German Cabbage Salad
Cabbage is among the oldest of our cultivated vegetables. It’s been both high and low in the estimation of populations ever since it began being consumed. It was viewed as subsistence food in Ancient Greece (though not by Pythagoras, a vegetarian, who thought it a great treat). But in Rome, it was so much in demand that, for a long time, only the well-to-do could afford it. Pliny and Cato thought highly of it. So did Emperor Tiberius and Emperor Claudius. In fact, Claudius once had the Senate vote on whether or not corned beef and cabbage was the best dish imaginable, and as it was a favorite of Claudius, the Senate obligingly (and wisely) voted that it was, in fact, unparalleled.
But Claudius’s Roman friends and countrymen also fancied cabbage. Because it was so profitable a crop, Roman farmers could afford to spend a great deal of time experimenting and they developed most of the varieties we have today—and not just head cabbage, Milan cabbage, Savoy cabbage, and red cabbage, but also those variations so different as to hardly seem possible that they are the same species (Brassica oleracea, if you’re interested): broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, collards, and kohlrabi.
During the Middle Ages, not many vegetables were consumed on the continent, at least not in aristocratic homes. But then, in the 1300s, the great chef, Taillevent, in the employ of Charles VI of France, actually presented a vegetable during the first course—a cabbage. With the introduction of Italian cabbages into France by the cooks of Catherine and Marie de’ Medici, it began to gain culinary status.
Cabbage was long valued as a vegetable, digestive aid and a source of vitamin C, particularly in areas where citrus couldn’t readily be found. In 1772, Captain James Cook ordered 25,000 pounds of pickled cabbage (that is, sauerkraut) for his second voyage—and Cook became famous for never losing a sailor to scurvy.
Cabbage reached North America in 1541, traveling in the company of Jacques Cartier. However, the first written record of serious cabbage cultivation (vs. kitchen gardens) in the colonies was 1669. Dishes ranging from New England boiled cabbage to German sauerkraut were soon popping up in the New World’s immigrant communities.
During World War II, cabbages filled victory gardens. However, after the war, because it had been associated with lean times, the popularity of cabbage plummeted. (As a comparison, in the U.S. the average annual consumption of cabbage in the 1920s was 27 pounds per person, while today it’s about nine pounds.) Now, cabbage does not have the cachet that it once did, but it’s (in its myriad forms) ingrained in many culinary traditions and cultures and it will not be going away. Besides, Claudius wasn’t too far from being right in considering corned beef and cabbage the best possible dish.
While it’s hard to prove, it seems likely that cabbage actually started farther north than the Mediterranean regions where it became so diversified. In fact, it appears that cabbage originated in just the sorts of places one finds it most widely grown and consumed today— primarily cooler areas, often along coastlines in the British Isles, Scandinavia, northern Europe—from France to the Baltic regions—the southern slopes of the Alps and Slavic countries. In those areas, cabbage has never been a posh treat, but also never off menus.
Austria is among the cooler Alpine countries that love cabbage. I first had this warm cabbage salad in a large restaurant behind the Prater, an amusement park in Vienna. (The Prater and its massive Ferris wheel were featured in a James Bond movie and The Third Man with Orson Welles, if that helps you picture it.) The cabbage was served with the most amazing ribs—baby back ribs rubbed with coarse salt, black pepper, other spices and grilled on massive outdoor grills. It was among my most memorable meals in Austria —and it didn’t hurt that we were surrounded by hundreds of jovial diners and the glittering fairway of the Prater.
(German Cabbage Salad)
1 head green cabbage, shredded
½ lb. bacon
1 large onion, chopped (about two cups)
½ cup cider vinegar (see Note)
In a large, deep frying pan, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside. Add the chopped onion to the bacon fat. Fry onions, stirring occasionally, until brown, then pour in the vinegar. Bring to a simmer, then add the cabbage. Toss the cabbage until the vinegar and onion mixture is completely dispersed throughout. Sauté the cabbage mixture over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, JUST until the cabbage begins to warm and wilt. Remove from the heat. Crumble the bacon and stir into the cabbage. Serve immediately.
Cider vinegar is the most common vinegar used in this recipe, with lots of flavor and a good bit of that vinegar “bite.” White wine vinegar is also commonly used and is much milder. I prefer cider vinegar, but substituting white wine vinegar or mixing white wine vinegar with cider will make this dish less acidic, if the cider vinegar version is too sharp. (Be sure you get white WINE vinegar, and NOT distilled white vinegar, which is made from grain alcohol.)