Kale formerly was used as a garnish in restaurants; its frilly, dark green leaves made for a nice contrast to whatever food was on the plate, as well as the plate itself. It was not an edible food on its own. Now, kale is inescapable; Google Trends reveals that kale chips, kale smoothies, and kale salads all experienced a relative boom in popularity around 2009 to 2011, and kale’s rise in popularity has not stopped since.
Bon Appetit declared kale its food trend of the year in 2012; kale saw a spike in popularity that year. Interestingly, January 2013 and January 2014 also saw spikes in kale’s popularity, followed by a small, relative decline throughout the year—this trend line follows the general Google Trends for search words such as “healthy food”.
Previously, I had written about cupcakes, which is an indulgence, and sriracha, which is an (almost) exotic sauce, on its way to the mainstream. Kale is unique in how it never appears near indulgent food—it’s always in salads or juices. The correspondence between “health” and “kale” is clear when comparing the Google Trend lines and how interest in health and kale both spike after New Years resolutions are made.
In some ways, kale and sriracha share remarkable similarities, albeit by occupying different niches. Both have benefited from food magazines “endorsing” them. Additionally, both benefit from an exclusive atmosphere—sriracha has its cult, where its adherents have to explain what exactly sriracha is to other people. Bo Muller-Moore, the creator of “Eat More Kale” shirts, said that “If someone comes to me and says, ‘What’s kale?’ I know that’s a person who is not going to farmers’ markets.”
In other ways, kale has benefited from social media—Tumblr and Instagram are filled with pictures of kale in its forms, such as smoothies and salad. Kale and cupcakes can unironically inhabit the same social media account, with cupcakes being the indulgence with friends, while kale is the show of commitment to a healthy lifestyle.
When I wandered through my local supermarket in Texas, HEB, I found kale in a spot of honor. In Texas, no less (granted, I was in Austin, Texas, the location of Whole Foods’ headquarters). Perhaps that is the truest indication of a mentality shift with regards to health in the US. The United States, as we have been told repeatedly, is potentially seeing the first generation (my generation) that will experience a lower life expectancy than the previous generation. And almost in reaction, we see the backlash against our previous lifestyles in the romanticization of a little leaf called kale.