An October Day that Should Live On In Infamy

In the midst of the festivals and reflections of the month of October, your calendar may have neglected to bring to your attention a date fraught with spiritual and political implications to which I, your humble scribe, adjure you to direct your earnest thoughts and plead with my Israeli friends to harden your shores from its insidious advance: National Kale Day (NKD), the first Wednesday of October here in the US.

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Kale tastes like collard greens hung over from a night of drinking diesel fuel, has the texture of some sort of packing product, and is not even particularly nutritious (sheathe thy swords, kale minions, I’ll get to that). So who invited kale to to our tables? And why has Kale become a political statement? 

Extolled for it’s “incredible health benefits” by the NKD website (I prefer the abbreviation, it has an appropriately totalitarian North Korean resonance), kale is actually a shadowy interloper into the culinary consciousness. Before the year 2012 the number one buyer of kale in the world was Pizza Hut. They used it as a decoration around their salad bar, a decorative hedge around the real food.

Jefferson grew kale at Monticello, so it isn’t some sort of new hybrid. But you are probably a chlorophyll addled dissembler if you claim to have eaten kale before then. Since 2012, kale has become a superstar – production has exploded, and taste bud torturers the world over are ruining perfectly good meals, as this culinary cross between lawn clippings and recycled newspapers has burgeoned in our cooking, snack foods and even beverages. In just three years after 2012, Kale went from being sold in 4700 stores in the US to 50,700. Kale is a real food gentrifier, the price of Kale has increased well beyond the inflation rate. If it only wasn’t perishable, you should have it in your retirement portfolio.  

What happened in 2012? Why the kale explosion? I had a chance to explore that question, what with all the roads closed for National Kale Day parades, heart-healthy revelers waving scratchy dark green kale fronds in mystic dance and making that expression a toddler makes when given them a lemon to eat. How did kale’s popularity surge from lowly compost heap starter to cultural superstar and taste bud mass-murder? One word: marketing. A group called the American Kale Association, which apparently no one in agri-business had ever heard of before and best I can discern has no physical address, hired a woman named Oberon Sinclair, to make kale more popular. She was wildly successful. Working with a corporate client in the eighties, I met the marketing man responsible for selling Perrier to Americans: water in a bottle. I had seen bottled water everywhere in Europe years before that and remembered thinking “no one is going to pay for water in a bottle in the US”. I hadn’t considered the power of marketing. But at least Perrier was actually what it purported to be. 

CDC Table of Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables by Ranking of Nutrient Density Scores, 2014

By contrast, Kale is a faker: Kale acolytes hail it as a “SUPERFOOD”. In the name of all that is tasty, NO IT IS NOT! It’s not even particularly good for you. The Centers for Disease Control has published a scientific analysis of “Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables” which evaluated nutrient density, how much good stuff per bite is in various vegetables. Kale is a little better than HALF the nutrient density of lettuce! Watercress is the standard, rating 100 on the nutrient density scale. Leaf lettuce is a 70. Kale is only a 49, barely besting the dandelion weeds I pull from my front yard. I’ve had Italian rustic preparations of dandelion greens, very nice. But Kale, you are a poser, a fraud!

Kale is also a political statement: 17 out of the 23 states with the highest kale consumption voted for Obama over Romney in 2008. Chances are if you eat kale, you are politically left of center. Political science clarifies that liberals will live longer and enjoy it far less than conservatives.   

Kale loving friends, don’t “unfriend” me. And don’t join my other friends who insist on sneaking kale into the meal when I visit to show how delicious it can be. I know it’s there, it’s hard to hide a vegetable that is dark is midnite with the mouth-feel of brillo. 

Kale, at best is taste challenging and not especially healthful. People seem to like it because they are told to like it. It is a food for the age of social media: a reaction to the thoughts and likes of others. I shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me: my firm designed and built a chain of juice stores that sells smoothies made with kale. I was handed one at a site visit and sipped it unaware and nearly went into shock.   

There’s no accounting for taste. In the campy cult-classic film “Soylent Green”, Charleton Heston, fallen from academy award winning glory as Moses in the film “The Ten Commandments”, is on a mission to discover “What is the secret of Soylent Green?” the food source for a post apocalyptic world. In the deliciously over-acted ending (spoiler alert) he shrieks, that “TELL THEM…Soylent Green is PEOPLE !” No one listens. I would think that grotesque image would be a permanent taste bud curse. But now Soylent Green is the name of a beverage that hipsters buy for $42 a twelve pack.   

I’m fighting a losing battle against the kale juggernaut. But like Heston’s man on mission, surely I have to try.

“TELL THEM… Soylent Green is PEOPLE!”
About the Author
Steve Brown is an architect who studied at the University of Pennsylvania with professional degrees in architecture, landscape architecture and environmental design. He has headed an architecture and construction firm since 1985 in the Philadelphia, PA area.
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