"Cabbage smells good, but depends on which way the wind blows.
All over Europe people are saying 'Who knows, Who knows?'"

--Allen Ginsburg

"Cabbage, n.: A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head."
--Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary (1911)

"My brother Nikolai, sitting in his government office, dreamed of how he would eat his own cabbages, which would fill the whole yard with such a savory smell, take his meals on the green grass, sleep in the sun."
--Anton Chekov, 19th century Russian writer)

A louse in the cabbage is better than no meat at all
--Pennsylvania Dutch proverb

"Cabbages, whose heads, tightly folded, see and hear nothing of this world, dreaming only on the yellow and green magnificence that is hardening within them."
--John Haines

"Cabbage is good as a nourishing food, and beets as a remedy."
--The Talmud

Cabbage: so revered by the Egyptians for its stimulating qualities as to warrant a temple built in its honour."
--Della Lutes, The Country Kitchen (1938)

"Nearly every woman in England is competent to write an authoritative article on how hot to cook a cabbage."
--Vyvyan Holland in Wine and Food (1935)

"The English have only three vegetables--and two of them are cabbage."
--Walter Page

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(Brassica oleracea)

Many, many thoughts about cabbage, over the centuries.

Whereas Publius Syrus, 42 BCE, said in his Maxims,"He who has plenty of pepper will pepper his cabbage"--Juvenal, 1st century AD, said: Occidit miseros crambe repetita magistros, or "that cabbage hashed up again and again proves the death of the wretched teachers.

Montaigne, 16th century, said: Je veux...que la mort me trouve plantant mes choux, mais nonchalant d'elle, et encoure plus de mon jardin imparfait, or "I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but caring little for it, and much more for my imperfect garden."

The Walrus, courtesy of Lewis Carroll, 19th century, said, "The time has come...to talk of many things: Of shoes--and ships--and sealing wax--of cabbages--and kings--And why the sea is boiling hot--And whether pigs have wings."

It remained for Sir John Betjeman, early 20th century, to say of modern warfare's bitter harvest: "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough To get it ready for the plough. The cabbages are coming now: The earth exhales."

And what do botanists say? They say cabbages are one of the most ancient of vegetables that are still grown today. They were cultivated as far back as 4000 years ago--making Publius Syrus a downright infant in the subject.

Today the really really common cabbage--Capitata group, so called because of its Capita or Head shape--is classified into 3 types: green leaved, with smooth green leaves; red cabbage, with purplish red leaves; and savoy cabbage, with crinkled leaves. Galician cabbage--traditional in Portugal's Caldo Verde, is classified as Brassica oleracea, Tronchuda group. It stands apart from the main Capitata group.

However, different varietals of cabbage were grown and cultivated in Asia from the earliest times. These include:

  • Bok choy (Brassica rapa, Chinensis group)
  • Chinese or Napa Cabbage (Brassica rapa, Pekinsensis group)
  • Flowering cabbage (Brassica parachinensis)
  • Flat cabbage--the Chinese Tai goo choy and the Japanese Tatsoi (Brassica rosularis)
  • Rape (Brassica rapa, Chinesis group), whose seed is crushed into canola oil
  • Chinese broccoli (Brassica oleracea, Alboglabra group)
  • Mizuna (Brassica rapa, Japonica group)
  • Mustard greens (Brassica juncea and Brassica campestris)
And other family members?
  • Collards (Brassica oleracea, Acephala group)--which date back to ancient times--and was described by Europeans as early as the 1st century, AD. They form no head; rather growing into a rosette of blue-green leaves. And they withstand both heat and cold in the garden.
  • Kale (Brassica olercea, Acephala group)--which is the closest relative of the wild cabbage, from which all "coles" developed. Its curly leaves also grow in rosettes of blue-green leaves.
  • Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea, Gongylodes group)--which, as a relative newcomer on earth, went largely unnoticed in America until it was uniquely captured on film in the 1960s as a suspected space alien. It's a sweet and juicy ball with thick tentacle-like leaves attached. My friend Julia Donchi says they are grown everywhere in Switzerland.
  • Brussel Sprouts (Brassica oleracea, Gemmifera group)
  • Broccoli (Brassica oleracea, Botrytis group)
  • Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea, Botrytis group)
Slavs began growing cabbages in the 9th century, after Greek and Roman colonists had brought them to the Black Sea region and they worked their way north into Russia. Within a few centuries, Russian princes were paying tribute not only with racing horses and jewels, but also with garden plots planted with kopusta, or cabbage. Now considered Russia's national food, cabbage is often consumed at several meals of the day, and Russians eat some seven times as much cabbage as the average American.

Then it was the Celts, apparently, who introduced cabbage to the lands they invaded--from the Mediterranean lands in the south to the British Isles in the north, and to the east as far as Asia Minor. It was, much later, introduced to North America by the early colonists. However, the varietal of Napa cabbage, which was introduced into Japan from China in the 1860s, was quickly brought to America by immigrant laborers in the 1880s and 1890s.

For an interesting story about the role of cabbage in 19th century Burmese almsgiving, click HERE.