Humble cabbage feeds the world

Today is National Cabbage Day in the United States. This inexpensive vegetable is packed with nutrients yet lacks the glamour of its cruciferous cousins such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale.

Cabbage is available year round but you won’t find many recipes for it beyond coleslaw, borscht or cabbage rolls. Many people grew up with the sulphurous smell of boiled cabbage permeating the house. It can cause flatulence and bloating when some people eat it. It is just so common that we take it for granted when we should be embracing its simple wholesomeness.

Archaeologists have shown that cabbages have been cultivated for over 4,000 years. Theophrastus (37-287 BCE), who is considered “father of botany”, mentions cabbage in his texts, so we know that Greeks knew about cabbage at least 2,400 years ago.

Ancient Egyptians ate cooked cabbage at the beginning of meals to reduce the intoxicating effects of wine. (Some believe that certain chemicals in cabbage help the liver to clear toxins from the body.) This traditional use of cabbage appears in European literature until the mid-20th century.

Cabbage has become a vital source of nutrients and an instrumental ingredient in many dishes from around the world: German sauerkraut, Korean kimchi and Chinese pork and cabbage dumplings, Japanese okonomiyaki, Russian shchi stew, American coleslaw, Kenyan sukumawiki.

Cabbage was introduced to North America in 1541-42 by Jacques Cartier, who planted it in Canada on his third voyage. Because of its popularity among Europeans, it was doubtless planted in what is now the United States by some of the earliest colonists, although there is no written record of it until 1669.

Half a cup of cooked cabbage has about a third the vitamin C you need for the day. It also gives you doses of fibre, folate, potassium, magnesium, vitamins A and K. Red cabbage may contain more antioxidants than green cabbage. Despite its valuable nutrients, cabbage is often shunned as a ”gassy” food. Cabbage contains significant quantities of riffinose, an indigestible sugar. This sugar is a type of complex carbohydrate that passes through your intestines undigested and can cause flatulence.

Cabbage rears its “head” in folklore. Legends of babies coming from cabbage patches have been told to children for ages.That may have been the idea behind the famous cabbage patch dolls of the 1980s..

In Irish folklore, cabbage is used to predict characteristics of a future spouse. Girls would pull the first cabbage they could find and the taste would reveal whether their spouse would be sweet or sour.

Some people eat cabbage on New Year’s Day to have luck in the coming year. Wrapped coins are put in the cooked cabbage to assure there will be plenty of money in the coming year.

Naval explorer, Captain James Cook, swore by the medicinal value of sauerkraut (cabbage preserved in brine) back in 1769. His ship doctor used it for compresses on soldiers who were wounded during a severe storm and thus prevented the development of gangrene.

So perhaps instead of preventing illness with “an apple a day”, we could substitute some cabbage. But I don’t think the idea will catch on.