Cabbages

07-11-2022 / Lulu MacDonald

Some things go on speaking after they have been heard. Hearing over again and again, allows for deep thinking, deep listening. Living deeply instead of broadly is something my favourite vegetable does, it pokes its bulbous being out over ground meaning it is both rooted deeply into the earth, within the crust, and high up above it. The cabbage. Wholesome, humble with a leafy dense head and layers of leaves unfurling.

The word cabbage means 'head' or 'cap', a loose head, a lost head. Cabbages are also used by folie actors in sound design as actual heads, so when you watch a film, and someone is decapitated or stabbed between their eyes, you can bet that it’s a cabbage being macheted. But it’s also the food you may buy when running low on cash, watering down a cabbage soup, frying it up, fermenting it, turning it to sauerkraut, as we scrimp and save. Cabbages offer a hearty fullness.

Chop, slice, crunch.

Whilst this may be the most you have ever thought about this cruciferous vegetable, I myself have had a few run ins with cabbages, once I answered the phone to hear my dad’s voice...

There's been another incident... where are you?... your uncle, he's been arrested again.

Why what’s happened?” I replied.

He's been throwing stuff again, throwing stuff at people.” 

My dad continued, breathing in, he muttered: “Yeah he's um, been throwing cabbages at people in Crouch End.” 

His voice trailed off explaining the situation, trying to make sure I was safe and away from his neck of the woods - talking about what I should do, how he feels. Whilst my dad’s voice filled my ear, I proceeded to wonder - why on earth he'd chosen cabbages. What was it about them, their sound creating menace? Their rubbery leaves? Their sustenance for lengthy pain? Their vulnerability to temperature increase? Is it because when you ferment them it turns sour? 

I imagined a corner shop in London, like they have with all the weekly produce piled up, boxes filled to the brim with vegetables and fruit, blue plastic bags hung above. I imagine the boxes filled with leafy bulbs and his overwhelming desire to just start lobbing them at people. If there had been a pile of bricks, he could have killed someone. The image of this man, losing his head in a moment of anger, of desperation, makes the veg so threatening. But it’s a cabbage... can a cabbage ever really be scary? 

Oh my, yes, it certainly can. 

They have the potential to be weapons. As slapstick as it may have looked, as farcical as it could have appeared, in that moment those cabbage became devoid of their humble beginnings and instead took on a whole new meaning. What if bullets were Brussel sprouts, broccoli were hand grenades and cabbages were bombs?

Do you remember January of 2020? Australia was ablaze. With record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought, the bush began to burn. Cabbages like bombs were dropped out the sky. Exhausted and fatigued, I imagine the aeroplanes swooping over the blaze, The aid workers flew overhead, in the smoke dyed skies and threw the cabbages, like icarus falling to the sun, the cabbages fell like meteorites to the burning ground. The bombs of hope exploding as they land on the scorched floor of the outback. Heads cracking open, leaves flying off. The cabbages - a small offering, an apology for what we have done. The kangaroos and wombats, desperately ravaged the cabbages. Hungry, they ate. 

I remember watching the fires and thinking, this will be the defining crisis of the decade, the roaring twenties have begun. And today as I write this the ocean is on fire. So, perhaps the cabbage, that was ammunition, that was a bomb, becomes a peace offering, a gesture of kindness, a crutch, a helping hand, an acknowledgment of the brokenness.

The Jersey cabbage can grow up to six meters tall. This long spindly Louise Bourgeois-esque leg, dangling between earth and sky. I never knew something that looked so malnourished could manage to be so determined to grow. Since the 1800's they have been grown the same way in order to make walking sticks – my grandad had one. The cabbages grow and grow when at optimum length the stems are then cut, trimmed, the roots sawn off and then they are dried out until they turn brown.The gangly, scrawny, weedy stalk gets varnished, and within that act, the stem is preserved. The bony cane suddenly sturdy, burly and brawny to support your crumbling bones. That leg pain that makes you wince. In those moments of instability, the cabbage cane can offer relief and paired with your weaker leg, you can forge onward; clambering the stairs using your good leg whilst pushing up on your weak one alongside the spine of the cabbage, alleviating pain and pressure.

And so, the cabbage becomes something to keep near us, when we are at our most vulnerable, to become an extension of our own bodies.

Cabbages came to my rescue again after I gave birth. I remember on the third day, my milk came in. My huge breasts became engorged and infected with mastitis and my midwife told me to put cabbage leaves on. I thought I’d misheard her.

She sat on my bed with the chilled cabbage and carefully tore two of its leaves off, rinsing them in a bowl of water. She handed them over to me and I then wrapped them around my stone bosoms and pretended to believe that it would help. Slowly but surely, the cabbage leaves would go from cold to warm, absorbing and soothing the infection in my breast tissue. The cabbage leaves increased blood flow and reduced the pain. For days and weeks after, whenever I was sore, producing too much milk, acclimatising to my child’s strange unpredictable habits, I would be walking around with cabbage leaves popping out from inside my bra. I felt like Pomona the goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards - who I’m sure was also covered in leaves and herbs under her clothes, all of which were retrieving sicknesses and ailments and other nastiness out of her body, transferring from her skin into the leaves.

I felt transitional and radical, reconnecting with nature, understanding that my choice of birthing a child which at times felt so inexplicably unnatural could sometimes be combated with a humble cabbage leaf, a border or boundary, a kind of second rubbery skin, calming and relieving my over-functioning breasts. A wrap – a cold compress – a healer, a protector.

The cabbage loaf, the iconic Jersey bread, was actually created out of a survival instinct.

An innovation from the servants of rich Jersey families. Each day as they baked their breads they were allowed to eat the burnt bits. Out of a moment of genius the servants began to wrap the loaves up in cabbage leaves improving the quality of their leftovers. The juicy, sumptuous leaves protect the cooking dough, meaning it stays unharmed, unburnt. Leaving the inners not only unscorched but also, as I know first hand, delicious, earthy and just a little bit cabbage-y.

The cabbage, the humble cabbage, like all things, deserves a second look. It is a weapon, a sign of hope, a walking stick, a cold compress and a sign of ingenuity. When we acknowledge and put in place this practice of looking at things again and again understanding them emotionally, we open ourselves up to the possibility of falling in love all over again. By doing this, we can become heavily involved, embedded in and deeply humbled by the world around us, as it goes mad, it burns, it hurts and it starves.