A touch of history
A touch of history

All about cabbage > a touch of history

Everyone has heard the story that babies are born in the cabbage patch! In fact, in the past, cabbage was associated with babies and was even thought to cause their birth, because a big bowl of steaming cabbage soup was brought to newlyweds the morning after their wedding night.

A Remedy for Drunkenness
According to mythology, cabbages came into being from the tears of Lycurgus. One day, distressed at seeing mortals imbibe until they were drunk, he had all the grape vines pulled up, to be replaced by the cabbages that sprang up from his tears. Over time, the vines grew back but the Greeks and Romans believed that cabbage had the power to fend off melancholy. They would even eat a few leaves to prepare for large banquets at which etiquette dictated that the host refill guests' cups liberally… to the point of oblivion.

This ancient custom survived in Eastern countries where cabbage was believed to be an antidote for the effects of vodka.

A staple food of rich and poor
The cultivation of cabbage goes back 4000 years. Between China and Mongolia, horsemen learned to preserve this vegetable in brine and it became the staple food of the builders of the Great Wall of China in the third century BC. Later, pickled cabbage arrived in Europe from the East, carried by Hun and Mongol cavalcades.

While these horsemen introduced a new conservation method and Barbarian flavour to Europe, cabbage had nonetheless long been the favourite vegetable of an entire continent, particularly until the introduction of the potato. In fact, the Celts may have introduced cabbage to the British Isles as early as the 4th century BC. For centuries, cabbage was a staple that sustained European populations during great famines. During the Hundred Years War, battles were won or lost depending on whether fresh provisions of cabbage had arrived at the soldiers' camps.

During the ancient Roman period, demand for cabbage was so strong that the price sometimes went sky-high. The austere Cato advocated health through cabbage and fed his entire household on it.

Taillevent, the famous cook to France's Charles VI, would prepare numerous cabbage dishes for his royal master. One variety that he used, Senlis cabbage, has since disappeared. But Queen Catherine de Medici deserves credit for the wide variety of cabbages to be found in France; it was she who brought in white, red and green varieties, some with tightly closed heads, others pink and loose-leafed, as well the famous Savoy cabbage.

It was the French explorer Jacques Cartier who first introduced cabbage to North America, planting it on his third voyage to New France in 1542. Early in the following century, English and Dutch settlers would also bring cabbage with them to the American colonies.

Louis XIV liked to walk in the royal gardens designed by Lenôtre where flowers, fruits and vegetables grew harmoniously side by side. One day, conversing with his master gardener, the king said, "I would like to ennoble you. What do you want for a coat of arms?" The simple country man, more interested in the opening up of a bud than in worldly honours, laughingly replied, "Sire, three snails topped by a cabbage stalk would be enough for me."

During this same period, grand ladies, after the theatre or a ball, would take a light supper at which a salad of cabbage shoots, then called broccoli, was common fare.

It was also during this reign that sea captains on long voyages discovered the medicinal properties of this large head vegetable and began taking barrels full of it on board ship to prevent scurvy.

Cabbage has long been a cornerstone of Eastern European and German cooking. An old German admonishment to misbehaving children was "You shall have water in your cabbage and go barefoot to bed."

In an old Scottish tradition called "kaling," the unmarried guests at a wedding would take part in a race to collect a head of cabbage or kale - the first back over the finish line would be guaranteed an attractive spouse in the future.

"It's no use boiling your cabbage twice." Irish proverb Cabbage is a staple of Irish cooking and is often paired with "bacon" (brined pork) and boiled potatoes… and of course, corned beef and cabbage is a must on St. Patrick's Day for North Americans of Irish descent.

In England, leftover cooked cabbage or Brussels sprouts are fried with potatoes to create a traditional dish called "bubble and squeak"…. named for the sound it makes as it cooks!


Illustration from an edition of Tacuinum Sanitatis, 15th century. Taken from The Gode Cookery. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired after a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

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