Cabbage, Care and Culture
Arthur Melville, A Cabbage Garden, 1877 (detail)
I was a strange child, with a palate more accustomed to bitterness than sweetness. I would ask my mother to cook me brussels sprouts—sautéed with butter and shallots and cooking sherry—but rarely wanted candies. In adolescence, I craved rapini and gai lan, salty and oil-slick, perfumed with garlic.
In adulthood, I’ve grown fond of cabbage, every few weeks buying a flat pale green head from my local Turkish grocer. There, the sign tells me it is a Turkish cabbage, but it is a cabbage I know as Taiwanese. I take it home and cut it into thick wedges, softening it with salt, oil, and heat and anointing it with garlic and chili. I eat it alone by the bowlful on weekend afternoons, thinking of the fried cabbage my Ayi cooked for me in Taipei and the braised cabbage my mother cooks when I visit her. Peasant food, she always calls it, but I cannot think of any vegetable more joyous, more versatile, more rich with memory than a cabbage.
The plants we call crops are always bound up with culture—domestication is the process of becoming at home with them. When we speak about crops, it can seem so easy to forget that they are plants—derived through our care and attention from wild relatives. So often, engaging with crops is a mode of enculturation—a link not just to land but to the languages, identities, and nations that have created them, prized them, and passed them down.
Consider for example the tiny jade sculpture that sits in pride of place at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. Carved by an unknown artist in the nineteenth century, it was once part of the imperial collection in the Forbidden City. Transported to Taiwan in the 1940s, it is now considered an object of vital heritage not just to Taiwan, but across a Chinese diaspora. It is a sculpture of a cabbage.