The Humble Hero, Cabbage

Cabbage has been in cultivation for thousands of years. The ancient Romans loved it and used it for several purposes. Cato advised eating cabbage soaked in vinegar before embarking upon an evening of heavy drinking and the accepted remedy for a Roman hangover was simply more cabbage. Caesar’s armies carried cabbage with them and used it not only for food, but bound wounds with the leaves to reduce infection. Modern studies do show that cabbage has antibacterial properties and actually reduces inflammation.

Cabbage was introduced into Europe by the conquering Romans and there the plant was bred into the familiar form we recognize today. It was easily cultivated in the cooler parts of northern Europe and quickly became a popular food. It produced a large harvest in the short growing season and was a wonderful addition to the meager diet of the rural folk.

The French word “caboche” literally means “head,” so the English name “cabbage” is most likely an adaptation upon it. The Danish were probably the originators of what we know as coleslaw, as their word for cabbage is “kool,” and their word for salad is “sla.” So, “cabbage salad” would be “koolsla.”

The explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries carried cabbage in their ship’s stores for their crews to eat and the high Vitamin C content helped stave off the scurvy that was so common among sailors. By this time, a pickled form of the vegetable was popular in Europe and the French from the Alsace area gave it the name of “Choucroute”(sauerkraut). It has even been noted that on one of Captain Cook’s voyages that sailors who were injured in a storm had their wounds bound with cabbage to help prevent gangrene.

Cabbage is a very humble vegetable, eaten by hungry peasants when very little else was available, but frowned upon by the higher classes who were suspicious of any vegetable. It was even rumored that it was among several fruits and vegetables were said to cause the Plague and were to be avoided at all costs. All the while, hungry Irish, Scandinavians, Germans and French lived upon cabbage, and little else.

Cabbage was a wonderful food for rich and poor alike, although a pot of cabbage boiling over the fire was more likely to be found in the more modest homes. It seems that the strong aroma was offending to the delicate, higher-class noses. The peasants had a highly nutritious food that was easy to grow and stored well.

We don’t know for certain where cabbage appeared for the first time because many plants belong to the family of “brassicas”, they grow around the world and today’s cabbage descends from them. The most common theory is that The West cabbage is domesticated in Europe some 3,000 years ago from its wild predecessors that had thick leaves that retained water which allowed them to survive in colder places with less water. In the East, cabbage is used since the 4,000 BC and was cultivated in North China. These variants were nonheading cabbages and were domesticated by Celts of central and western Europe. Mesopotamia also knew about cabbages while the ancient Egyptians didn’t cultivate cabbages until the times of the Ptolemaic dynasty. By the time of the early Rome, cabbage became common food in the Egypt along with other vegetables. 

Theophrastus (371 – 287BC), which is considered “father of botany”, mentions cabbage in his texts, so we know that Greeks knew about them at least as early as 4th century BC. The headed cabbage Greeks called “krambe” while the Romans called it “brassica” or “olus”. Tales say that Diogenes ate nothing but cabbage and drank nothing but water. In Rome, cabbage was considered a luxury and many regarded it as better than all other vegetables. They also used it for medicinal purpose as relief from gout, headaches and the symptoms of poisonous mushroom ingestion. Some even advised the use of cabbage-eater’s urine, in which infants might be rinsed. 

Pliny the Elder wrote about seven known variants of cabbage at that time which include Pompeii, Cumae, and Sabellian cabbage. Except for nourishment, Ancient Egyptians and Romans ate larger amounts of cabbage before the night of drinking which allowed them to drink more.

During the time of Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 8th century), cabbages were directed to be cultivated in the “Capitulare de villis”, a text that gave rules and regulations on how to manage the lands and laws in the country.

The first round-headed cabbages appeared in 14th-century England, and they became more and more popular as cuisine throughout Europe. Proof for this we find in manuscripts of that time where they appeared in illuminations and in other texts where they were mentioned as the food of both wealthy and poor. From Europe, cultivated variants of cabbage spread to Asia and Americas. It was brought to India by colonizing traders from Portugal somewhere between a 14th and 17th century, and it was unknown in Japan until the 18th century.

The first cabbage in America was brought by a French explorer Jacques Cartier on his third voyage 1541 – 1542. Cabbage became necessary on long ocean journeys because it has high amounts of vitamin C which prevent scurvy. Ship doctors (like for instance doctor on captain Cook’s ship that sailed in 1769) used sauerkraut (cabbage preserved in brine) to treat wounds of sailors and prevent gangrene.

A single serving of cabbage contains nearly half of the daily Vitamin C requirement and has significant levels of manganese, iron, and vitamin B6.


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