“Cabbage. 5. offensive term: a highly offensive term for somebody who has no mental awareness or mental activity, usually as a result of brain injury, and who is completely dependent on other people” (Encarta World English Dictionary)
“Mon petit chou, darling, honey, sweet” (Larousse’s Modern French-English, English-French Dictionary)
The English and French usages of the word for “cabbage” typify the traditional attitudes of the two countries towards a green vegetable. To the French it can be something lovable—it’s really sweet to hear a French friend of mine still calling her grown-up daughter “mon chou.” But to the English it's something that just sits there dully.
Cabbage was something to be dreaded when we were kids. Mum had this bloody steamer, you see. It had useful segments, so you could boil the potatoes in the bottom part of the pot at the same time as you put the other vegetables with anal neatness into the top compartment in their separate little perforated metal containers with their neat little loops of handles and then put the lid on the lot. Exactly why the vegetables had to be segregated when they were all cooking in the same enclosed steamy space remains a mystery to me. Besides cabbage it could have been any one of several fruits of the greengrocery due to be sternly controlled until they lay down and submitted. Or in the case of anything green, died. It would most probably have been carrots. The quartered cabbage took up a fair amount of room and would usually get two segments. Or even the whole of the top of the steamer.
Don’t say “Lightly steamed cabbage can be quite nice.” Possibly it can, but my early experiences, seared into my soul an’ all as they are, have never encouraged me to try it. This was not lightly steamed. This was steamed until a large potful of potatoes was cooked right through. Forty minutes? Too right. Its middle had to have turned pale pink—then it was done.
Mum never stood any nonsense from vegetables, and if they looked like standing up for themselves, that was it, I,T. If you can't steam ’em, boil em. Boil ’em to death. That’ll larn ’em!
With hindsight, that was pretty much her attitude to everything and everybody. Stand no nonsense and control rigidly.
To be fair, the cookbooks she had didn't help: they were all firmly in the British tradition (which did cross the Atlantic—yes). I collect these curiosities—once I got started, couldn't stop, they’re deliciously horrible—and I’ve got 7 awful cabbage recipes, dating back to Mrs Beeton’s, 1861. Now, Isabella often gets the blame for what later cooks did to her recipes, but in this instance she is far from innocent:
INGREDIENTS.—To each 1/2 gallon of water allow 1 heaped tablespoonful of salt; a very small piece of soda.
Mode.—Pick off all the dead outside leaves, cut off as much of the stalk as possible, and cut the cabbages across twice, at the stalk end; if they should be very large, quarter them. Wash them well in cold water, place them in a colander, and drain; then put them into plenty of fast-boiling water, to which have been added salt and soda in the above proportions. Stir them down once or twice in the water, keep the pan uncovered, and let them boil quickly until tender. The instant they are done, take them up into a colander, place a plate over them, let them thoroughly drain, dish, and serve.
Time.—Large cabbages, or savoys, 1/3 to 3/4 hour, young summer cabbage, 10 to 12 minutes, after the water boils. Average cost, 2d. each in full season. Sufficient,—2 large ones for 4 or 5 persons. Seasonable.—Cabbages and sprouts of various kinds at any time.
In 1894 The Art of Living in Australia (main author Philip Muskett but recipes, i.e. the hard work, by Mrs Wicken), gives the Colonial cook almost the same instructions word for word.
By 1949 that very popular Australian cookery book, the Green and Gold Cookery Book, in its 15th edition, is repeating these instructions and making quite sure the vegetable submits:
Remove the course outside leaves and stalk. Cut the cabbage in halves or quarters and soak in cold salted water for one hour. Cook in fast-boiling salted water, to which has been added one dessertspoon of salt and one pinch of carbonate of soda, with lid partly off, until tender - 20 to 40 minutes. Drain in a colander and press well with a plate. Serve in a hot vegetable dish. Add one teaspoon butter and sprinkle with pepper.
Any caveat of Isabella’s about not cooking a nice young cabbage so long has disappeared: 40 min. Yep, Mum all over. That finishing touch of pressing with a plate is quite something. It'd be soggy enough to let you do it, too.
Why the insistence on bicarb of soda? Well, it was said to keep greens green. Don’t take my word for it; here’s the Green and Gold Cookery Book:
Green Vegetables must always be put into fast-boiling water with one pinch of carbonate soda, brought quickly to the boil and boiled with the lid partly off. If this is not done greens lose their bright colour, and are apt to be tough.
Well, yeah: after boiling them to death they wouldn’t retain their natural nice fresh green colour, would they?
Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Come Out Of The Water...
You thought it couldn’t get any worse? Nah! To really beat a cabbage into submission, cook it twice. Here’s Mrs Wicken’s and Dr Muskett’s twice-cooked offering for the cooks of Australia, circa 1894:
Salt and Pepper; 1 oz. Butter
Total Cost—4d. Time—25 Minutes
Boil the cabbage as directed, and squeeze very dry; melt the butter in a saucepan, season with pepper, salt, and a drop or two of lemon juice. Put in the cabbage and cook in the butter for ten minutes, stirring frequently; arrange neatly in a hot dish, and serve.
Boiling the cabbage “as directed” means using their recipe, in other words Mrs Beeton’s: they tell us: “It will be done in from fifteen to twenty minutes; try it with a fork, and if soft turn into a colander, and very carefully press all the water from it.” By the time they've finished killing it twice the long-suffering vegetable will have been cooked for 25 to 30 minutes.
I mentioned the tradition common to both sides of the Atlantic, and I wasn't joking. In 1908 365 Foreign Dishes: A Foreign Dish For Every Day In The Year (Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Co.), also gives us double-cooked cabbage, though it’s not nearly as bad:
Parboil a cabbage in salted water; drain and stuff with chopped cooked mutton. Mix with chopped ham, 1 onion and 2 sprigs of parsley chopped fine. Add 1/2 cup of cooked rice, salt and pepper to taste. Place in a buttered baking-dish; sprinkle with bits of butter; add the juice of a lemon, and let bake in a moderate oven until done. Baste often with butter and serve hot.
Egyptian?? I don't think Egyptians would eat ham! True, stuffed vegetables are very common in Middle Eastern cookery, but the other ingredients are very British indeed—especially that mean “2 sprigs of parsley.” It’s the parboiling bit that’s the trouble; if you merely blanched the cabbage leaves first, and used more herbs or spices, this would probably be quite edible.
Back in the 1970s I’d got my degree and had been working for several years before I discovered that cabbage can be a lovely vegetable. A German colleague with a French wife had a bunch of us round to his place for a meal and they did cabbage straight out of their garden. It was wonderful: really sweet, and slightly crunchy.
If you haven’t got a flourishing veggie garden, you can still achieve something similar, though you'll never get that sweet, straight-out-of-the-garden taste. Try this yummy recipe from a friend who got it off her old Hungarian granny:
Sue’s Hungarian Cabbage with Caraway Seeds
1 cabbage or 1/2 a very large one
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2 teaspoons canola oil
1. Wash the cabbage lightly if it needs it but don't soak it. Dry it well. Chop the cabbage into pieces about 2 cm square, discarding the hard stalk. Mix the caraway seeds into the chopped pieces.
2, Put the oil into the bottom of a large saucepan. Add the chopped cabbage and the caraway seeds.
3. Put the lid on and cook over a medium heat until the cabbage is just starting to soften but still quite green. (About 5 minutes)
This recipe requires a large amount of cabbage and a big, deep saucepan to work. The cabbage cooks in its own moisture. It should still be fairly crisp. If a few bits brown and stick to the bottom of the pan this doesn't matter: stir them in, they add flavour. Don't be tempted to use a highly-flavoured oil like olive oil. If you have a large non-stick saucepan you can leave out the oil altogether.
I only wish I could still eat a decent helping of this! A later sojourn in India (of which more anon, I hope) gave me a dose of dysentery (yep, the famous Delhi-belly) and even though that was years back I still can't digest more than a few mouthfuls of any coarse members of the Brassicaceae. (Now, “Chinese cabbage”—wombok—is a different matter entirely, thank the stars! Yum!)
If All Else Fails, Put It in Your Bra!
Still not convinced? No, well, if you've only experienced dead soggy cabbage à l’Anglaise, or unspeakable so-called stir-fries soused in soy sauce and chilli, can't blame you. So if all else fails, apply to the breast.
I am kidding, but nevertheless cabbage leaves applied to the human mammary gland are, apparently, an age-old English recipe for anything that ails you, recommended for everything from sore nipples through actual mastitis... You put the cabbage leaves in your bra. (Presumably in your corset, in days gone by?) Also highly recommended in the English oral tradition for abscesses and septic wounds, as the leaves draw out the pus (don’t quote me). Some recommend heating the leaves, others just place the clean leaves on it and leave overnight.
Yes! You’ll find the dinkum oil on cabbage in “Plant-Lore”, http://www.plant-lore.com