In hindsight, there were plenty of indications over the past decade that American politics were headed toward the partisan sniping and low-stakes media obsessions that crowd the news cycle today. Take Arugulagate. In 2007, Barack Obama was in Iowa, speaking as a presidential hopeful to a group of farmers who were worried about the stagnation of their crop prices while America’s grocery bills continued to rise.
In his speech, Obama referred to the inflated cost of arugula at Whole Foods, which was a small gaffe: Iowa didn’t have a Whole Foods, and the leafy vegetable wasn’t then familiar enough to be name-checked in a broad point about American grocery costs. But political media turned arugula into its own news cycle, with conservatives charging Obama with elitism. Around the same time, lattes were also being slandered. It was a big moment for food as proof of one’s true ability to govern.
Obama went on to win the 2008 election, but arugula never quite recovered. According to Google Trends data, kale and arugula were of similar popularity in America at the time, but shortly thereafter, kale gained a decisive lead over its counterpart in the competition for America’s Next Top Leaf. Today, arugula trails far behind both kale and spinach in popularity. Americans who heard about it for the first time via political gaffe apparently didn’t leap to give it a try, and it has also been usurped by more novel choices in the progressive corners of food culture that first embraced it as a European crossover. Arugula is neither enduringly trendy, like kale, nor so lame that Millennial irony breathes new life into it, as with iceberg-wedge salads.
In spite of all those obstacles, arugula persists in quiet superiority as the best tasting, most versatile, and easiest to prepare of the common greens. All it has ever done is help make things delicious: It’s great as a crunchy topping for sandwiches, piled atop a Neapolitan pizza, or as a nutritious base for a salad. It shouldn’t have to provide all that pleasant, peppery flavor just to reside in a vegetal purgatory between the broad commonality of spinach and kale’s trendy coastal dominance. The vegetable has brought more than enough to the table to earn the ubiquity it’s never had.
Arugula was put through the wringer during the 2008 presidential election because Obama’s opponents claimed that it was intolerably fancy. In reality, it just lacked broad American name recognition, which might make something seem more exotic than it really is. It was also vaguely associated with Europe, which is not the same thing as “fancy.”
The plant has been around for approximately a zillion years, and it’s even mentioned in the Bible and the Talmud. Geographically, that makes sense: Arugula originates in the coastal Mediterranean. Rocket, roquette, or rucola, as arugula is more commonly known outside the United States, is widely eaten in Europe, and especially in Italy. That commonality translates to America, to a certain extent: Google Trends data suggest that the most interest in the vegetable is concentrated in states with significant Italian American populations.
Price-wise, arugula isn’t any less accessible than any other fresh green in the country. At the grocery store in my neighborhood, which is so unimpressive that it regularly lacks at least one essential ingredient for my favorite chicken soup, both the organic and conventional varieties of arugula cost the same per pound as baby spinach, kale, and “spring mix” greens. I don’t know how it compares in price with frisée; there wasn’t any in the store, probably because no one has ever wanted to eat frisée.
Arugula also offers something none of those greens do: It has a distinctly pleasant flavor all its own, even before you dress it, sauté it, or layer it on top of a burger. The plant is frequently described as peppery or even spicy. That might be overstating it a bit, but it still provides more than just a bit of crunchy nutrition to the meals it joins. Even better, it doesn’t quickly get limp and soggy, unlike chopped romaine. Arugula’s small, tender leaves and thin stems are ready to eat with just a quick wash, unlike kale, which requires the preparer to dismantle it and beat it into submission.
Arugula should be such an easy sell, if not tarnished by political backbiting. To understand what was holding it back and what could be done, I spoke to Darby Hughes, the brand-strategy director at Quench, a marketing agency focused on the food and beverage industry. He said the solution might lie in the foreign markets where the plant is already a dietary staple: a different name. “What if we embrace the name ‘rocket?’ That might very well destigmatize it,” he says.
Hughes cautions that before growers rebrand their entire business, they should run some tests on potential names to see whether the idea is indeed wise. “I don’t want to hurt my existing sales to arugula fanatics,” he says. But I feel like we leafheads (if I may) would seek out our fix no matter the name. And rebranding has had huge upsides for other fresh foods. Hughes notes that the Chilean sea bass got its name after its real moniker, Patagonian toothfish, failed to connect with anyone. With its more stylish title, the species has become a well-known symbol of seafood sophistication.
If arugula (excuse me, rocket) were to gain the American dietary prominence it so richly deserves, it would probably be relatively simple for the country’s farmers to keep up with the demand. In an interview for PBS in 2017, Carl Glanzman, an arugula farmer, said that cultivating the green is simple. “It thrives well on total abuse,” he says, which may be why arugula still stands a chance at all in America. “It doesn’t mind growing with grass. It doesn’t mind growing with other weeds.” It grows all year and is resistant to cold weather.
That hardiness might give the plant an additional edge on a popular green competitor: Much of the country’s winter romaine lettuce comes from just one part of Arizona, which has made it vulnerable to foodborne-illness outbreaks that have wiped out availability across America for months.
When you look at the particulars, it sure seems like the vagaries of partisan politics have once again denied Americans the full potential of a thing they might otherwise have enjoyed. But there’s still time for people to let arugula into their hearts. Glanzman’s farm—and many of his rocket-buying restaurant clients—just happens to be in Iowa.
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