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Cavolo - How Italians use Cabbage outside the kitchen




There is no doubt that the Italian language is full of expressions having to do with food. In fact, whether you are a native or a novice of the language, chances are you have come across the word cavolo, or ‘cabbage’ in English. This vegetable has acquired a multitude of meanings and connotations of both historical and cultural significance.

Let’s first explore some of its many uses...

As a noun, cavolo can mean ‘nothing’ or ‘not at all’:

Non m'importa un cavolo!
I don't give a darn!

Col cavolo!

Meaning "No way!" as an exclamation of denial.  

As an adjective, it can mean ‘bad’:
Che giornata del cavolo...
What a bad day...
It even has its own expressions:
C’entra come i cavoli a merenda
Literally translated: ‘Like having cabbage for a snack’. Oftentimes, this phrase is used to emphasize something that is out of place, or has nothing to do with the issue at hand. 

Farsi i cavoli propri
Literally translated: ‘To make your own cabbages’. In colloquial terms, ‘to mind one’s own business’.


Salvare capra e cavoli

Literally translated "To save the goat and the cabbage".  Used when someone is trying to satisfy opposing sides of an issue.

In ancient times, cabbage was seen as a bad omen. Medieval society believed that malevolent spirits hid among cabbage leaves. This vegetable’s bad reputation could also be linked to its physical attributes. Its not-so-pleasant odor and overall low cost of cultivation throughout history has made it a symbol of something with little or no value.  

However, cabbage has not always had such ill repute in Italy. For many centuries in Central Europe, cabbage was the only food that offered the vitamins and minerals necessary to sustain the bitter winter months. Cabbage has also always been considered a symbol of fertility. Similar to a woman's gestation period of nine months, cabbage takes nine months to mature for harvesting. In fact, Italian fables have long since depicted children originating from under a cabbage patch.

Today, all types of cabbage - red, white, purple and green - can be found at farmers markets across Italy. Cavolo is used in many delicious recipes such as vegetable minestrone, orecchiette al cavolfiore, pizzoccheri alla Valtellina and capunet piemontesi.

Il cavolo - a lowly vegetable with an interesting history and a special place in modern-day Italian lexicon.

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