In recent years, kale has become something of an American celebrity. Wherever you eat, there’s likely some kale offering on the menu. And that’s great—it’s a highly nutritious cruciferous vegetable that’s packed with calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, and many other nutrients, and we should definitely be eating it.
Yes, that leafy green is no longer the fringe health food it once was—heck it’s practically a status symbol. But that’s not the case in France. In fact, there, it’s still relatively unknown.
In France, kale is a “legume oublié,” which literally translates to “forgotten vegetable.” And that’s just one of its many names. It’s also known as chou frisée non-pommé (curly, headless cabbage), chou d’Alsace (cabbage from Alsace), chou de lapin (rabbit cabbage), and chou kale (which is literally just kale cabbage). Everyone calls it something different—if they refer to it at all. (And no, for the record, it’s not a type of cabbage.)
Three years ago, I quickly learned how difficult it was to find (or even ask for!) kale during a semester abroad in Paris, when I was passively on the hunt for America’s favorite veggie. I would stumble across the occasional bouquet at a farmers market here and there, but overall I was stuck eating spinach and Swiss chard, while desperately craving that hearty, leafy green.
As it turned out, this wasn’t just a problem for me—it was a problem for American expats all over Paris. Kristen Beddard was one such expat. After she and her husband moved to Paris in 2011, she quickly realized that kale was not the superstar in France that it was in the States. And for her, this would not do. In an attempt to bring the lost vegetable back to the City Of Lights, Beddard founded The Kale Project. Through this project, she connected with French farmers and chefs, as well as other Americans and even a handful of French natives, all of whom wanted to eat kale. With their help, Beddard saw to kale’s French comeback. She documents her cultural trials and vegetal victories in her 2016 book Bonjour Kale (the ebook is on sale for $1.99 all month), and spoke to SELF about what it took to cultivate a love for her favorite leafy green in her adopted land.
When Kristen Beddard arrived in Paris, she couldn’t find kale anywhere.
“Until I arrived in Paris, I never thought about kale,” Beddard tells SELF. Growing up in a vegetarian household, she had regularly eaten kale long before it became a staple of American diets. So when she and her husband arrived in Paris, almost immediately she noticed that it was missing. “Right away I realized I hadn’t seen it yet. I kept looking for it at different grocery stores and markets, but I couldn’t find it.” At one point she even began toting a photo of kale around with her to show to farmers and producers. No one recognized it and no one had heard of it.
The fact that it was nowhere to be found in Paris confounded Beddard. “If you went to someone’s garden in the country, you might see it grown there,” she tells SELF. The vegetable is indigenous to Europe, and is often found in German, British, Italian, and Nordic cuisine. “But from a commercial perspective they weren’t growing it [in France] anymore,” she explains.
Beddard says there are a couple possible explanations for this phenomenon. Kale is super resistant, meaning it’s often heavily eaten in times of hardship—think cabbage or potatoes. According to her, a lot of people say it fell out of fashion after the war, because everyone was sick of it. She doesn’t totally buy that excuse, however, because other war-time foods (like those potatoes and cabbage) are still widely used in French cuisine.
Another more likely reason why it might have disappeared could have to do with a change in French agricultural production. “Industrial agriculture—which largely shifted to the south—began to have more of influence on what was grown throughout the country after the war.” That southern climate is more conducive to produce like tomatoes and zucchini; leafy vegetables like kale and dandelion greens fell off the map.
Just a few months into her stay, Beddard found herself seeking kale-related solace on the world wide web. Sure enough, “where is the kale in France,” was a common question throughout American expat message boards. She decided to give them all one place to rant about their leafy green frustrations, and thus The Kale Project was born. On the project website, which also served as her blog, she explained the different names kale goes by in France, why it was missing, and she even provided her followers with a comprehensive map to all the locations she or someone else had spotted kale in Paris. Scrolling through Instagram, she would find photos of kale in Paris in her feed and tag them with the hashtag #kalespotted. Her American following quickly grew—she just had to get the French onboard.
If she ever actually wanted to see kale be actively produced in France, she needed to convince the French that it was worth growing.
She knew that simply telling them they should grow it because it was “healthy” was going to be a hard sell. “The French don’t think that they eat badly, so they aren’t trying to eat healthier. Initially I was going to talk about kale as a superfood, but for the French that doesn’t work.” Instead, Beddard decided the best approach would be to remind them that kale was native to their land, rather then some new and foreign fad. “For me to say that I’m bringing something back that was always a part of you was really important.”
Hermione Boehrer was the first farmer Beddard recruited. While walking through an organic farmers market, she noticed Boehrer selling mustard greens, which are another hard-to-find leafy vegetable in Paris—”Madame Mustard” she called her. Because of that, she thought Boehrer might be interested in kale. She was right. “I started talking to her about kale, and she asked for the seeds so that she could start growing it.” Though not a farmer herself, Beddard searched online and organic seeds from a seller in the UK.
And she did. Beddard says Boehrer had a little trouble with kale at first because she’d never grown a cruciferous vegetable before, but after a little trial and error she got it to work. Now she sells it every season.
One of the things Beddard loved about The Kale Project was that it connected her with so many people she may not have otherwise met. “Paris is small, especially if you’re an American, and because of the project I found such a great group of people, one that I hadn’t even had when I lived in New York.” One Kale Project follower ended up helping her make a bigtime connection with Joël Thiebault, a famous Parisian farmer who supplies produce to many chefs and restaurants throughout the city. “Joël grows forgotten vegetables all the time—things like parsnips and dandelion greens. It’s his shtick,” Beddard explains. In fact, he’d even accidentally grown kale in the past, but had little luck selling it at the time. Beddard convinced him to give it another go in June 2012. With kale’s popularity in America growing larger by the second, he immediately had more success even in Paris. Now, both Tuscan and curly kale are mainstays at his farmers market stand.
Beddard tells SELF “the fact that he was onboard was a big deal, because it meant that it was already going to be there for more chefs to use.”
Two years after Beddard arrived in Paris, kale finally started to pick up steam.
By 2013, she had worked with three farmers—Boeher, Thiebault, and one other—to successfully produce kale. Other farmers began reaching out to her all on their own, and a number of producers started growing it without even consulting Beddard. It quickly began popping up more and more across the city, and #kalespotted became a hashtag that was no longer just rarely used.
Then, the coverage began. In September of 2013, the New York Times called Beddard a “kale crusader.” Many other news outlets—both American and French—also jumped on her journey, and before she knew it, things really started to blow up.
“Everything took off a lot faster than I expected,” Beddard tells SELF. “It went from one little farm to the big agricultural people growing it at Prince de Bretagne,” one of the biggest fruit and vegetable producers in France. Now you can find kale in the French equivalent of Target—Monoprix—which is a lot more than Beddard had ever expected to accomplish.
Amidst all this, Beddard helped introduce the vegetable to high-end restaurants throughout the city. She coordinated kale-themed dinner events with restaurants Verjus, Au Passage, and L’Arpège—all restaurants that now continue to feature kale seasonally on their menus.
She’s hesitant to take credit for all of it, however. “I started the conversation, I got people to taste it and talk about it,” she says, “but the whole thing became much bigger than The Kale Project. I didn’t want to become a distributor, I wasn’t going to call up the big producers and ask to work with them.”
Beddard returned to New York this fall. Reflecting on the change in the market landscape she left behind, she says that even now that kale is more easy to find in France, she doesn’t think it will ever be treated the same way it has been in the United States. According to her, kale is now just another vegetable option they get to choose from, not the healthy holy grail it is here.
But that’s totally OK with her. “I never wanted it to be the same in France as it is over here,” she explains. “The French approach a lot of things in life from the point of view that it should be enjoyable, food especially.” The way they’ve begun to incorporate kale into their diets is true to how they utilize and enjoy all kinds of food. So rather than being used in everything as it is in America, kale is beginning to be used as much as many of the other things they love. Like cheese, bread, wine, and cured meats, kale isn’t a superstar—it’s just one of the greats.