What Is Kale?

“What is kale?” The question is left as a comment on my Facebook wall after I post a photo of a sign from one of my favorite restaurants, Westville, touting one of my favorite green leafy vegetables on its outdoor bulletin board. At first I think it’s an ironic query, but the more I ponder it, the more I realize it’s sincere. The woman asking is a new acquaintance, one who barely deserves the appellation; we met once, for an hour, at a meetup I organize. She is living on her own in the secular world after being raised as a Hasidic Jew. She’s in her early twenties, sweet and extremely sincere. I’m 35 and a bit more jaded. My immediate reaction to her query, once I’ve processed that it’s real, is to laugh. Silently, but still – there’s no way I can pretend I’m laughing with her, not at her. My inner laugh is not the sparkling laugh I emit at comedy shows, but a darker, meaner one, with a clear target.

I’m stunned someone could get to adulthood and not know what this beloved vegetable is, and immediately after I have that thought, a much more troubling one occurs to me: I am a snob. Not just a food snob, but a plain old snob.

This truth leaves me panic-stricken. I immediately write to my closest friends and ask if, in fact, I’m the crazy one for wanting to laugh at her ignorance or if kale is more esoteric than I’d thought. I know that Julie & Julia author Julie Powell didn’t eat an egg until she was 31, yet I’m not talking about consumption, but basic information. To me it’s like not knowing what an orange is, and yet, is that a crime?

Between one of my best friends and I, “What is kale?” becomes an inside joke that leaves us gasping for breath no matter how many times we ask each other a variation on it. “What’s the internet?” “What’s a hotel?” “What’s a bus?” we’ll say in the midst of a conversation about any of these topics, and find it infinitely amusing. I’m pretty sure we will go on doing this forever, because by now the original question has morphed into something bigger. The food item up for debate has become a stand-in for anything we want it to, and fosters a way for us to feel better about ourselves while laughing at someone else. I can’t deny that even as my reaction makes me squirm, the broader humor still amuses me.

The open, honest question stumps me. It reminds me of the four questions posed during a Passover seder, from four different perspectives, one being that of the simple son. We’re meant to respond in kind to each type of query at the asker’s own level of comprehension, tailoring religious wisdom (or folk tale) so it makes sense. I don’t feel up to the task of figuring out a way to respond on her level, which makes me ashamed. That mocking, whether she ever knows I’ve done it or not, comes much easier than explanation feels like a character flaw. If this is my instinctive response, I might as well give up on the idea of parenthood, with what is sure to be an endless barrage of even more basic questions, now, well before it’s even close to a reality.

I’m sure plenty of people I know, and trust, and love, would be aghast if I were to ask, “Who is Luke Skywalker?” Unless I Google, I’m actually not sure which movie he was in. I haven’t seen Star Wars, Star Trek, Rocky or many other classic films. I often mistake “prosciutto” for a cheese, and haven’t read Dickens, Nin or Nabokov. I may know what kale is, but I have plenty of cultural deficiencies just waiting to be exposed. Maybe the biggest difference is that instead of asking so ardently, eagerly, openly, if it were me, I would pretend to know the answer. In person, I’ve been known to nod and smile, dodging a joke I don’t understand, prepared to either forgo the punchline or look it up later.

When responding to the unknown, is it better to expose one’s uncertainty and risk ridicule, or to try to ferret out the answer on one’s own, almost in hiding? Certainly the latter is safer, with only your browser’s history truly knowing about the gaps in your knowledge. What is humility? I better learn that answer fast. TC mark

image – iStockPhoto.com


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  • http://profiles.google.com/jasmine.nicodemus Jasmine Nicodemus

    I truly have no idea what kale is.  I worked in the food service department of a hospital for 3 years in high school, and one of our jobs was to make garnishes for plates.  The garnishes consisted of a wedge of orange, lemon, or cantaloupe with a piece of kale behind it.  It completely boggled my mind when I found out people actually ate it (because I was pretty sure it was inedible since the hospital bought cases of it and it was only to make the plates look pretty).  

    I live in NYC now, though, so it's completely possible that it's been in a dish I've eaten without realizing it.

  • mertzy

    i didn't know what kale was until i went to college with a bunch of white people.

    • http://www.facebook.com/t.jason.ham Jason Ham

      I was just about to say the same thing. I <3 you, white people.

    • eric

      thats funny cuz i had no idea what collard greens were until i went to college with a bunch of black people!!!!

      • eric

        PS: the joke is that they're basically the same vegetable you fucks

  • Megan

    I appreciate the honesty, but you really do sound like a snob


    I had no idea what kale was before reading this article.  Expected this to be an article about a cool new drug.  Damn.


      Just googled it.  Looks familiar, so I probs ate it at one point in my life.

  • Miranda

    Kale is possibly the most disgusting vegetable I have ever tasted. I don't get why foodies love it so much. Also, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one to have never seen a lot of “classic” movies.

    • eric

      did you cook it? it is a kind of cabbage

      • eric

        also cabbage owns

  • Determined Hera

    I think that the acknowledgment that you're questioning your snobbery means that you're well on your way to embracing humility :)

  • karina

    Right before I opened my page to TC, I had googled Kale. Not even kidding!

  • Terrible Grammar Snob

    “Between one of my best friends and ME.” Jeeze.

  • Stefan

    I think it's less depressing that she didn't know what kale was than that you and your friend have such violent laughing reactions to such a simple-minded “mean” joke when you're 35. #agism 
    it's just like, really? the first few laughs at the initial comment I get, but the rest just seems… juvenile in the worst way.

    but also, I'm of the mind that if you have the internet access to ask “what is kale?” on facebook, you have the resources to find out for yourself. I think that's the more embarrassing part.

  • http://twitter.com/MissKimball misskimball

    so you didn't answer her question on facebook? she's going to google it now and see this article

  • Ef

    Definitely the most self-absorbed essay I've read.

  • inflammatorywrit

    A vegan introduced me to kale. It's pretty meh, in my opinion, but I was much too scared to tell him that.

    I laugh evilly at people who ask these questions, too, but not because they don't know what kale, or whatever, is. It's because they're already on the fucking internet! Why not just type that same question into Google and get an actual response, rather than inevitable scorn?!

  • Emma

    Seriously? Kale really isn't that well known. It's only started getting attention, IMO, in the last couple years but the vast majority of people still havent' heard of it.

    You're a snob. And a bitchy one at that.

    • eric

      you can kale at basically any grocery store, you could not need less curiosity to know what it “is”

  • Sweaters

    I only know about kale because my grandfather was very experimental with cooking and would buy all sorts of odd fruits and veggies and make all sorts of dishes, be it vegan or really super healthy or ethnic. I would visit my grandparents in the summer a lot and so kale seemed normal to me in comparison to some of the stuff he'd make. If I think back, however, I realize that I rarely have eaten kale anywhere else. It's just not something people I know eat that often.
    I think that people who are calling this guy a snob are not getting the point of the article. Yes, he's a snob, but there's a sort of truth in it that I think applies to most people. Have you never spoke to a friend who says they've never seen a classic movie, like, say, The Godfather. Your reaction would likely be, “REALLY? HOW the HELL have you never seen the Godfather? It's a classic!!!!” Haven't you ever pretended you've seen that artsy little french film all your friends are talking about, even possibly offered your own opinions on it, while in reality you've only seen the trailer?
    The point of this, I think, is not to make fun of the lady who didn't know what kale is. It's more that, why are we so appalled by people who openly admit to not knowing something, and why are we so afraid to openly admit to not know something ourselves?

    • http://eccentricerrant.wordpress.com/ Alexandrea

      I like your comment better than the article. You drive the point home so much better than how she did it.

    • http://eccentricerrant.wordpress.com/ Alexandrea

      I like your comment better than the article. You drive the point home so much better than how she did it.

  • Emm

    This was almost worth reading.

    You questioned your snobbery, headed toward Destination  Self-Revelation, and kept going on to Mean Girl. Mean because this woman is now the butt of your inside joke and nasty because you made her the butt of this self-gratifying essay.  Esoteric is much to too nice a word for you. I like braggart, highbrow, and parvenu better. Bitch is my fav. A well educated one, but not so smart. It doesn't take an education to know that class and location greatly affect knowledge. Do you know what sugar apple, daikon, or mangosteen are? Come on, surely someone for your socio-economic status must have been eating these fruits and vegetables off a silver spoon since birth.  How ignorant you are, ha, ha.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=567590480 Ng Lay Peng

    I don't know what's kale, and I'm pretty sure you don't know kang kong and kai lan.

  • DeeQuinn

    I like mangosteen and durian. Does that make me cultured?


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    I expected this from TL

  • lou lou

    at 35 you and your friend should probably take up scrapbooking or competetive speed-walking and leave mean spirited mockery to children.

  • starseed

    you wrote an entire article called “What is Kale?” and didn't explain what it is?? really? i get that it's a vegetable and it's something people claim to eat to feel superior over others, but…. i have no other details on it. so now i have to google it so that some bitchy woman doesn't mock me someday.

  • http://flavors.me/thebunny Hanners

    Questions like 'what is kale' are very let-me-google-that-for-you, and I'd have laughed too, but saying you're stumped about how to respond on her level seems kind of like you're stretching to make this something deeper than it really is. If you wanted to be tongue in cheek about it, a response with a link to a wikipedia(lol) article or something would have been fitting. Kale is rich in vitamins, not existential crises.

  • Jordan

    Never had kale, maaaybe I've heard of it but I can't really say that I have.  Looks like hybrid broccoli-lettuce.  I'd ask too if I wasn't apt to Google beforehand.  I just had yucca for the first time the other day, and I asked what it was.  And the people at the table told me.  And then we talked about other things.

    And call me what you will but I will always appreciate the person who asks about things they don't know, regardless of whether they 'should' or not, over the person who makes fun of them for not knowing it (or pretends?!  wtf is that, that is serious questionable behavior).

  • http://eccentricerrant.wordpress.com/ Alexandrea

    I wasted my time reading this tripe.

    At least she knew to ask what she didn’t know. If everybody pretended to know everything, humankind would never experience progress of any sort. Thank goodness for inquisitive minds.

    At 35, you still worry too much about what other people think. What is insecurity? Go look that up.

  • http://eccentricerrant.wordpress.com/ Alexandrea

    Double-post, sorry.

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