I was following the directions for a spinach raita, but using kale, common winter vegetable, as a substitute. The resulting flavor was milder, but still rich with greenery. Where does “kale” come from, I idly wondered – idly enough that thoughts of languages unknown to me flickered through my head; I didn’t think of the German word Kohl, the etymologically-related kohlrabi, or the English cole-slaw.

In Middle English, kale or cale or cail or calewort was a generic name for cabbage variations, with its earliest documented from around 1300. (OED) A sixteenth-century naturalist (but not a pirate), William Turner, wrote, in The names of herbes, that “Brassica is named..in englishe colewurtes, cole or keele.”

In Scotland, the vegetable was ubiquitous enough that, like the word for rice in Japanese, kale became synonymous with meals more generally. The kale-bell was the dinner bell, with kale-time synonymous with dinner-time. Water-kale was any broth made without fat or meat, cabbage-variants entirely optional. (Robert Henryson refers to it in “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.”) As a result, the kale-pot, known by that name, was used for cooking up soups and stews, not just broth and cabbage.

As of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the “kailyard” was, as you would expect, a yard, or vegetable plot, where kale was grown. The term was used to derogatorily brand a group of Scottish writers, sentimental for rural life, including the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie. (As I learned from eat the seasons.)

I see that the Kale industry encourages me to “Discover Kale“, from which I learn that Lincolnshire is a hotbed of kale-growing. March is the tail-end of its growing season in the UK, so it may be several months before I have much cause to think on kale again, whether as cabbage, meal, or literary movement.

Now that the first shoots are up and snowdrops are blooming, it’s about time for the foods of spring.

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*© S. Worthen 2009