Confessions of a kalevangelist

I have a new piece up at Table Matters about class, cultural capital, and kale. It was an extremely personal piece for me to write–although I only briefly mention my own food history in the article, so much of that essay touched on slightly tender places in my past.

I wrote about dedicating myself to broadening my culinary horizons in college: it was equally an attempt to grow up and to acquire a little polish or class. I spent a lot of my college years feeling slightly at odds with the majority income bracket at my school, very aware that I was formed by the gritty city that my college protected itself from with tall fences and trees.

When I wrote about Bourdieu’s description of the food habits of teachers, I remembered very keenly the struggle to take care of myself while I taught high school in New Orleans. I remember feeling hungry, but too tense and anxious to eat the plain couscous I’d make in a hurry before bed. (I’m also very aware that many of my students were hungry too, or running on insufficiently nutritive fuel. I’m not embarrassed about using pizza parties as a bribe for good behavior–those nourished us all.) Less painfully, I remember my delight in living so close to the Reading Terminal Market  when I moved to Philadelphia to teach and learn, and learning how to cook interesting and substantial meals on a few dollars.

As I wrote about kale, I thought a lot about family and how we learn socially about eating. Personally, I love kale. I like all the bitter greens, but kale is my favorite. And it’s cheap and easy to cook quickly. One of my favorite ways to prepare it is to sauté it with some kind of white bean—I’m not picky which—with a little ground mustard and a splash of cheap white wine to deglaze the pan.  Classic teacher recipe: light, tasty fare for the educator on the go with little money to spend on groceries or time to cook them. I don’t remember who taught me to like kale, but I do remember teaching my family to like it. I don’t blame them for being suspicious: they hadn’t really heard of it until I insisted on buying it for Thanksgiving, and it was the last farm stand of the season, so the farmer sold me the whole stalk (which resembled a two-foot-tall leggy bush). I chopped and froze some for future soups, and then prepared an enormous slow braise with vinegar and tomatoes that simmered while we finished the rest of the meal. My family loved it; they mention kale whenever I visit and Email me when they’ve tried a particularly good kale dish. They clip kale recipes and send them to me in the mail.

This pleases me; I feel proud to have converted them to kale eaters. Why did I want my family to like kale? Because I find it delicious and suspected that they would like it too, yes. But also because I highly value the incidental culinary education I’ve had–the mostly accidental ways I’ve learned to cook healthy and satisfying food because it’s relatively cheap and plentiful where I live. Because I want my family to cook and eat things that nourish them and make them feel good, and I take pride in teaching them how.

That seemed natural, and I never thought twice about it until I browsed a discussion at the Fat Nutritionist’s blog in which she expressed mixed feelings about making and eating kale chips with a client. Eating kale for a snack, she writes, is like substituting raisins for Halloween candy or carob for brownies. Pretty good, but obviously not the same, so it’s worth querying: what do we get out of the experience of eating kale? The answers varied, but they nearly all all referenced the current climate of kale appreciation. Kale has what food culture writers are starting to call a “health aura,” which more or less means that it has such virtuous associations of nutrition and (more meaningfully in this climate) low fat that it can make people feel virtuous to buy and eat it (and rebellious if you don’t like it). Kale is nutritious. It’s not wrong to say so. But when a food rockets into the”superfood” category, it can be productive and interesting to sit back and ask questions.

One comment that stood out to me noted that when the commenter was younger, she had first tried kale as part of cooking greens, soul food cooking, and it didn’t have the same virtuous overtones. This astonished me. Truly, up until that moment, I felt as though I had discovered kale–or at least that I was part of a movement that had discovered kale. And here I find out that kale, like collards, have their roots in the South all along. I’m from the South, but I didn’t grow up eating greens: my Pennsylvanian mom would not have grown up knowing how to prepare them, and was disinclined to try, since the soft, dripping, boiled preparation didn’t do anything for her. I wrote at New Year’s how I learned to cook collards later on, and love them. Tougher than other greens, collards really do need to be boiled with fat and maybe even a pinch of sugar, but the tender, plentiful, dripping presentation is exactly what makes them so satisfying. I love getting friends and family to enjoy collards precisely because, for most of them, doing so challenges a social and ethnic boundary they might not even have known that they had.  I had that all squared away in my mind, but I didn’t realize (even from my research for the New Year’s article) that kale was just as much a traditional food of the world’s ethnic poor as collards. Like a lot of new cooks, I thought of kale as food for posh hippie types, the kind of white people that Portlandia would make fun of, and that I would make fun of too in an ironic hipster way because I sort of belong to that category.

At the end of my article, I mentioned that thoughtful interrogation of the way class and social position informs food choices could lead to kinder, more thoughtful discussions of food. I was thinking, of course, of the recent conversations about junk food that I’ve participated in. In the same way that kale–poshly pickled or baked or eaten raw–now strikes us as a refined food choice, junk food is definitely a food we associate with low economic and cultural capital. It’s not incidental that those categories overlap with the ways we think of kale as virtuous and junk food as contaminating (either a symptom of an immoral eater or a corrupt society, or both). I think that it must be possible to be excited about kale or worried about junk food without assigning them moral values, and I think it’s more alarming still how our moral categories tend to overlap with social position. Social inequity that should be an intentional part of our conversations about food–that is, we should recognize that food choices are influenced by class culturally as well as materially, but we shouldn’t let our discourse unintentionally reinforce those class disparities.

5 responses to “Confessions of a kalevangelist

  1. This was great to read to hear more about your own experience with kale. I am not from the south, but I also had a sort of “wow, duh!” realization moment when commenters mentioned the connection between kale and other traditionally southern “greens.” I’ve certainly eaten collards and mustard greens, but never connected them to kale, since my exposure to kale was initially through the health-halo internet conversation.

    Incidentally, I have been cooking a lot more kale lately since I was forced to try it in chip-form. I am still uncomfortable with the health-halo aspect and the class connotations, but it is honestly delicious, especially sauteed. Thank goodness for people forcing me out of my ruts.

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