The Rise and Rise of Kale

We all know we’re supposed to eat our vegetables.

But sometimes, some vegetables are just a bit more intriguing than others. Or, a lot more intriguing, as with the case of kale.

If you’re plugged into the foodie culture, you’ll find it hard to deny that we’ve become kale obsessed. Chips, smoothies, cakes; there’s nothing the leafy green can’t do. Short of curing cancer – oh wait, nope, some people hold it can help to do that too. In other words, kale has turned from a common vegetable into a wunderfood. From fancy restaurant salads to trendy t-shirts, if there’s a leafy green on the menu, these days, it’s a good guess that it starts with “k.” Kale has seen a 400% increase on restaurant menus in since 2008.

So while the food world might posit that we’re moving to other trends – hello collard greens! – we certainly haven’t seen the last of kale. It can be used to make cupcakes after all. Oh if only someone would come up with a kale cronut.

It all begs the question: how did kale become this popular?

Before the Dawn of Time

When brunch joints in Brooklyn started slapping kale on the menu a few years ago, the green had already been around the proverbial food block. According to the Agriculture Department at Texas A&M, the Ancient Greeks and Romans grew it. (Can’t you just see Caesar being served an appetizer of kale chips before his evening ceramic pitcher of wine?) In fact, kale’s history might even stretch farther back than that; some say it dates back to 600 BC when the Celts brought it back to Europe from Asia Minor. Since it is resistant to frost, it comes as no surprise that kale has done well in colder regions, and it played a role in early European history before making its way to North America in the 17th century.

In a Far-off Place

It wasn’t long ago that Americans scoffed at the sight of kale. We reserved it for garnish. Iceberg lettuce was the “green” king, and if you needed something a little bit healthier, you went with Popeye’s spinach. Other cultures, however, have been digesting it for quite some time, like Germany where there’s an annual Grühnkohlfahrt, basically a celebration dedicated to eating a lot of cooked kale, or the Netherlands, where traditional dish stamppot boerenkool, mashed potatoes and kale, graces winter tables. The green was such a staple of Scottish fare that in the local dialect kail means “food” in general, and the expression “to be off one’s kale” implies that you are ill.

How Kale Came to the U.S.: A Timeline

Eventually, the US got on board, and in the last few years the spike in the popularity of kale has been hard to not notice, even if you don’t live in a foodie metropolis. Here’s how it went down:

1996. The Los Angeles Times publishes a poem dedicated to the leafy green, entitled Oh Kale

2007. Kale makes its way into some organic CSA boxes and people are confused what to do with it

2008. Whole Living deems kale a “powerfood”

2008. 539 babies in the US were named Kale

2009. Martha Stewart published a recipe for Kale Slaw

2010. Vegetarian Times publishes a recipe for Crispy Kale Leaves. Oddly similar to kale chips, no?

2010. The kale salad at Northern Spy in New York City inspires a New York Times kale salad recipe

2011. Gwenyth Paltrow makes kale chips on Ellen

2012. Bon Appétit names this the year of kale

2013. The first annual National Kale Day is celebrated on October 2

Why Kale?

We could equate the rise in kale’s popularity to an increased awareness of health. As Jennifer Iserloh, co-author of 50 Shades of Kale, puts it, “Kale is the king of the superfood kingdom. People are incredibly interested in health and more and more people are cooking at home—kale is cheap, versatile, and one of the best foods you can put in your body.”

But it’s not just because of a desire to eat better. Kristen Beddard Heimann, founder of The Kale Project, sort of agrees. She equates the soaring rise to a combination of health awareness, an increased popularity in farm-to-table restaurants and the rise of the internet and high profile food bloggers and celebrities. As she puts it, a lot of it has to do with stars “creating a lifestyle that people aspire to.” Case in point, Gwenyth Paltrow makes kale chips on Ellen. People go crazy.

Then there’s the influence of our personal relationship to food and our ability to share that relationship; thanks social media! “If Instagram had been around when sundried tomatoes (1985) or arugula (1990) were hot, I’m sure there would have been more backlash because the trend would have spread so much like it has with kale. Kale just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” says Beddard Heimann.

The Kale Peak

The influence of the internet on food trends is incontestable, particularly when it comes to kale. Just look at how many Google search terms “kale salad” or “kale chips” have performed over the last 8 years.

That puts the beginning of the official trend somewhere between 2007 and 2009. In fact, according to the Bon Appétit article that Beddard Heimann is referring to, 2012 was the Year of Kale. So while some would argue that we may have reached “peak kale,”  maybe we should look to another vegetable trend, beets, for more insight. The red root snagged this title in 1982, and we still see those in abundance from upscale restaurants to standard home cooked fare. Kale, we might be in it for the long haul. People, let’s prep those kale chips and bake them with pride.

This post was written by Anna Brones, a food and travel writer based in Paris, France who has a love for bikes, coffee and all things organic. 

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