For the last five years, we’ve watched as kale took over menus and magazine covers. Kale, one of the most nutritionally packed foods, could be concocted into seemingly endless iterations — both liquid and solid — and still taste so appealing that the Queen Bey rocked it on a sweatshirt.
Hipsters were stuffing it into smoothies, turning it into chips and excusing their hangovers because there was no health infraction that couldn’t be canceled out by a gargantuan kale salad.
And yet, even amid all the fuss, I can still clearly remember the moment I knew that kale was over. I was sitting down to my MacBook, green smoothie by my side sipping my way to enlightenment, when I opened my inbox to an article that read: eating kale in excess, especially raw, can be bad for you.
I know we’re supposed to have everything in moderation (try explaining that to my fair-trade coffee collection), but kale’s a superfood! How could it do me any harm?
Turns out, kale doesn’t just soak up essential vitamins and minerals on its way out of the ground; it’s also really good at taking up thallium — a toxic heavy metal — from the soil, and consuming too much of it causes chronic fatigue, skin problems, foggy thinking and digestive troubles. Looking down at my smoothie, green sludge that it was, I knew the kale romance had turned toxic.
Jennifer, CC BY
A number of external factors surely contributed to making kale so cool — from marketing execs pushing Eat More Kale shirts to the trendy, suspender-wearing chefs at the Lower East Side restaurant Fat Radish who came up with the Kale Caesar — but at the end of the day, I venture to say that all these fancy marketing schemes could not have had the same impact had kale not also packed a lot of nutrition into a small, relatively cheap, package.
According to the USDA, farm production of kale in the U.S. rose 60 percent between 2007 and 2012. In 2012, TIME crowned kale king of its “Top Ten Food Trends” list and from 2013 to 2014, a survey of restaurant menus showed a 47-percent increase in the word kale. It was easy to see that kale’s days on the fringes of pop culture were numbered.
When McDonald’s announced earlier this year that they too could soon be adding kale to their menu, it was merely the last nail in the coffin; kale had officially become mainstream.
It was only a matter of time before kale met its demise. But now, those of us who keep a finger on the pulse of the hippest of foods are all left wondering: which vegetable will be the next to go viral from farm to table?
There is no shortage of could-be viral veggies out there. We chose eight that we thought had the most potential to go viral and measured them according to six criteria, keeping in mind some of the things that made kale so cool.
Cost. Kale couldn’t have made its way onto the plates of bohemian scenesters had it not been for the low price of entry. To measure whether these other vegetables could live up to the same standard, I compared the cost of each of these vegetables in Brooklyn, New York. (Yes, I understand that everything’s more expensive here; for those of you playing from home, if you’d like to scale the prices to a store near you, compare to the cost of a red delicious apple, which is $2.99 per pound in Brooklyn).
Nutrient density. Other than the very real thallium concerns, Kale is a bona fide superfood. To calculate a vegetable’s nutrient density, I take into account how well it fulfills the Dietary Reference Intake published by the Institute of Medicine (by way of the USDA) for vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. The scale is out of 100.
Availability. Early on, part of kale’s mystique came from the difficulty in finding it in grocery stores and on restaurant menus. To measure the availability of these competing vegetables, I contacted five Brooklyn grocery stores to see if they carried the product.
Familiarity. Kale isn’t too different from other, more well-known greens, but it’s always been just obscure enough to breed curiosity. I measured familiarity of our contenders by their Google Trends score. The fewer mentions, the better.
Cultural cachet. Restaurants serving kale in trendier corners played up its European — particularly Tuscan — roots. The next hipster vegetable better have an element of exoticism that adds to its appeal. To measure this, I calculated how far away the vegetable had to travel from its original homeland to impart its wisdom on Brooklyn.
Juicing potential. No matter the vegetable, hipsters gonna juice, juice, juice… Kale was no exception. I measured the amount of juice you’re likely to get from juicing 100 grams of the contestants for the next viral vegetable.
The refreshing, subtly spicy root vegetable — its name literally translates to “big root” in Japanese — has a diet in its honor (though not sure how big the following), and you can definitely pickle it (great on summer rolls or banh mi). Enviro-hipsters will be thrilled that daikon also functions as a cover crop, which improve air and water quality.
Sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke)
These knobby-looking tubers are deceiving; they don’t come from Jerusalem nor do they look or taste anything like artichokes. They are actually indigenous to North America; Native Americans called them sun roots, and — left to their own devices — these sunflower-cousins can grow up to ten feet long. Their texture is comparable to that of water chestnuts, and they can be cooked as you would potatoes.
IsaacMao, CC BY
Romanesco (Romanesco cauliflower)
You know how movies used to portray futuristic versions of people as being similar to us, but with a couple subtle pieces of flair that made them a little cooler looking? Romanesco is the fractal-covered futuristic cauliflower that Mad Max would snack on. It has a similar floret structure to the broccoli and cauliflower you’re familiar with, but they’re covered in electric green pyramids that make it look like it’s from Mars — or at least Iceland. It’s a brassica, so think of it as a cousin of kale, only cooler — way cooler.
Let’s not beat around the bush; these are weeds. But it’s that same resilience which leads to their nutritional benefit. Bitter as all hell if not prepared correctly, these hardy greens are packed with vitamins and minerals, and are said to, um, inspire digestion. For that reason, they’ve been used across the northern hemisphere for millennia to help remove toxins from the body. They are tough to take raw, but can be used in most of the same culinary applications as kale. Like seeking out music on vinyl, growing a scratchy hipster beard, or drinking your tea before it’s cool, the little bit of hardship is definitely worth the reward.
Don’t be fooled; Kohlrabi is not a root vegetable, but rather it too is a member of the brassica family. It’s definitely the member with the coolest name, which comes from the German for turnip cabbage. Paradoxically, this Euro hit that’s slowly gaining ground in the U.S., has also long been a staple in Kashmiri cooking.
Also known as celery root, this warty root vegetable looks like it’s been ripped from the ground with the dirt hanging off. It’s related to celery, but grown exclusively for its root, which is similar to a potato inside. You might have tried it in the cold French salad celerie remoulade, in which the root is peeled, grated, blanched in lemon juice, and dressed with a mustard-mayonnaise sauce.
It may look like a stretched out green bean, taste kind of like a green bean, and work well in many of the same dishes that green beans do, but yardlong beans are actually a totally different plant. Yardlongs are climbing vines, which grow widely in the warmer parts of south and southeast Asia.
The striking, wine-colored leaves come with a bite, but it mellows when grilled or roasted. In Northern Italy — specifically Veneto, where it originated — it has been used in salads for centuries. Radicchio is often referred to as Italian chicory, and — like all chicories — if grown correctly its roots can be used to mix with coffee, without the caffeine buzz.
So many worthy contenders, but which veg will come out on top? Find out on the next page.
Feliciano Guimaraes, CC BY
After much thoughtful consideration, the winner is… Romanesco! The visually exquisite, nutrient-packed vegetable is super cool, highly juiceable, and still obscure enough to appeal to those truly in the know. It’s only a matter of time before romanesco comes to a hip, overpriced menu near you.
Main Image: Charles Smith, CC BY-NC