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When one writes historical fiction, one pitfall for anachronisms is the dinner table. If your story takes place in late eighth-century Europe, you can’t have your characters eating French fries. Potatoes are a New World food.

Somewhat trickier, though, is portraying what the food looked like then. Take cabbage, for example, which many of us will eat for good luck in the new year. As a 21st century American, I took for granted that green cabbage always formed a head. Not so, according AgriLife Extension (affiliated with Texas A&M), which I found though a link on www.foodtimeline.org.

“‘White’ (hard-heading) cabbages were apparently unknown until after the time of Charlemagne, who died A.D. 814,” says AgriLife. It would be another four centuries before a mention of a heading cabbage, this one by Albert of Cologne.

So what did cabbages look like 1,200 years ago, the period in which I write? Probably a rosette like the wild cabbage pictured below.

Food is a good way for an author to set time and place, but describing vegetables can be a challenge. To us, a cabbage forming a rosette of dark green, deeply lobed leaves resembling kale is unusual. Unless the characters are time travelers, to them it’s just cabbage. Unless it’s rotten or bitter, what is there to notice? In their world, everyone knows cabbage has dark green, deeply lobed leaves and grows in rosettes.

Wild Cabbage

Cabbage during the days of Charlemagne might have look more like these plants growing on sea cliffs below a mediaeval monastery at Tynemouth, Northumberland, U.K. (by MPF, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, or CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)