Of Cabbage And Men By Mike Klingaman

THE REAL DIRT

August 09, 1992

If I return in another life, then let me be a cabbage plant. I won't have to change a thing.

Cabbages are big. They are round. They are heavy feeders. And they take up a great deal of space in the bed.

That's me, all over.

Is there a more manly vegetable than cabbage? I've grown heads the size of bowling balls that dwarfed other garden crops. My favorite is a variety called savoy. It has a large, thick head and bumpy leaves that look like muscles. Savoys are the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the vegetable patch.

The cabbage remains macho right down to its table preparation. Boiled cabbage produces a musky odor, not unlike the smell of the Washington Redskins' locker room. Either that, or rotten eggs.

"Cooking cabbage again, Daddy? Or did a pot boil over?" our daughter asks, breezing through the kitchen with a clothespin on her nose. I ignore her remarks. I was growing and preparing cabbage long before her time. Didn't grow much the year she was born, though. When my wife was pregnant, cooked cabbage was the only smell that made her sick.

Women. They don't understand the merits of cabbage.

This is a vegetable that incites man to perform great feats of strength. The Great Wall of China was built by laborers who were fed a steady diet of pickled cabbage. My assignment at home is less demanding: Erect 30 feet of split-rail fence in the front yard. Still, I'm not taking any chances. I sowed my cabbage seeds last week.

4 I should still be eating cole slaw at Christmas.

Though many gardeners raise it primarily in spring, cabbage really shines as a fall crop. The cooler temperatures of autumn, coupled with a lack of insect pests, promote healthy plants and steady, even growth. Cabbage matures best as the days grow short, and frost only sweetens the heads. Savoy, in particular, is a cool-weather variety. (On colder nights, I cover the cabbages with Reemay, a gauzelike material that helps the plants retain heat.)

Fall planting has other advantages. Gardeners can bypass limited nursery stock and raise their own favorite cabbages from seed, sowing them directly in the garden or in a specially prepared seed bed. Screen the young plants from the hot midday sun, or plant them in the shade of taller crops such as corn or pole beans.

Cabbage needs ample room to grow, a demand that most gardeners can meet in fall. There are gaps in even the smallest victory garden then, openings where veggies either were harvested or failed. Prepare the ground as you would in spring, digging in rotted manure, rich compost and limestone, if the soil is acid. Cabbage requires an abundance of organic matter, neutral soil and lots of water (1 inch per week) in its race to mature by winter. Moisture is critical for all leaf crops, and what is cabbage but a ball of tight leaf clusters?

Harvest the heads when they are solid to the touch. If you're uncertain about the firmness of a cabbage, wait several days and check it again. The beauty of the fall garden is its slower pace. Gone are the crazy days of summer, when a heat wave can crack the heads of an entire crop, which then must be harvested at once.

Fall gardens still need an occasional weeding. Shallow roots make cabbage extremely sensitive to heavy cultivation, so weed the plants by hand, not by hoe.

It's more manly to weed by hand anyway.

Cabbage has turned the heads of some powerful men, including Genghis Khan, the Mongol ruler, and Claudius, emperor of Rome, who went absolutely batty over corned beef and cabbage. Roman soldiers praised cabbage as a cure for drunkenness. Thomas Jefferson raised nearly two dozen varieties of cabbage at his home in Monticello, Va.

In some households, cabbage begets sauerkraut, a really virile dish and a staple in some parts of the country. To make sauerkraut, the Pennsylvania Dutch invented a tool, a cabbage plane, to shred the vegetable. The device looks much like a carpenter's plane.

You can't get much more macho than that.

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