There is a kind of leaf cabbage that grows, it seems, only in Italy, or that at least is only eaten there. It has no head, growing out in great, grim, very dark green leaves with an ugly bubbly surface. The person who first tried to eat it must have been very hungry. But it is an important plant in north and central Italian cuisine, the secret ingredient in two of the most popular and beloved soups, Ribollita and Minestrone.
Now black cabbage must be more dear to the good Lord than any other plant, because the punishment He has placed for anyone who overcooks it is something that has to be felt to be believed. There honestly is magic in it. It is not enough to say that it tastes awful, not even that it tastes like poison. Overcooked black cabbage tastes like the cry of the Nazgûl; there is no other way I can describe it. It tastes as if you will never again be able to remember anything good and pleasant.
My childhood is a long time gone, and there are a lot of things I only remember if I go back and find them. I always remembered, of course, that as a child I hated minestrone – I enjoy it mightily now – and I thought it was just one of those childish fads of mine, that I grew out of. But last year I bought a batch of black cabbage from the local supermarket, as a curiosity; and inevitably I made a mess of the cooking. And I remembered.
There is a busy cottage industry that dedicates itself to denouncing the cruelty of the Catholic Church to children and other living things. By the work people put in it, there must be money in the business. So here is my contribution to it. Most of my years at junior schools were spent in private nuns' schools. I cannot say that those nuns were cruel, or stupid, or bigoted, or nasty, or bullying, or uneducated. (Sorry!) In fact, some of them I remember as wonderful people. But they bloody well overcooked their black cabbage. As I recall it, they overcooked it every time, and their minestrone – which was served most days of the week, especially in winter – came out correspondingly awful. The very first mouthful I took of my own torturously overcooked black cabbage, I remembered. I remembered all I had suffered every winter day that I went to lunch and found minestrone on my plate; and I remembered why there would be merry Hell at home every time mother tried to introduce the idea. My poor mother, she never knew.
So here is my contribution to the “The Catholic Church is a vicious child-abusing torture cult” industry. I have had bad luck; I never met a vicious or savage nun of the kind that other people remember so well, nor even an abusive priest (though I know that such people exist). The priests and nuns of my childhood were decent people and they tried their best. But good God, did they overcook their black cabbage.