Friday, December 13, 2013

Nigella, Gwyneth and the Holy Kale

First published in the Western People on Monday.

 With Nigella Lawson – magnificent creature! – back in the news, thoughts turn to that strangest of creatures, the foodie. A foodie is someone who likes to claim he or she is obsessed with food, passionate about food, or a food junkie, but beware – a foodie is the first person to be highly insulted if you think the foodie and some great fat lump who can eat two snackboxes and a battered sausage after a night out are one and the same. Highly insulted.

There are definite limits to the foodie’s obsession. For the foodie, the joy is – or seems to be – in the hunt, rather than the kill. A true foodie doesn’t seem to spend that much time eating actual food. The hobby seems to be much more about either sourcing exotic ingredients and then cooking them in a no-less-exotic way. After that, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if it all went in the bin, as most foodies are remarkably thin – a look seldom associated with those who winter well.

If foodies ate as much food as they talk about, they’d waddle around the place like human-sized penguins, always carrying satchels full of sandwiches in case they came over weak and needed a quick snack in between restaurants. Instead of that, they’re all thin as rails.

All of this reverence towards food is a genuine mystery to your correspondent. When cornered into eating out once, one of my companions at table asked me if I liked hot food. “Well,” I said, “I prefer it to the food being cold, like.”

This was the wrong answer, and I came across as being insufferably rude. But that wasn’t my intention – my answer, as well as being the first thing that came into my head, was and is my honest opinion. For your correspondent, eating is a means to an end. I am hungry; I eat; I am not hungry any more. Three simple steps, with the middle one just a detail compared to the misery of the first and the joy of the last.

For me, rhapsodies about the nature of the food I ate or the subtleties of its cooking are as bizarre as someone telling me that the train that travels from Ballina to Dublin is an eighteen-year-old General Motors 201 powered by a two-stroke, 3200 horsepower V12 engine. I couldn’t care less about the choo-choo – I just want to know how long you were stuck in Manulla.

The strangest thing about the foodie is what he or she chooses to champion as good eats at any one particular time. Sometimes it’s something that you’re fully familiar with, like the vogue for serving black pudding as a starter in the nicer restaurants.

You thought it was just another part of the breakfast, and here is now in its fifteen-Euro-a-plate glory. It’s like seeing Mick Wallace TD in a suit. You’re not quite expecting it.

But sheep guts are now, like, so last year. In the closing days of 2013, it is difficult to open a recipe book without learning about all the great things you can do with kale.

Kale, for those who don’t know, is a kind of wild cabbage. The difference between it and tame cabbage is that tame cabbage forms into a head, while the kale leaves stay separate. If a head of lettuce and a head of cabbage went to the office Christmas party and had a bit too much of a good time, kale would be the result.

Rachel Allen describes kale as one of her favorite vegetables in Rachel’s Irish Family Food, one of her many cookbooks. Gwyneth Paltrow actually drinks the stuff, as she testifies on her website, “Kale is full of calcium and antioxidants and just about everything else—it’s one of the best things you can put into your system. When juiced with a bit of lemon and agave, kale turns into a sort-of grassy lemonade.”

A sort-of grassy lemonade. I can imagine the delight of Harriet the Heifer but Anto the Western People Columnist? No, thank you. I’ll stick to the Lyons’s tay, thanks all the same.

What’s most bizarre about this second-class cabbage being hailed in the Manchester Guardian as “the hottest vegetable this season,” is that kale has a prominent role in one of the greatest of Irish poems, the Doneraile Curse. The poet who wrote the curse, Patrick O’Kelly, must surely spin in his grave every time kale gets written up in a glossy magazine or featured on some TV cookery show. Of course, glossy magazines and TV would startle him too, he being dead for the weight of two hundred years.

The Doneraile Curse came to be written when O’Kelly had his watch stolen while visiting that sleepy Cork town. Like all writers, O’Kelly was fully aware of the dignity of his person and, when he decided to take revenge on Doneraile for the insult done to him, he didn’t spare the timber.

O’Kelly damns Doneraile every which he can, excoriating the place over 62 burning lines. He wants fiends to assail the town, the sun never to shine in the town, fire and brimstone to fall on it, and so on. And naturally, he also considers certain alterations to the diet of the citizenry:

May beef or mutton, lamb or veal,
Be never found in Doneraile,
But garlic soup and scurvy kale
Be still the food for Doneraile

Kale is scurvy no more. Lady Doneraile, that sensible woman who bought O’Kelly a new watch in order to undo the curse (which he graciously lifted over another sixty-two lines), would serve it every evening at table if she were still on the go. This is the fickle nature of fashion. Next year, it may be our friend the parsnip, or asparagus may make a long-awaited but little-longed-for return. But for now it’s fields and fields of kale as far as the eye can see.