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Ann Thurlow smells some cabbage at the MacKenzie farm in Stratford, P.E.I., on Feb. 9.John Morris/The Globe and Mail

It was the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. Restaurants were closed. And up to three million pounds of cabbage were piling up at the MacKenzie farm, the largest cabbage farm on Prince Edward Island. The demand for cabbage, or rather coleslaw – an island favourite served alongside lobster suppers and fish and chips during the busy tourist season – had plummeted. Farmers feared for their livelihoods.

But when Ann Thurlow heard this, she threw up her hands. Holy smokes, there’s so much more to do with cabbage, thought Ms. Thurlow, a Charlottetown resident and lifelong cabbage lover who had wooed her husband, David, 35 years earlier with a Julia Child coleslaw made with apples.

Ms. Thurlow, 71, appointed herself the “colonel of the cabbage army.” Her mission: to rescue PEI’s cabbage industry and, in doing so, the cruciferous vegetable’s lowly reputation.

Potatoes have long reigned on PEI, but cabbage rolls into fifth place among vegetable farmers, with more than 1.2 million heads hand-harvested on the island each year. Atlantic Canadians have long consumed cabbage: chopped and fermented as sauerkraut to prevent scurvy during the long winter, in a traditional boiled supper, and at the end of winter when there’s nothing left to eat.

Ms. Thurlow’s cabbage crusade began with a Facebook group to help spread the word about the potential of cabbage in cookery. She called out for cabbage recipes, and people who were bored during the pandemic responded. She talked up cabbage on a local radio show. Around town she started to become known as the cabbage lady.

As the lockdown progressed, Ms. Thurlow decided to compile the recipes into a cabbage cookbook. People laughed when she told them what she was working on.

Ms. Thurlow says people are wrong to jeer at the cabbage, which she contends is sweet and crisp (if a tad grassy) in a coleslaw, or silky and nutty as a substitute for a baked potato when roasted with olive oil and salt.

“It’s a humble vegetable ... but within its humbleness, humility, it is full of nutrition,” she said. “It’s all about the stuff that we have that’s affordable and it’s usable.”

Cabbage, unlike say pink radicchio or Malpeque oysters or chanterelles, is neither expensive nor sophisticated. But, she says, that’s part of its charm. It’s the main ingredient in her go-to dinner, which she calls “the same old thing.” She cooks up cubes of cabbage in butter, adds milk, sometimes a bit of sausage, and loads of pepper.

Ms. Thurlow hired a tuba player to celebrate the launch of the cookbook in the fall of 2021. “The tuba has the exact same reputation as the cabbage,” she said. “People are scornful. It’s a little bit funny – you know, boom, boom boom, but in fact…. it’s a really important instrument that people just think of as a joke and it’s the same thing I think about cabbage.”

My PEI Cabbage Cookbook, with its soft green cover, hand-sketched illustrations, and untested home recipes, is maybe as humble and plain as the cabbage itself. It’s crammed with slaws and salads, Afghan recipes for stew and stuffed cabbage, a South Indian style cabbage stir-fry, and Taiwanese kimchi and pickled cabbage recipes from local Buddhist nuns – recipes that Ms. Thurlow says reflect the multicultural makeup of the island. Proceeds of the cookbook go to a local pantry for people in need and a women’s homeless shelter.

Last summer, Ms. Thurlow slid a copy of her green plastic spiral cookbook into an envelope and addressed it to The New York Times. She’d noticed Sam Sifton, the founding editor of the New York Times Cooking, a digital cookbook and cooking guide, had recently posted a few recipes that included cabbage. Now here’s a man as sophisticated as they come and he’s mentioning cabbage, she thought.

A few weeks later, Ms. Thurlow awoke from an afternoon nap to an influx of breathless messages from friends. She stared at her phone in disbelief.

Mr. Sifton, one of the most influential food voices in the world, had given her a shoutout in the NYT What to Cook newsletter.

“My new favorite cookbook, from Prince Edward Island in Canada: My PEI Cabbage Cookbook, by Ann Thurlow,” wrote Mr. Sifton on Aug. 1, 2022. He included a link to Veseys Seeds, a PEI garden store and the only retailer selling it.

Messages poured in, including one from Veseys Seeds. What’s going on? the store manager wanted to know. We need more cookbooks right away.

Mr. Sifton said he laughed when the book arrived on his desk in New York City, with a yellow sticky note. It said something like, “I understand you like cabbage.”

Then, he says, he fell for the book. “It’s so idiosyncratic and wonderful and strange. You don’t find that enough in the cookbook game!” Mr. Sifton wrote in an e-mail to The Globe.

After that, book sales tripled. The overflowing bins of cabbage at the MacKenzie farm started to dwindle. And PEI’s largest cabbage farm survived to plant another crop.

It’s unclear how much of it was influenced by Ms. Thurlow or the lifting of pandemic restrictions. But her efforts certainly made an impact, said Tania MacKenzie of MacKenzie farm. “Really, she saved us during the pandemic,” said Ms. MacKenzie. “She really got the word out.”

The cabbage colonel had succeeded. Now she wants cabbage to go even bigger: “We’re always hoping cabbage becomes the new radicchio.”

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