Those bright leafy greens that were once just the provenance of Popeye’s strength used to be a health food staple once upon a time. They were the base of your chopped salad at lunch, stuffed in sandwiches and various cuts of meat and fish, wilted, braised, steamed …
But starting around 2002, another vegetable crept on the scene: kale, a darker and tougher leafy green that was even better for you. Once something only your healthiest friends knew about, kale was suddenly everywhere—in your salad bar, your favorite restaurant’s menu, your TV, your smoothies and then in your refrigerator, eventually edging out spinach as the vegetable of choice in popular opinion. By March 2013, more people were searching for information on kale than spinach, according to Google Trends.
“[Kale is] so versatile,” says Jenné Claiborne, a vegan personal chef. “All the food bloggers jumped on in it with recipes for kale salad, kale polenta, kale chips, kale in cookies. … And I think that’s something that makes food trends stick: If there’s something that only has one use, it’s not as fun, which is why kale has so much staying power.”
Kale’s dominance and spinach’s ousting is just the latest in food trends, which often have small businesses to thank for spreading to the masses. Americans' growing interest in wellness—70 percent are trying to become healthier, according to a 2014 health and wellness survey conducted by Nielsen—may explain why there’s such a thing as an “it” vegetable to begin with. But just as spinach fell to kale, it’s safe to assume there’s another veggie waiting in the wings. So what will it be?
To figure it out, it’s good to determine why kale in the first place. That’s a head scratcher of a question for Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation at Technomic, a food industry consulting company.
“Kale must have a PR firm,” she says, “because it really is not the biggest thing on the menu as it seems to be. We have a menu database that almost has 6,900 restaurants and 270 of them have kale. Even though it’s more than doubled [with] 138 percent growth, spinach is on 4,000 menus.”
Public perception seems to be doing a lot of kale’s legwork. “It does have the attributes that customers are looking for,” Chapman concedes. “It has a healthy perception [and] it’s considered a ‘superfood’” for its abundance of vitamins and minerals. As prominent chefs and independent restaurants began experimenting with the vegetable, a trickle-down effect (celebrities to bloggers to TV personalities to everyday people) led to eventual kale mania.
While kale may have a comparatively smaller presence on national menus, it's everywhere at one of New York City’s largest farmers markets. Many stands at Union Square’s Greenmarket sell at least one variety of kale, while spinach is a rarer find. Kale’s ouster could very well be lying next to it, waiting to be weighed and sold for $1 a pound.
Though it’s hard to predict what the next kale will be, there are some leads.
“We can see the reasons why [kale has] gotten popular” and make guesses from there, says Chapman of Technomic. “We’re seeing an interest in bitter flavors. What else has that profile? Brussels sprouts, collard greens. We’ve seen a lot of interest in cauliflower.”
Vegan chef Claiborne agrees. “Cauliflower has been really popular. And people are realizing brussels sprouts [aren’t] nasty if they’re cooked a certain way.” (There’s even a hybrid that fuses it with the current leafy green of choice: the Brusselkale.)
But, Claiborne says, it's collard greens that seem the most likely to reach kale-like frenzy. (It already has Whole Foods seal of approval.) “Every single blog” is writing about collard greens, she says. “Put it in your juice, smoothies. … We’re probably going to see some baby collard greens because they’re so tough.”
Keri Osczepinski of S&SO Produce Farm shakes her head when a fellow vendor says he just read that collard greens will be the next kale. “It seems strange to me,” she says. “Collard greens are an old food, but I guess everything old is becoming new again.
“There’s a National Kale Day,” she continues. “I don’t think collard greens has its own day, but maybe it will.”
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