Cooling on Kale? Meet the Humble Collard Green

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On a recent Saturday, to promote the opening of J.Crew’s Williamsburg store, models stood on nearby streets handing out bags of mini-donuts. To underline their mission (i.e., messengers of cool), they stood under a sun umbrella emblazoned with the words: “Kale-Free Zone.”

Blasphemy!

Just two years, Brooklynites would have been up in arms. Especially in cultural centers coast-to-coast, kale became an object of fervent adoration—and it covered a lot of bases. The lowly buffet garnish didn’t just triumph atop the yuppie food pyramid, it came to unite foodies, exercise freaks, and calorie counters alike. They filled their refrigerators, crammed their juicers, and drove up prices. The vegetable’s deep frilled green leaves were surprisingly photogenic, flooding Instagram as fast as menus, making its way onto t-shirts (see: Beyoncé sporting a “Kale” sweatshirt) and in to nail polish. And everyone described it in gushing, reverent tones. It’s not just a green; it’s a super green.

But even the hottest love affair can run out of steam.

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“Kale is so saturated now,” says Eric Helms, who owns the juicing chain Juice Generation with Salma Hayek. He’s been championing kale the last couple of years but says its time to put a stop to it. “One of the ladies in my office was even wearing kale nail polish!” he says. “It’s out of control.’”

Citing New Yorkers’ thirst for the “next new thing,” Helms has been testing out other vegetables for his juice menu. His discovery? “Collard Greens. It’s been around in the South, but people really don’t know that much about it. We’re substituting it for kale in all our green juices.”  Helms is betting on collards, which he introduced in September, for the season and entire next year. He points to the vegetable’s good nutritional profile (it’s high in vitamins A and C) and better yet, collards are still cheap. “Prices of kale tripled last year during shortages,” he said. 

The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries.

Likewise, to counter kale’s luxury prices, hip New York City restaurants, like the Fat Radish, an original kale purveyor, has also been pushing collards. When they opened a few years ago, kale was in abundance, says Fat Radish co-founder Phil Winser. “In a world of higher rents, people are looking at other options.” He remembers being inspired by the collard greens prepared at the Goldeneye resort in Jamaica (collards gone glam). So much so, that there’s a collard greens recipe in the restaurant’s new cookbook “The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries,” released in September.

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New York companies may be tempering their kale habits, but West Coast juicing outfits aren’t so quick to desert their leafy friend. Jeff Church, chief executive of Suja Juice, which is based in San Diego, says people in New York and Southern California may be tiring of kale, but the vegetable is more popular than ever across the nation. Even so, Suja does use collards, which is “one of the next big things. (He says swiss chard is, too.)

Neka Pasquale, founder of the Marin County-based juicing company Urban Remedy thinks of kale like a gateway green. It used to be that consumers wanted sweeter juices, she says. Now even bitter vegetables like dandelion greens, which she serves undiluted and unsweetened, are top-sellers. Lately, she’s also been fooling around with mache and the ultra-bitter radicchio.

If at this point, it seems like any ol’ salad green will pass for super-food status, that’s exactly right, says Oberon Sinclair, the publicist credited for giving kale its cool cachet. She started working with the American Kale Association over two years ago, and gave the “quirky” vegetable a facelift by getting it in the hands of tastemakers like the guys behind Fat Radish. “Anything can happen if it tastes great and is prepared well,” she says. “You can’t pawn rubbish off on people, but it’s also easier than ever. Before things were super niche; people are much more health-conscious now. You just have to put whatever it is in the right light.” 

In that case, Helms already has a tag line prepared. Describing collards, he says: “It’s like the liquid soul food of 2015.”

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