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Kill The Culture Of Cool Kale, Food Critic Says

Jun 5, 2016
Originally published on June 8, 2016 11:07 am

Kale is cool. For foodies, anyway. It's everywhere these days — in salads, smoothies, chips and even ice cream. Someone decided to create National Kale Day — it's Oct. 3 this year. There's a book called Fifty Shades of Kale and it's been called a "superfood." And who wouldn't want to wear kale-themed leggings?

You get the point — kale is popular.

Enter Mimi Sheraton, who says she's "waged a one-woman anti-kale campaign" for the past two years. The longtime food writer and former New York Times food critic says she's seen kale "like scorched bits of burned paper atop pizzas, muffled into pesto as a dusty, bitter blanket over pasta and risotto, studded like flecks of parchment into brownies and cookies, muddying up the cool elegance of ice creams and sorbets."

But as Sheraton writes in The Daily Beast, it turns out she didn't always feel such loathing toward the leaf. In 1976, she wrote what she calls a "paean" to kale.

Sheraton may have helped popularize the very thing she now rails against.

But she's come to the conclusion that "it's not the kale that's at fault, it's the cooks who now serve it raw, grilled, roasted, toasted, dried, so that it has the texture of broken ceramic chips."

Sheraton elaborated on her great many opinions about kale with NPR's Michel Martin.


Interview Highlights

Why she has been anti-kale

I thought I just hated kale in the current way it's being served. And then my son reminded me that 40 years ago, in 1976 in The New York Times, I wrote a great paean to kale. It was about cooking kale for cold winter nights and all the stews and soups. And as I dug out that article and read through it, I realized that it wasn't kale I hated, it's the way it's currently being prepared.

And of course the fact that as a fashionable food, it's become so ubiquitous and it's become a symbol on menus that wannabe gourmets are in an "in" place.

But when I liked kale, it was cooked in traditional ways — very soft, always in a stew or soup and always with some kind of fat. Whether it was olive oil and garlic by Italians, whether it was soul food — simmer it for a long time with ham hocks or salt pork. In certain parts of Northern Europe it would have been sautéed first in goose or duck fat, then liquid added and simmered. And that softness made it palatable and pleasant.

What I don't like about it now is the grilling and the roasting or raw, very hard chips that bring out the worst flavor notes of kale: a kind of dirty, musty bitterness that more or less leaches out.

All these kale chips — no.

No. Kale on top of pizza, which burns and becomes like little stray pieces of paper. You get little leathery bits in brownies or cookies now. I occasionally go into a gym in my neighborhood — not to go to the gym but to buy some cookies — and the oatmeal cookies have kale in them.

Why has it traditionally been a cold-weather vegetable?

When I was growing up, it was the only vegetable left outdoors on stand in winters at greengrocers. And that's because it was believed that to be tender enough to eat, kale had to freeze before it was cooked. And so they would leave it out in the snow and the frost would freeze it. And that breaks the cell wall in a plant, and therefore when you cook it, it's already slightly broken apart and becomes very tender. It was believed it just was inedible unless it had frozen first.

Is there anything else about the current food scene that drives you crazy?

What I regret very much is a certain moralistic, messianic tone of people who advocate responsible eating — which I would advocate too, but there is a certain tone, that if you don't do this, if you don't eat organic, if you don't buy locally, you're a bad person — which I think is wrong.

Along with that: You must cook. If you don't like to cook you're a bad person. I think if you don't like to cook maybe you're a lucky person because you have a lot of time for other things.

And always, you get tired of fad foods — of something that becomes so big at the moment. There was a time when rosemary was on everything where it didn't belong, and so on. So that kind of thing.

And noise in restaurants is a pet peeve.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Kale haters - and we know you're out there - this story is for you. What's not to like about Kale, you say? It's high in fiber, low in calories, rich in vitamins A and C. And these days, it is everywhere - in salads, smoothies, chips, even ice cream. Why is Kale so cool? The person as responsible as anybody for the state of affairs is the former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton. But now she says - wait for it - that she hates kale. It's tough and bitter and doesn't belong in all those dishes. So foodies, get over it. She wrote about this for The Daily Beast in a piece titled "I'm Sorry For Helping Make Kale Cool." She joined us from the New York Bureau recently, and asked her why she pushed kale on us and why she hates it now.

MIMI SHERATON: I thought I just hated kale. And then my son reminded me that 40 years ago, in 1976, in the New York Times I wrote a great paean to kale. It was about cooking kale for cold winter nights and all the stews and soups. And as I dug out that article and read through it, I realized that it wasn't kale I hated. It's the way it's currently being prepared. And it's become a symbol on menus that wannabe gourmets are in an in place. But when I liked kale it was cooked in traditional ways, very soft, always in a stew or soup, and always with some kind of fat - whether it was olive oil and garlic by Italians - with soul food, simmered for a long time with ham hocks or salt pork - in certain parts of northern Europe, sauteed first in goose or duck fat, then liquid added and simmered. And that softness made it palatable and pleasant. What I don't like about it now is the grilling and the roasting or raw, very hard chips that bring out the worst flavor notes of kale - a kind of dirty, musty, bitterness that, more or less, leaches out.

MARTIN: Well, tell us how you really feel, Mimi.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Kale chips - no.

SHERATON: No. Kale on top of pizza...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SHERATON: ...Which burns and becomes like little stray pieces of paper. You get little leathery bits in brownies or cookies now. I occasionally go into a gym in my neighborhood - not to go to the gym, but to buy some cookies...

(LAUGHTER)

SHERATON: ...And the oatmeal cookies have kale in them. So, I think this...

MARTIN: Do you just tell them no? Do you tell them no, just stop it?

SHERATON: Yeah, I walk out. I don't buy.

MARTIN: Just stop it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know what? The other thing you wrote in your piece - you explain to me why it's a cold weather vegetable - because why? Tell me again.

SHERATON: Well, when I was growing up, it was the only vegetable left outdoors on stand in winters at greengrocers. And so they would leave it out in the snow and the frost would freeze it. And that breaks the cell wall in a plant. And therefore, when you cook it, it's already slightly broken apart and becomes very tender. It was believed it was inedible unless it had frozen first.

MARTIN: You know, I cannot let you go without reminding everybody that you are actually quite a trailblazer. You were the first woman restaurant critic for The Times. Is there anything else about the current food scene that either drives you crazy or anything that you're happy about that you want to tell us?

SHERATON: I regret very much - there's a certain moralistic, messianic tone of people who advocate responsible eating - which I would advocate too. But there is a certain tone that if you don't do this - if you don't eat organic, if you don't buy locally - you're a bad person, which I think is wrong. Along with that, if - you must cook. If you don't like to cook, you're a bad person. I think if you don't like to cook, maybe you're a lucky person (laughter) because you have a lot of time for other things. It's a pet peeve.

MARTIN: All right. Mimi Sheraton, dropping some knowledge. She's the author of many books, including most recently, "1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die." She was kind enough to join us from NPR, New York. Mimi Sheraton, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SHERATON: Thank you, Michel. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.