My ESL Moment: Portuguese Roots & Kale

Some of my earliest memories with my Avo (grandmother) was when she would ask me to pick up the couves in her backyard. Some of them had gotten between the chain link fence. Since my hands were small, they could fit between the links to pull the vegetable out of the ground. My grandmother used couves for soup. My mom also used the vegetable for soup. Almost anytime I went to a Portuguese gathering that had soup (read: almost every Portuguese get-together), you could bet there were couves in it. 

In elementary school, I was the kid that aced every test, got every point. I don’t write that to sound braggadocious. Looking back on it now, my time in elementary school was probably unhealthy with how much pressure I faced, like, puking before tests in fifth grade probably isn’t normal.

I share this only to convey that, when I didn’t have the answer, it would stay with me the rest of the day. Sometime around high school, I overcorrected, but there was a semblance, a small piece of this sort of thing that followed me to law school. At least later on, I would make an attempt to “let it go,” when I found myself staring at a particular exam question or facing the relentless Socratic Method, but in the third grade I had not honed such acuity. 

This one test question I will never forget. I couldn’t even tell you what the test subject was now, but I remember there was an extra-credit question to name two leafy vegetables. I scribbled broccoli quickly and then hit a blank. Broccoli and cheese was a staple, but, for the most part, I hated vegetables. The only thing I could think of was couves. What is couves in English? My greenhorn brain came up with nothing. Time was up. I wrote in “couves (in Portuguese).” 

When I went home that day, I asked my mom, “Mom, what’s couves in English?” 

“Couves are couves,” she said. 

“In English?” I asked. 

“Yeah,” she answered. I was skeptical to say the least. But these were the days before we had a computer and cell phones (let alone smartphones), so I waited until my dad came home to ask him the same question. He racked his brain for a few minutes. And my mom interjected: “I already told you, couves are couves.” 

“In English, though?” 

She said “yes” again. This time, with agitation laced in her voice. 

“No it’s not,” my dad said. 

“What is it then?” She said, almost like it was a declarative sentence. 

He looked up to the ceiling. Seconds ticked by. The anticipation was killing me. Finally, “Kale,” he said. 

I don’t remember ever hearing the word before that moment. I went years without hearing that term in English. My teacher, Ms. Costa, a Portuguese woman whose TAB soda addiction may have made her a little more sympathetic to children with an aversion for healthy food, gave me the extra points anyhow. 

I find it hilarious that kale became something of a craze with culturally white Americans over the past decade, a blossoming love affair with green juices. About twelve years after that test, Time Magazine crowned kale king on its “Top 10 Food Trends” list.

Nowadays, the word is everywhere. It reminds me of my own personal ESL moment, despite my first language always being English. It’s rooting in a weird way; humbling, but grounding. And it reminds me of how small my world has been and makes me question if I’ll look back and think the same thing about whatever my present circumstances may be.

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