wanted because of its growing fame, even approaching self parody in a US Magazine article titled “Stars Who Love Kale.” That article lead off with a Kevin Bacon quote about a day without kale being a day without sunshine. He might have been kidding, but the kale juggernaut generates $102 million in grocery sales, according to Nielsen. Even McDonalds has had a kale salad since 2016.
More importantly than McDonalds boarding the kale train, fast-casual restaurants like Sweetgreen base their business model on kale. One of Sweetgreen’s founders, Nathaniel Ru, wants us to think of the chain as the Starbucks of salads. He says they are proving with the restaurants that they can build an economic model that doesn’t rely on soda, but on small- and medium-sized farmers. Just about every salad you get in Sweetgreen has a base of kale. Ingredients arrive fresh each day from local growers and other partners. Sweetgreen changes their menu four times a year to sync with the seasons. The company has educated six thousand children through an in-school nutrition program. Kale might have once been a limp punch line, but it has muscled cuisine into a healthier place. “Lifestyle choices” that once inspired mockery are now part of the restaurant supply chain, and one that supports local farmers.
A leading-edge chef started the kale craze, and a New York Times writer helped build the narrative, celebrities added their high-octane fuel, but kale has changed things. Originally a rebuke to a meat-centric diet, it has let the charge to a different way to eat. That’s quite a biography.