It's a sunny Sunday afternoon at a park in central Warsaw. I'm strolling with three local friends, chatting about last night's party, our pizza dinner, and a nearby trendy neighborhood.
"It's where the 'artists' live, and eat lots of jarmuż," Zofia says, without a trace of her usual humor. I know jarmuż is kale in Polish, which recently appeared—pre-washed and packaged—in my favorite local grocery store. But I didn't know that the bias against kale eaters traveled across the Atlantic.
Kale first appears in my inbox in January 2009, when I invited an OkCupid date to a workshop called Seasonal Superfood: Dark Leafy Greens. (A first and last date, inevitably.) Two months later it appears in a chat from another dude, describing a roommate: "I wouldn't notice [she was drunk] until she started drunk-eating beets or kale…Boulder kids, I swear." Later that year, a food writer friend invited me over for dinner: "I've been making some good stuff recently—kale is my new favorite veggie."
Suddenly, kale was everywhere. From then on, my inbox amassed kale-related recipes, jokes, and potential baby names; did you know 539 American kids were named Kale in 2008? I ate kale mac and cheese, drank kale in every green juice, and baked kale chips like any real Brooklynite should. I was on board with the kale influx—I like the green stuff and it's said to be a superfood: one cup has no fat, only 33 calories, and is packed with vitamins, fiber, and iron, to name a few perks. But despite kale's superfood status plus my lack of flannel clothing and living far from Portland, it seems I can never eat kale in the presence of others without being called the H-word.
The food writer friend who invited me over for kale in 2009 bemoans,"It stands for restaurants that think they can get away with charging $15 for a salad that costs $3 to make ... Unfortunately, kale's popularity seems to be the cause of its demise."
According to the USDA, the cost of kale rose 25 percent—from 88 cents a bunch to $1.10—between 2011 and 2014. And as of last year, kale was sold in 50,000 stores compared to some 4,700 only three years earlier. Why the sudden kale craze? Besides an extra syllable, were spinach, watercress, or collard greens not as eligible?
It's not like Millennials invented kale, and it's not a recent cross-bred vegetable like its cute relative kalette or distant cousin broccoflower. Though we like to think of ourselves as enlightened when it comes to consuming and documenting cuisine, kale was around in ancient Greece and throughout Asia and Europe by the Middle Ages.
It was even around in the 1950s, and my dad remembers it as "the world's most tasteless, unappealing, scary dark green leafy mess." He speculated: "The only way people will eat that stuff is if they think their survival is predicated upon it."
He wasn't so far from the truth. In 2012, the American Kale Association hired a PR maven to market the veggie, which seems to have worked: from 2013 to 2014 the word kale increased 47 percent on American menus. Sure, it was around before then at farmer's markets, on food blogs, and since 2000 on "Eat More Kale" t-shirts. But akin to celebrity makeovers, kale needed a bit of a facelift to break through to the big leagues.
Kale, along with açai, Brussels sprouts, beets, and quinoa, were once foods we rarely acknowledged in American cuisine—or could barely pronounce—yet suddenly we can't live without them. This is not to diminish their worth, or discredit whoever endorsed the health benefits of chocolate and red wine, which I take very seriously. But it seems becoming "kale-d out" may have been a phenomenon thrust upon us, perhaps an unintended result of the PR strategy.
Soon, I wondered: Did they pay Beyoncé to wear a "Kale"-emblazoned sweatshirt in her 2013 music video "7/11"? Did they have a hand in Kevin Bacon's declaration that it's "the age of kale"? Were they involved in McDonald's kale breakfast bowls this year? What about the Ryan Gosling kale meme? Or does it matter, if that's what it took for a country that's over one-third obese to eat more greens? Still, criticizing trends is our First Amendment right, if not an inevitability when something innocuous is suddenly mass-marketed.
The consequence of the kale influx may have lent to suspicion about its preference as a "superfood" opposed to any other number of healthy leafy greens. After all, who are the true superfood police, and why should we trust them?
"The term is often used to grab your attention or sell you something, so I would say, buyer beware," preventive-medicine specialist Phil Hagen told The Wall Street Journal. "Kale is either going to kill you or save your life depending on which media report you read," read the sub-header of "The Dangers of Superfoods."
But despite swirling skepticism and even bashing, kale has continued to hold its own as a legitimately healthy veggie for some, while for others it became "shorthand for all that's tragically trendy, insufferably healthy, grassy and tasteless about the menu at your local hipster café," as Jim Poe wrote last summer in The Guardian.
The backlash to kale makes a bit more sense, but at least it's a healthy food by any standard. As obesity and diabetes rates increase, among a host of US-specific health problems, we might need to pause and reconsider before demonizing kale-eaters.
But then again, we could always hit the drive-thru … and order the kale breakfast bowl.