Book review: Cabbage – A global history

Cabbage: A Global History by Meg Muckenhoupt; Reaktion Books, 2018, 140 pp, £10-99

Cabbage investigates the disparity between the vegetable’s poor reputation and its enduring popularity. One of the oldest crops in the world and a good source of vitamins A and C, cabbage has long been an essential part of European and Asian diets and is thought to have been domesticated as early as the first century BCE. However, cabbage is often perceived as the food of the poor, a vegetable that those with a choice would avoid because of its unpleasant aroma.

For me, cabbage is associated with overcooked, limp and colourless leaves served with boiled potatoes for school dinners at a time when vegetarianism was far from mainstream. Whilst cabbage has long been regarded as a cheap and easy way to derive nutrition, it also suffers from a reputation problem that means it is rarely served in restaurants, and it is this dichotomy that makes this book interesting.

Cabbage is one of Reaktion Books’ Edible series comprising 77 books on various types of food and drink ranging from apple to wine. The book charts the vegetable’s history, detailing its various uses, biological classification and chemical composition. The author mentions other brassicas, such as kale and turnips, and refers to cabbage-related traditions, including Halloween pranks and the origin of the ‘man in the moon’ – a peasant who stole some cabbage on Christmas Eve and was sent by Christ to sit in the moon as penance.

An appendix provides 19 historical and contemporary recipes, including several soups, and some unexpected uses of cabbage such as sauerkraut cake and kimchi grapefruit margarita. Some of the recipes include meat, such as ‘A Ukrainian Grandmother’s Holubsti’ (cabbage rolls), but they could be adapted to use vegetarian fillings.

Cabbage consumption is declining in many countries, but globalisation may help to keep cabbage on the menu, with dishes such as kimchi becoming popular in the West. Although the topic might not seem particularly exciting, unless you really like cabbage, this brief overview provides insight that might help improve the reputation of a much-maligned vegetable.

Anne Orgée

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(Anne’s photo shows a magnificent savoy cabbage in Oxford Botanic Garden)

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