The Extinction of Cabbage

“A monographic depiction about the cultivated forms of the cabbage, the beet and the rapeseed”.

They really knew how to write non-idiomatic titles in the year 1884.

While the legendary Derby County Football Club was founded northeast of Birmingham, and president-to-be Harry S. Truman was born in the US, equally important things happened in Copenhagen in 1884. Or maybe even more important things: A now forgotten ark of cabbage was published by the two botanists Hjalmar Kiærskou and Samsøe Lund. As the above-mentioned title suggests, it was not some book they had done overnight.

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We stumbled upon the book by coincidence – researching the archives of the Royal Library for an upcoming cookbook and driven by our general admiration for vegetables. This book from 1884 is forgotten. It doesn’t figure anywhere in the bibliographies of Danish historical litterature. We found the authors mentioned in a passing remark in a 100 year old agricultural magazine, but the book itself was untraceable. Until it suddenly appeared. The book opens a window to a forgotten and amazing diversity of cabbage.

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The book is a monograph of 122 different types of cabbage. It is a beautiful little book. It is decorated with 75 wood engravings and a huge unfolding family tree depicting the origin of the many types. It is an extremely thorough work. The wood engravings open a so far unseen botanic world of diversity. An example – there are 13 different types of cauliflower and 37 different types of kale!Where has this diversity gone? Where has this diversity gone?

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It has probably been lost somewhere in the good, old 20th century. Just as the diversity did with pigs, cheese and cherries. We know the story all to well: The 20th century was marked by the drive for more efficient and profitable crops throughout Danish agriculture. The most productive varieties were located, recommended and multiplied. Effective machines were introduced and the soil was improved. Much was gained. The yield increased heavily and the foodstuff-exports satisfied, among others, many Englishmen. It looked like a bright future for Danish agriculture.

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Running a greengrocer, butchery and a food-shop in Denmark anno 2015, it seems that much was also lost. Both knowledge, diversity and taste. And even more than that. This subject is also a question of a once rational production that became something else. We know how hard the farmers work just to keep the business running today. Survival is difficult. It is difficult to prize-compete with an Italian cauliflower. Could we introduce something else? A crop that competes on different terms? Is there a way to compete on quality and diversity instead of quantity and uniformity?

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The two cabbage-oracles of 1884 who opened this story, also open a window to an ocean of forgotten varieties. Their book is a story of diversity. Of 122 different types of cabbage! Derby County Football Club should have made the Championship playoffs this season. It looked like their revival to the Premier League was finally on the cards. But apparently it wasn’t time. Is it time for a revival in the diversity of crops and cabbage? Is it time to re-sadle the horse of agriculture and retail trade?

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Peter Nøhr & Asmus Jensen

Peter Nøhr & Asmus Jensen

Head Chef & Historian, KOST

Democratic gastronomy.

Asmus & Peter's other stories

Thou shall eat the old

A History of Cabbage

An ancient discussion about terroir and taste