I am currently researching various vegetables for a proposed new book.This week I have been looking at the seemingly, terminally dull cabbage.
But all is not as it seems, as somewhat surprisingly the cabbage appears in the writing of two of the most influential and eminent writers of the 16th century; François Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne. Rabelais observing in Gargantua and Pantagruel, “Oh thrice and four times happy those who plant cabbages!” and Montaigne musing in Essays, “I want death to find me planting my cabbages.”
Later in 1872 cabbage love continues in what probably is the most well known quote from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“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.”
Others however were not as impressed. When he was living in London busily fuming against the ruling classes , Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx to complain:
The stench is like five thousand unaired feather beds, multiplied by the release therein of innumerable farts—the result of cooking cabbages….
He was not alone, for many generations of Englishmen associated that particular Proustian aroma with floggings, floor polish, Latin and buggery.
Engels should have blamed the Romans, for when they landed on the shores of Britain in 43 AD, they not only brought (echoing that scene in Life of Brian)…. better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order.. but also cabbages. The Romans loved them and were convinced that they originated from the sweat of Jupiter.
The Greeks however previously claimed the cabbage for themselves as the following strange tale recounts.
Lycurgus, the king of the Edonians, decided to ban the cult of the wine god Dionysus and, wielding an ox goad, imprisoned the god’s boozy followers the Bacchae . In revenge Dionysus drove Lycurgus mad ,and in the throes of madness, the king began destroying any vine he saw (vines being the symbol of Dionysus). But blinded by the spell, he mistook his own son for one and hacked the boy to pieces. When the king regained his senses, he wept. As his tears hit the earth, they became the first cabbages
Returning to the Romans. The soldier and statesman Cato the Elder, whose De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture) is the oldest surviving book of ancient Latin prose, doted on the cabbage, to which he attributed his formidable health and longevity. (He lived well into his eighties, reportedly fathering twenty-eight sons.)
Cato also believed that cabbage was a hangover remedy .He said “It will make you feel as if you had not eaten, and you can drink as much as you like” Cato liked his cabbage with cumin, lovage, mint, rue, coriander, salt and pepper.
Atheneus of Naucratis waxes lyrically about the cabbage cure in his third century work Deipnosophistae (Philosophers at Dinner)
“If you butter and cabbage eat
All distempers you will beat
Driving of all headaches horrid
And clouds that hover around your forehead”
Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet and the author of De Re Coquinaria, was the AA Gill of his day, he listed at least five different ways of preparing cabbage, variously accompanied by cumin seed, mint, coriander, raisins, wine, leeks, almond flour, and green olives; and the Emperor Claudius, the story goes, once convoked the Senate to vote on whether corned beef and cabbage was the best of all possible dinner dishes. The senators, no fools, voted a unanimous yes.