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What’s That Smell? Highlighting Cabbage in the Archives

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This guest post is from Meg Nicholas, as Folklife Specialist on the staff of the American Folklife Center.

National Cabbage Day is this Saturday, February 17th. The oft-maligned and overlooked cabbage is loaded in important nutrients, comes in a variety of shapes and colors (did you know there is a purple Napa cabbage?) and aids digestion – the perfect solution if you are feeling a little queasy from overindulging in chocolates and champagne earlier this week.

Two women sit amongst a large pile of green cabbages while sorting the vegetables.
Harvesting and packing cabbage, Goins Brothers’ cabbage farm, Carroll County, Virginia and Patrick County, Virginia. Terry Eiler (photographer). American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project collection, 1977-1981 (AFC 1982/009: BR8-TE-69).

In honor of this versatile vegetable, I’ve assembled a smorgasbord of items from the American Folklife Center that feature the humble cabbage.

First up we have the folk song “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” There are multiple recordings of this song (some with the slight title variation “Bile ‘em cabbage down”) within AFC’s archival holdings. In addition to versions recorded throughout the United States – such as the one below from the Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook WPA Florida Recordings – the Center has a version of the song recorded in Japan in the 1960s.

The Center’s folklife surveys are wonderful resources for interviews and photographs about cabbage, including this one of a little girl holding up a cabbage in Paterson, New Jersey:

Young girl holds up a green cabbage
Little girl holding a cabbage in Leonard Jones’ garden in Paterson, New Jersey. Susan Levitas (photographer). American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Working in Paterson Project Collection (AFC 1995/028: WIP-SL-C010-09).

…or this one of Mrs. Zimmer making sauerkraut in her kitchen in New Jersey:

Overhead shot of woman's hand holding shredded cabbage above a large vessel
Making sauerkraut with Mrs. Zimmer. Elaine Thatcher (photographer). American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Pinelands Folklife Project collection (AFC 1991/023: 215661-03)

These folklife surveys were carried out by the American Folklife Center from 1977-1998 to document folklife in selected communities throughout the United States. In addition to examples of vernacular architecture, music, and occupational folklore, folklorists and photographers working on these surveys documented community foodways, including gardening and food preservation. Cabbage features predominately in the Coal River Folklife Project (also referred to as Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia), the Pinelands Folklife Collection, the Working in Paterson Project Collection, and the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection.

More recently, two AFC-sponsored foodways film series featured preparation of traditional cabbage-based dishes. Sally Van de Water, Folklife Programs Manager for the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County, New Jersey previously contributed a guest post on the Folklife Today blog to accompany the premiere of the Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series. The blog post, which includes a recipe for Ukrainian stuffed cabbage rolls called Holubtsi, also includes links to the video itself.

chef Roman Kovbasniuk demonstrating how to roll cabbage rolls.
Roman Kovbasniuk demonstrating how to make Holubtsi (rolling the cabbage rolls) during filming. Sally Van de Water (photographer). Part of the Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series.

In the Homegrown Foodways in West Virginia film series, chefs Mike Costello and Amy Dawson interview Marlyn McClendon about how she celebrates her Korean and Appalachian heritage by making kimchi in the remote community of Lobelia, West Virginia.

Marlyn McClendon preparing kimchi in her home
Marlyn McClendon salting cabbage for traditional kimchi. Mike Costello (photographer). From the Homegrown Foodways in West Virginia film series.

This February 17th I invite you to make up a batch of your cabbage dish of choice – whether it’s bigos (a Polish stew made with cabbage), malfouf salad (a Lebanese salad made with cabbage, lemon juice, garlic and mint), sled dog slaw (a type of Canadian coleslaw that uses both maple syrup and fish alongside the cabbage) or Salvadoran curtido (lightly fermented cabbage) – and enjoy the cabbage-related items the American Folklife Center has to offer.

Man drives tractor pulling a trailer full of cabbage
Hauling cabbage to the packing area, Patrick County, Virginia. Terry Eiler (photographer). American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project collection, 1977-1981 (AFC 1982/009: 20423-6)


  1. Thank you for this marvelous reminder of range of cabbage types and of the people who put them to creative and healthful use. To say nothing of singing about them. The aroma is indeed there, as is the smile on my face.

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