“Eat more kale,” in Vermont, is not just a nagging instruction from your mother. In Vermont, these are fighting words.
Kale hit the fan here in 2011, when Vermont artist Bo Muller-Moore decided to trademark the logo EAT MORE KALE that appears on his popular kale-colored T-shirt. This aroused the ire of Atlanta-based Chick-Fil-A, a multi-billion-dollar fast-food conglomerate, who felt that it infringed upon their trademarked slogan, EAT MOR CHIKIN. Muller-Moore’s kale phrase, thundered Chick-Fil-A’s lawyer, was likely both to confuse the public and to diminish the artistic and intellectual impact of Chick-Fil-A’s pitch for increased consumption of breaded chicken sandwiches.
Vermonters, many of whom had to date barely spared a thought for kale, were outraged. Vermont governor Peter Shumlin called Chick-Fil-A a corporate bully and backed Team Kale, which supports Muller-Moore’s legal defense fund. Three state legislators introduced a bill to make kale the official Vermont State Vegetable.
What we’re fighting about here is a cabbage.
Kale–Brassica oleracea var. acephala—was likely the earliest of cultivated cabbages, a curly-leaved non-heading plant akin to collard greens. It’s a tough and determined vegetable, which explains why it does so well in chilly Vermont. Historically it was a staple food of Scotland—a region also known for rocks and inhospitable climate—and the Scots’ language is still peppered with references to kale. “To be off one’s kale” is the Scottish equivalent of being off one’s food; a kale pot was an essential of every Scottish kitchen; and in Scotland a “kaleyard” is what anyone else would call a vegetable garden. A standard dish was kale brose, a sort of porridge of oatmeal and kale, which may taste better than it sounds.
Kale is indisputably good for you, being both devoid of calories and crammed with minerals, vitamins (K, A, and C), and antioxidants. On the health side, it’s definitely got an edge on those chicken things. The truth is, though, that half the fun of eating it these days is the thought that some giant corporation is making a fuss about it.
Vermont has a reputation for being ornery—the result, depending who you ask, of either an ingrained sense of independence or sheer cussedness. Denied statehood after the Revolutionary War, we debated becoming part of Canada. Faced with uncongenial trade restrictions, we smuggled. Faced with a conservative majority, we elected Bernie Sanders to Congress.
And faced with Chick-Fil-A—well, we’re eating more kale.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.