A Food Writer's Questions About Cabbages and Breastfeeding

All the old wives sitting around the internet cauldron will tell you that wrapping your sore breastfeeding bags of mostly milk in cabbage leaves is a efficacious, cruciferous way to get relief from engorgement, plugged ducts, and even mastitis. (To be fair, all the old scientists sitting around the medical journal cauldron sort of say the same thing.)


On your breasts. 

Image: Two cabbages via Shutterstock

When you're a food person this is where the questions begin, so welcome to the breastfeeding food writer's brain in which a slightly sore breast has me asking and answering my own questions in the space of approximately 30 seconds. 

Note: the following portrays actual, real events that took place in my head. Nothing has been dramatized for effect (not even the ticker tape parade idea). Take a seat, make yourself comfortable, and don't eat the slaw.

Brain names have been changed to protect the innocent brain.

Brain Voice 1: Huh. [Poke-poke] This right breast is feeling unusually sore on one side. [Prod-prod.] I wonder what that's about.

Brain Voice 2: OMG, it's engorged! It's a plugged duct! It's MASTITIS! And we'll get a FEVER and CHILLS and have to go on ANTIBIOTICS which make us THROW UP ALL OVER THE PLACE!

Brain Voice 1: Okay, okay, shh shh SHHH! So, it might be that--maybe we should try that cabbage leaf cure before we freak out?

Brain Voice 2: Fine, FINE, but are we talking about a CERTAIN kind of cabbage, or will ANY old cabbage do? Because I HAPPEN to know that there are multiple varieties of cabbage and I don't EVEN know if we need BIG cabbage WHITE cabbage CRINKLE cabbage RED cabb --

Brain Voice 1: -- OH MY GOD YOU ARE LOUD TODAY! Now, let's walk through this together. We've got our napa, whose conical leaves are decidedly difficult to conform to the breast or the bra unless you're on tour with Madonna; I think we can cross those off the list. Then there's the savoy variety, which looks horribly likely to scratch our nipples in a most upsetting way: no. Red cabbage probably stains our bra, our skin, our soul. So this leaves green cabbage, which has smooth, rounded leaves that seem as though they were grown especially for breast management.

Brain Voice 2: But how MUCH cabbage does the breast recipe call for? Do we do layers upon layers, like a one of those hollowed out heads of lettuce from the '80s, all iceberg and cream dressing and derelict dreams? Or a single sad leaf, like the main course of a particularly indulgent spa dinner?

Brain Voice 1: I mean, we're no food scientist, so we can't speak to whether or not some sort of osmotic force comes into play by which the cabbage juice seeps through the multiple cabbage layers to the breast...? I'm thinking one leaf at a time should do it, because presumably it's the cabbage-on-skin contact is all that's required here. 

Brain Voice 2: Should we remove the leaf's thicker ribs much in the way one removes the ribs from things like kale and chard to keep from reminding people that they're eating things like kale and chard?

Brain Voice 1: Huh, you know, we do wonder if the ribs are the source of cabbage's magical breast-healing tincture. On the other hand, those ribs have the potential to be like underwire in a bra, so we say rip 'em out.

Brain Voice 2: Okay okay okay okay WAIT! We just read that you're not supposed to cocoon the ENTIRE breast in cabbage for fear of drying up the milk supply and OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT ABOUT?! How are we going to go about cabbaging just the painful bits? And what to we use to trim the leaves down to size?  Knife? Vegetable peeler?

Brain Voice 1: So we think that a standard chef's knife is too clumsy, too unwieldy. (However, it would be a fine choice if we sought to stuff our D cups with a chiffonaded handfuls of relief. And in that case, it would be particularly cool if we found ourself in the middle of a ticker tape parade while simultaneously dealing with engorgement, mastitis, and/or plugged ducts, because then we could just reach into your shirt and join in the fun.) 

Now, a paring knife allows more precision and elegance with our cuts. But even better still is the set of culinary school pastry cut-outs that allow us to cut out cabbage circles with diameters ranging from 3/4 inch to 3 5/8 inches. With these, we can simply dot our plugged ducts area with rounds of the cruciferous vegetable until our cleavage looks like it had a party with the round Band-Aids that are useful to no one other than vaccinated kids and men who cut themselves shaving.

Brain Voice 2: And for the cook who can't abide waste: when the cabbage has done its healing, what then? 

Brain Voice 1: YES! This is an excellent question we have asked ourselves! Now, our go-to cabbage recipe is a wonderful slaw from Marisa at Food in Jars, but I think cabbage leaves warmed by inflamed breasts might not give just the right crunch so necessary for this slaw. In fact, given that our body heat will have wilted them nicely, we're basically halfway to bubble and squeak territory, so just toss them in a skillet with potatoes and oil and enjoy the literal fruits of our labor.

(Whatever we do, resist all desires to invent the Cabbage Mojito because when it comes right down to it, we don't hate people that much. Not really.)

Brain Voice 1: Also, a question about substitution, if we please--we don't have any cabbage on hand right now, but could we, in fact, use this bag of Brussels sprouts? 

Brain Voice 2: They're in the same family, so we could go ahead and peel off a bunch of those little leaves (let's say a pound to be safe?) and, using an egg white wash as our culinary glue, fashion some sort of cruciferous decoupage over the skin of your breast. Bonus: the breast skin under the egg wash will never be more luminous!

Brain Voice 1: This is all such GREAT information, Self, I think we're on the right track and we're really excited to start partaking of the de-engorgement of our breasts! Now, let's talk provenance! Should we chance it with a Whole Foods cabbage (organic, of course) or wait until the farmers' markets open on the weekend to get breast relief?

Brain Voice 2: Our husband's going to pick up our asthma prescription right now. The cabbage's provenance will be the grocery aisle at Target.

Here endeth our nightmarish 30-second sojourn in the brain of a sleep-deprived, food-writing, breast-feeding lunatic.

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