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Silver Threads: The mysteries of cornbread and kale

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

One day when Daddy came home unexpectedly from several weeks out of town on company business, he surprised my sisters and me gobbling down a delicious noonday repast of tuna-fish salad and canned tomato soup. Our favorite.

How come our mother fed us such as this, he asked mildly and rhetorically, knowing full well that his preference for meals prepared from absolute scratch wouldn’t necessarily be honored while he was away.

Daddy got plenty of steaks in hotel dining rooms and in restaurants while pursuing our livelihood, but at home he wanted cornbread to go along with  pork chops or chicken and plenty of black-eyed peas. The cornbread was a daily requirement when Daddy was there: Mother made it in a little black, cast-iron skillet to accompany every family lunch -- or “dinner” to us in those days inasmuch as we ate lighter fare in the evening.

My favorite “dinner” -- after tuna-fish and tomato soup -- was cornbread split into two thin pieces, festooned with little bits of boiled and buttered potatoes, then topped with black-eyed peas and abundant pot liquor, and finished off with some catsup and smashed down with my fork.

One day when I was 6 or 7 and engaged in building this delicacy, Mother reached over and grasped my wrist. “Bettye Ann,” she said menacingly, “you may  do that at this table. But. You. Will. Never. Ever. Do. It. At. Any. Other!”

I got to thinking about all this the other day when I read an article in Sunday’s Times-Picayune about kale, a cruciferous vegetable grown in American states with cooler climates than ours and not at all known down South during my youth. It seems that a Pennsylvania native transplanted to Paris has gotten hungry for the vegetable she loved as a child, and is leading a crusade to bring it to France.

“Working on a shoestring budget from her apartment, she has created The Kale Project, complete with a website that dutifully reports kale sightings,” reads the article that originated in The New York Times. “Despite her minimal French, she has passionately pitched kale to chefs and vegetable farmers.”

She has had a modest success, for by and large the French are not interested in a vegetable for which they don’t  have a name, and cannot even agree on what to call it.

“Kale is a reminder of the deprivation of World War II that made boiled cabbage an unpleasant fixture of the (French) dinner table,” the article goes on. Ah, boiled cabbage, of which kale is a cousin.

This got me to wondering how many of the French of today would equate kale with privation and hardship. They would have to be my age or up to a decade older to remember the hard times. No, I think that their resistance to putting the vegetable on their tables and in their mouths is rooted in the fact that some foodstuffs simply don’t become popular across cultural borders.

How many Americans feast more than once or twice on snails? And would not the humble black-eyed pea be disdained in Paris?

 Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected].