Brassica oleracea acephala: "A hardy cabbage with curled often finely incised leaves that do not form a dense head," according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. It was, writes Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food, "the ordinary greenstuff of country people in most parts of Europe until the end of the Middle Ages, when the 'headed' cabbages were bred." In other words, this is what the peasants ate before cabbage—that most chic and sophisticated of vegetables. The English called it "cole." The Scots called it "kale." And now it's everywhere.
The earliest reference to kale in the New York Times is from 1853, in reference to February being known to "our old Saxon grandfathers" as "Sprout-Kale" month "because it was the time that kale or curly cabbage, if properly sheltered, put forth its first tender and delicate sprouts." A 1976 Times essay by Mimi Sheraton is excitingly titled "For Cold Nights, Kale DIshes Like Those the Norsemen Eat." (During a recent book fair, Sheraton, now 89, took part in a word association game. When she heard "kale," she replied "yuck.")
But now if you type "kale" into the Food Network's recipe search engine, you will get 914 results: sautéed kale, creamed kale, crispy kale "chips," kale slaw, and even massaged kale salad (in case your kale is feeling tense?). It's on too many menus to even mention (the Kale and Quinoa Salad at the Cheesecake Factory and the Zuppa Toscana at the Olive Garden to name just two). It's easily found in supermarkets, so the kale revolution is also happening at home in conjunction with overall better eating habits. (A friend of mine in Chicago, normally a cheesesteak sort of guy, made me a grilled lamb burger with tzatziki sauce, a squeeze of lemon, and kale.)
Kimberly Eagen of CCD Innovation (a food and drink strategy company) recently told the Wall Street Journal that food trends go through a series of stages, beginning in a "creative chef's kitchen," then onto blogs, high-end stores, and food truck menus, followed by fast-casual joints, and ending at supermarkets and fast-food chains. "Foods like açaí ... kimchi, kale, coconut sugar, sprouted grains and fancy burgers first became popular this way," writes the Journal's Sarah Nassauer.
How else do we know kale has officially arrived? As if on cue, McDonald's revealed it is testing a new breakfast bowl containing egg whites, turkey sausage, bruschette, spinach, and kale. The good news, reports the Associated Press, is that the other test bowl has chorizo, eggs, hash browns, cheddar jack cheese, and pico de gallo. Please let that be a trend.