Sunday, June 6, 2010

Cooked Poem: "Cabbage"

Several weeks ago I was rummaging through a friend’s bookshelf, a bookshelf that contains, among other things, a rather extensive collection of Charles Simic.

“I have a feeling,” I said. “That Charles Simic would have some good food poems.”

Turns out he does indeed.

“Cabbage,” comes from his collection of poems entitled The Book of Gods and Devils and is, as this copy’s owner remarked “out of print.”

I have already mentioned my affinity for cabbage here- boiled, fermented, raw- I love it. So when I read this poem that afternoon I knew “Cabbage” was fated to be the next cooked poem.


She was about to chop the head
In half,
But I made her reconsider
By telling her:
“Cabbage symbolizes mysterious love.”

Or so said one Charles Fourier,
Who said many other strange and wonderful things,
So that people called him mad behind his back,

Whereupon I kissed the back of her neck,
Ever so gently,

Whereupon she cut the cabbage in two
With a single stroke of her knife.

Oh cabbage. What to do with you? Making my own sauerkraut has been on the list for a while now, but I think this is a project for later in the summer. I then thought that perhaps I should just make coleslaw, especially because it was Memorial Day weekend and coleslaw would fit into the whole cookout scheme of things. But this just didn’t feel right. Simic is Yugoslavian after all, I thought, and saying this poem inspired coleslaw seems shallow and wrong. So instead I found a recipe for Yugoslavian Stuffed Cabbage, and while the timing seemed a bit off last weekend, I found myself in the kitchen boiling vinegary cabbage and cooking heavily seasoned ground meat.

I couldn’t help but think about mysterious love as I pulled apart each boiled cabbage leaf, and rolled into a tight little bundle, nestling it in snugly with the other cabbage rolls.

Are you mysterious, cabbage? Do you, as they say, symbolize such strange and mysterious love?

Oddly, the night after I made the cabbage rolls I lay in bed and watched this film. In it, two women fall in love while working in a sauerkraut factory in Germany. What are the chances, right? The filmmakers must know about this mysterious love thing too, I thought. In one scene in particular, the two lovers crouch together in a cabbage field, and between loaded looks and long silences, talk to each other about their past failed relationships. One of them struggles with a knife to cut the cabbage from its stem, and then the other says “here, let me show you an easier way.”

Major cabbage symbolism in action right there, I tell ya. Regardless, it was a good film. You should rent it. Or stream it, or whatever. But I’ll warn you it is a little depressing. So don’t watch it and then yell at me about how it got you all sad, okay?

Since I have never eaten a cabbage roll before I really had no reference point for what it should taste like. And the idea of mixing cinnamon and nutmeg in with the ground meat, and then paired with tomatoes and sauerkraut did seem a little gnarly at first, but the flavors actually play off each other very well. The recipe recommends that the rolls are even better after sitting for a few days, and this is true. I ate them the next day for lunch and they were even better. Supposedly they should be served with boiled potatoes. Maybe washed down with a glass a vodka, too.

And I apologize for these photos. I struggled with finding a way to make the stuffed cabbage look as appetizing as it actually is. So I realize they look at little rough here, but they are good! Really!

Yugoslavian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

1 head of cabbage, cored
1 c. vinegar
1 onion, chopped
¼ lbs. bacon, copped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch parsley, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 lbs ground meat (you can use any combination of pork, veal, beef, or turkey. I used pork and turkey because that is what I had in the freezer)
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bag or can of sauerkraut (about 2 cups)
1 14 oz. can of pureed tomatoes
2 cloves
1 Tbs. sugar

Boil the head of cabbage in water for 20 minutes, along with the 1 cup of vinegar. Drain and cool.

In a skillet, brown the onion, bacon, garlic, parsley, and celery. Add the ground meat. Let cool and then add the cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika, salt and pepper, egg, and rice.

In a separate bowl, mix together the sauerkraut and tomatoes.

Trim the cabbage leave and fill with meat mixture. Place them into a casserole dish, fitting them tightly against each other. Cover with sauerkraut and tomatoes mixture. Sprinkle with sugar and the two cloves.

Cover and bake at 350 for two hours. Serve with boiled potatoes.


  1. Woah....still not sold on these Sophie. Or that film recommendation. I know who you are talking to with that 'its a little depressing' warning.
    Not up for any of this!

    Maybe the glass of vodka?

  2. I actually almost specicified that the film warning was for you!!! and when I was making these I also was distinctly thinking how YOU would not eat them.

  3. Sophie, the cabbage was surprisingly tasty, not to mention that it smelled delicious while cooking!
    Also, I actually really like the photo of the flowers on top of the flower table cloth; the way the shadows interact with the print is really quite cool.

  4. lovely words + photos + recipe :)

    xo Alison

  5. Sophie... you hit the Eastern European nerve with this one...

  6. Sophie, My polish grandfather use to make these for our family every time he came to visit. He was a great and patient cook. We asked him for the recipe when my sister and I grew older, and his "sauce" required and "old stinky sock" for flavor. He also had a great sense of humor. We will be trying this recipe, sans sock....