Nearly twenty years ago, I landed my first wage-earning job as a cashier at my small town’s natural foods co-op. A high school sophomore, my qualifications for the position were that I wanted spending money and I had an in with the manager, a family friend. The only items in the store that I knew much about were the processed and packaged ones—blue tortilla chips, carbonated fruit juices, “natural” mac and cheese—that were my family’s translation of the mainstream products I’d spent years coveting in friends’ lunchboxes.
The whole foods were unknown to me; filberts, adzuki beans, bee pollen, Swiss chard, kale, quinoa, and other exotically named ingredients made for a steep learning curve that had me bluffing my way through many an afternoon shift. A year in, some semblance of understanding began to form, though mostly from a spectator’s perspective; I wasn’t a cook and retained my childhood aversion to most vegetables. In the back of the store there was a small vegetarian deli that slowly began to change all that.
Called Pearl’s Kitchen, this literal hole-in-the-wall churned out sandwiches stacked high with fresh vegetables, vibrant salads sold by the pound dressed in boldly flavored vinaigrettes, and a handful of vegetarian entrees. Pearl, the sole-proprietress, was a soft-spoken woman whose narrow, smooth face cracked with radiance when she smiled. Her sandy, fine-textured hair cut stylishly short and her tasteful clothes gathered at the waist with a long canvas apron, she exuded a casual sophistication the Birkenstock-and-jeans-wearing co-op staff and I couldn’t match.
It was the mid-1990’s and in my part of the Midwest, hummus was still counterculture; greens like arugula, mustard, and kale were downright mysterious to the average small-town Wisconsinite. It was Pearl’s cooking alone that got me to cough up some of that newly-earned spending money for things like bok choy salad, BBQ tempeh, or wraps filled with spiced lentils. My mom’s influence and instruction are what made me a cook, but Pearl’s Kitchen and the Whole Earth Co-op planted the seeds of my palette. By the time I left for college, I was a dedicated vegetarian with a hotplate intent on cooking most of my own meals atop my dorm room desk.
Still, I didn’t try cooking kale on my own until I was two years out of college. Those rigid, waxy leaves, that unavoidable greenness, had always seemed too extreme. I’d come a long way from my processed-food-coveting days, but I didn’t think I’d come that far. Armed with a recipe card from the produce aisle and a sense of adventure, I brought what seemed at the time to be an enormous bouquet of frilly greens home and set to work.
The recipe was ridiculously simple: clean the kale, cut away the fibrous stems and tear the leaves into pieces. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan; throw in slivered garlic, then the torn leaves, water from washing still clinging to their corners. Stir to coat and cover.
When I lifted the lid a few minutes later, briny steam warmed my face and I stared in disbelief at how the pot, overflowing to the point of absurdity when I’d covered it, was now less than half full of shimmering, dark green leaves, looking like a pile of beached kelp. I was even less sure now, but I finished the recipe, cooking off any remaining liquid and tossing the steaming leaves with a healthy dousing of sesame oil and a pinch of salt just before scooping a small serving onto my plate.
The flavor was nothing like I expected—green, yes, slightly bitter, perhaps, but also richly sweet and deeply satisfying, cloaked in nutty sesame oil dressing. Much to my surprise, I ate the whole pot.
Kale comes from a world that knew nothing of mac and cheese, natural or otherwise. The people who brought kale in from the wilderness and nurtured it saw (or tasted) its potential as a nutritious food. And, after years of careful selection, Kale became an important source of fresh flavor during a time of year known as the hunger gap—those desperate months when the cellar stores ran low and the weather did not allow much in the garden to grow.
We joke about kale now, its ubiquity and cult-like following. Kale is over, we say, ready for something bolder, less familiar. But in our country, kale filled a different kind of hunger gap, one in which produce came from the freezer or the pantry, where lettuce was crunchy and white and ketchup was considered a vegetable. Heirloom seed-saving, organic farming, seasonal eating—kale was a compelling, if unlikely, ambassador of these movements. Something deep in its cells still charms us into believing our lives will be improved by eating it.
I, too, am always eager for the next thing. I’ve tired of kale salads and chips and am ready for new flavors. Even so, a pile of garlicky sautéed kale still seems to go with almost anything. I never tire of that trick—the one where an impossible mound of tough, bitter leaves melts into complex mouthfuls of yielding, ageless nourishment.