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February 28, 2023
Cabbage Is Always King

And as a spicy, fermented condiment, it’s one of the greatest tools for any cook. 

I used to think the most important part of coleslaw—or any other cabbage-centric condiment—was the dressing. The sweetened white vinegar of a real American Southern slaw. The spark of lime juice in the ensalada de col that always comes with tacos de pescado in Baja California. The salty brine that softens the fermented cabbage curtido served across Latin America, a condiment the Honduran American food writer Bryan Ford writes is “a reflection of many nations’ common bonds.” 

But after a recent trip to see my sister in Tucson, Arizona—where I inhaled many Sonoran-style burritos filled only with steak, pink beans, and raw green cabbage sliced thinner than spaghettini—I realized my mistake. The most important ingredient in any cabbage condiment is the raw cabbage itself.

Those thin shreds of cabbage made my burrito. They had crunch, a sweetness, and maybe just a little bit of sharp heat, not unlike the bitter tang of whole grain mustard, whose brown and yellow seeds are cabbage’s bedfellows. (Both are brassicas.) They also made me realize that raw cabbage is the unsung queen of the condiments across the southern half of the United States, and most of the countries below it. 

I grew up in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where hamburgers and chili dogs traditionally come topped with sweet chopped green cabbage slaw, whether you ask for it or not. I also wouldn’t dream of taking a bite of our famous pulled pork without some. 

How did a definitively European, cold-weather crop more commonly associated with Poland, Russia, Ireland, became an iconic condiment across the warmer parts of this continent?

It’s the same in Tucson, where thinly sliced or finely chopped raw cabbage—it’s naked, no dressing at all—usually comes de facto on tacos, tostadas, flautas, taquitos, and grilled steak. So it goes with Texans and their brisket, Salvadorans and their pupusas topped with curtido, and Hondurans and their pollo con tajadas, always served atop a giant mountain of shredded cabbage. 

(Traditionally, this is nearly always green cabbage, which is sometimes confusingly also called white cabbage, even though some might consider them to be slightly different varieties of heading cabbage. Among those are purple cabbage, napa, and the flat head green cabbages usually sold in Asian markets.

Maybe you’re curious , as I became while eating my burrito, how this definitively European, cold-weather crop more commonly associated with Poland, Russia, Ireland, and the Netherlands (where the name “coleslaw” supposedly originated) became an iconic condiment across the warmer parts of this continent. 

Nearly all food scholars agree that cabbage began life as a loose-leaf type in the Fertile Crescent, that ancient social studies zone that covered parts of Western Asia and Northern Africa. By the early 1000s, trade, colonization, and agricultural experimentation had integrated cabbages of all kinds into every single cuisine of the Euro-Asian-African world. But the most important country for cabbage in any discussion about the Americas is Spain, which built a string of Christian missions up and across the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries as part of their larger effort to colonize the Western hemisphere. 

One of the missions’ clearest goals, beyond religious conversion, was to spread classic European crops across North and South America, both to feed its residents and to remake the land itself into New Spain. (Even in the United States, Spanish influence went well beyond border states, stretching to Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.) The missionaries tried to grow everything in their food gardens, and green cabbage probably flourished almost everywhere, for two key reasons. 

First, “cabbage is water-thrifty,” as nature writer Gary Nabhan (an Arizona resident and a poet of Southwest food terroir) put it in his 2013 book Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land. This was a critical factor before industrial agriculture and still makes cabbage prized today (not to mention in our drought-ridden future). 

The most important country for cabbage in any discussion about the Americas is Spain.

The second reason is that cabbage is surprisingly heat-tolerant for a plant that generally grows when around 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. (That’s summer in Ireland, or winter in much of the Deep South, Southwest, and Latin America.) Unlike many traditional cool-weather crops, cabbage seeds will germinate when it is still hot outside, so you can start to grow it in the late summer instead of the fall—even in August in southwestern Louisiana, according to the agricultural extension arm of LSU. That means you get a longer fall growing season for cabbage than for lettuce and herbs. You can also plant it earlier in the spring. 

These are all among the reasons why they still harvest a lot of cabbage each spring in the fields behind the still-intact mission in San Antonio, which I visited in late January a few years ago, when Texas spring cabbages were already fairly well along. 

Still, I think the real reason cabbage took off is because it is delicious, even if you’re not used to hearing it described that way. That wonderfully crisp texture? A flavor that is at the same time curiously sweet and sharp? It’s so often ignored. In fact, like most reports of cabbage in cooking, the entire first chapter of Meg Muckenhoupt’s 2018 book, Cabbage: A Global History is basically making fun of what a bad rap cabbage gets in the larger culinary world. It’s often seen as a peasant-only food thanks to “windiness”—nicely euphemistic!—and how skunky it gets when you cook it for more than twenty minutes. (Raw cabbage solves the second issue, if not the first.) 

Muckenhoupt breaks down the basis for the flavors in her book. The sweetness comes from sugars (raffinose and sucrose), while the sharp, bitter flavors come from chemicals called glucosinolates, which all brassicas create—in part to keep insects at bay. (Cabbage’s success in this regard is perhaps another reason it took off around the continent in the 1700s.)

What’s more interesting to me than the science is Muckenhoupt’s discussion of all the ways cooks make the bitterness more palatable. You can do it with vinegar, fat, fermenting, or cooking, but you can also address it just by slicing cabbage very thin or chopping it very fine, because the leaves also release some of the same chemicals when you cut them.

Muckenhoupt’s book includes a few cabbage recipes from around the world, but sadly, nearly all of them are for cooked stews, stuffed rolls, or soups, and none represent the Americas—nor are any of them what I’d call condiments. 

I wish she had included a curtido, or maybe my own favorite version of coleslaw, which hails from the Mississippi Delta and has a boiled sugar, oil, and vinegar dressing with celery seed and powered mustard. It’s poured over layers of thinly sliced cabbage, onion, and bell pepper. I got the recipe from “Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” the community cookbook my great-aunt Dent gifted me from her church in Greenwood, Mississippi. I used to tell admirers the secret was the salad dressing. Now I know to say it’s just the way you cut the cabbage.

RECIPE: Mississippi Delta Coleslaw with Boiled Celery Seed Dressing

Rachel Wharton

Rachel Wharton is a James Beard award-winning journalist in New York City with a master’s degree in food studies. She has worked on more than a dozen books on food and cooking, including her most recent, American Food: A Not-So-Serious History.