Kale And Seaweed Were Once Considered A Food Of Last Resort

Celebrity Greens Kale And Seaweed Were Once Considered A Food Of Last Resort
Charles ????????/Unsplash, FAL

Many of our diets are, to some extent, determined by the whims of fashion. This is not an astute observation, nor a particularly new one – just consider the 1970s obsession with pineapple and quiche. But social media is undoubtedly ramping up the food fashion cycle.

One recent survey found that 49% of adults learn about food through Instagram: avocado toast, turmeric lattes and cloud eggs were all first brought to the public’s attention through “foodstagramming”. Repeated posts on social media influence the reputation of particular foods, promoting them and making them exclusive within social circles.

Ironically, however, many of these trendy “Instagrammable” foods have a long association with poverty.

Peasant cabbage

Ten years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find kale in your local supermarket. But kale is now ubiquitous, from shops and social media to menus and foodie blogs, and has acquired a celebrity following from such stars as Gwyneth Paltrow, Michelle Obama and Beyoncé. The fame of this vegetable is largely attributed to an expensive media campaign in 2011 by the American Kale Association, which hired an entrepreneur to promote the product and remarket it as a superfood. But kale was once the food of the rural poor.

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

Kale has been grown in Europe for over 2,000 years and used to be so common that it was deemed only suitable for livestock. Considered to be hardy “but more curious than useful”, humans only ate kale as a last resort during times of famine or extreme poverty. For this reason, it acquired the nicknames of “poor man’s spinach” or “peasant cabbage”.

Kale became such a powerful symbol of Scottish peasantry that the word became used in Scotland to describe food in general, just as “bread” is sometimes employed. The word even lent its name to a 19th-century literary movement – the Kailyard School of Fiction – which provided a romanticised vision of rural life in Scotland.

Kale And Seaweed Were Once Considered A Food Of Last Resort Dig for Victory poster. Wikimedia Commons

As kale was considered to be a “last-choice winter green” if no other crop was available, it became one of the chief vegetables grown across Britain during World War II’s Dig for Victory campaign. After the war, the vegetable widely disappeared again from dining room tables or became relegated to a garnish in salads or soup before its reemergence in 2011.

Today, in Africa, the lowly status of kale is still apparent. In Kenya, the poorer the family, the more likely it is that kale, known as sukuma wiki (literally, “to push the week”), is one of their main sources of nutrition. Consequently, it has been claimed that the premium prices that it commands in Western countries “might seem comical, if not downright ridiculous” to many Africans.

This difference between the way kale is regarded is a striking example of how the sociocultural meanings of a product can transform across time and space. What is a staple food for one person is a glamorised item to be “foodstagrammed” for another.

Poor man’s caviar

Another green vegetable has seen a similar rise to stardom. In 2018, seaweed topped a list of the world’s trendiest foods, while global sales of seaweed-based products are expected to exceed US$87 billion by 2024.

The high reputation of seaweed in Britain has been attributed to recent celebrity endorsements from Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal, as well as its growing status as a superfood. But throughout history, seaweed, like kale, was heavily associated with Irish and Scottish peasants.

Seaweed was first mentioned in a poem in AD563 by St Columba, who founded a monastery on the island of Iona and gathered it to feed the poor.

It is mentioned again in the 1774 travel writing of Martin Martin, who declared that seaweed was only eaten by “vulgar natives” in the Hebrides. This image was solidified during the period of the Highland Clearances between 1790 and 1820, when displaced people were forced to coastal locations and had to subsist by collecting and smelting seaweed to supplement their diet.

Equally, during the Great Famine of 1845-49 in Ireland, many communities relied on seaweed to survive, which contributed to the folk memory of people dying with their mouths stained green. Described by one sufferer as a “wretched substitute for food”, overeating of seaweed also resulted in people turning yellow as a result of excess beta-carotene. These hard-shaken images associated with difficulty and suffering have meant that seaweed was largely rejected from British cuisine – until recently.

Kale And Seaweed Were Once Considered A Food Of Last Resort
The Seaweed Raker, James Clarke Hook, 1889. Wikimedia Commons

One exception is Wales, where laverbread – made from seaweed and traditionally fried with bacon – has been a staple working-class food since the 17th century. Nonetheless, it was consumed almost exclusively by miners, fishermen, farmers and labourers, thereby gaining notoriety as a “a regional poor man’s food”. Indeed, some believe laverbread was simply a survival food, eaten because it was abundant and free to those who gathered it.

Ironically, today in Wales, laverbread can be found in upmarket restaurants as a sauce or as a garnish to local seafood. This quantum leap in consumer and price shows how food can be reinvented and acquire new meanings, particularly when linked with tradition and heritage.

So hipster food trends are rather paradoxical. On Instagram, users post images to promote a healthy, middle-class lifestyle, but their food choices are often associated with working-class toil and necessity. In 1825, the French philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously wrote: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” In the age of social media, this might be harder than ever before to figure out.The Conversation

About the Author

Lauren Alex O' Hagan, Research Associate in the Centre for Language and Communication Research, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


More By This Author


English Afrikaans Arabic Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Danish Dutch Filipino Finnish French German Greek Hebrew Hindi Hungarian Indonesian Italian Japanese Korean Malay Norwegian Persian Polish Portuguese Romanian Russian Spanish Swahili Swedish Thai Turkish Ukrainian Urdu Vietnamese

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

Tuesday, 25 July 2023 17:28

Certain foods or dietary patterns are linked with better control of your asthma. Others may make it worse. Depending on what you’ve eaten, you can see the effects in hours.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021 08:51

Insects are attracted to landscapes where flowering plants of the same species are grouped together and create big blocks of color, according to new research.

Thursday, 20 May 2021 08:31

It’s recommended we do at least 30 minutes of exercise a day – or 150 minutes a week – to stay healthy. But 30 minutes accounts for just 2% of the day. And many of us spend most of the rest of the...

Friday, 14 May 2021 08:30

Fertility has declined in most industrialised countries. While the causes are largely unknown, a number of factors may contribute to declining fertility rates, including the age...

Monday, 24 May 2021 08:28

There are many valid theories to explain the global appeal of cats, including our obsession with watching videos of them online. In terms of cats’ pure entertainment value, however, our...

Tuesday, 25 July 2023 16:09

Volunteering in late life may be more than just a noble act of giving back to the community; it could be a critical factor in safeguarding the brain against cognitive decline and dementia.

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.