Cabbage Prescription

Cabbage was more or less regarded as a cure for everything by the Greeks and Romans. We don’t typically think of it as a cure-all food, but from the recommendations of the writers of the ancient world, it seems they did! Looking first at Cato the Elder’s On Agriculture (I’m using the Loeb translation), we see a huge section of the text dedicated to cabbage, which he says “surpasses all other vegetables”. He recommends dipping the raw leaves into vinegar, and eating a ton of it both before and after dinner to allow you to drink as much as you’d like, presumably without getting sick. He gives very specific instructions how to prepare cabbage to act as a laxative, boiling the leaves and squeezing out the juice, mixing it with salt and cumin, and letting it stand before drinking. He assures the reader that he will be seized with nausea soon. Right in the first book of Athenaeus’ Scholar’s Banquet (a really fantastic and unusual work) there is a discussion of cabbage. He cites the Egyptians as practicing the custom of eating boiled cabbage before drinking, and notes that it is used for curing headaches, too. We find here this great line:

“Alexis: ‘Yesterday you took a drop, and so to-day you’ve got a headache. Take a nap, that will stop it. Then have some boiled cabbage brought to you.” And Eubulus somewhere says: ‘Woman, you must think that I am a cabbage, for you try to shift all your headache upon me, so I believe.’” (1.34)

And of course, we can’t forget to see what our friend Pliny the Elder has to say on the matter. In The Natural History 20.33 the section entitled “The Cabbage: Eighty-Seven Remedies. Recipes mentioned by Cato” doesn’t necessarily list as many as promised, as Pliny says that the physician Chrysippus has devoted a whole volume to the subject, “in which its virtues are described in reference to each individual part of the human body.” We do find here a little explanation about the kinds of cabbages, however. The curly cabbage called “selinoides”, which is beneficial to the stomach; a broad leaved cabbage called “helia” which has no medicinal use, and a thinner leaved cabbage called “crambe”, which is more bitter but extremely medicinal. A fondness for cabbage must surely have given you confidence in your continued good health in the ancient world, since they seemed to apply it in one way or another to every malady. I think it would have been effective in preventing sickness from drinking only insomuch as anything is when consumed before drinking alcohol; I personally prefer pizza before a night out, but I suppose boiled cabbage might have its appeal to someone!

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