Cauliflower may be the new lime—at least, when it comes to shortages.
Dwindling supply of the white vegetable has been the subject of finance and farming stories alike since December, sending vegans and vegetarians into panic mode, driving up prices, and forcing chefs to get creative.
What’s happened to the white knight of vegetables?
Most blame the shortage on climates changes, while others have claimed that a surge in the number of people sticking to low-carb diets is to blame. This theory seems based on a line from a Quartz piece on the topic, which notes that the trend of using cauliflower as a rice or potato substitute probably “hasn’t helped matters.”
The real reason is unusually cold weather in California and Arizona, where the majority of the nation’s cauliflower is grown. Major shifts in temperatures have been reported, including some dropping below freezing overnight. According to the National Garden Associations, low temperatures can stress cauliflowers out and lead to “poorly formed heads.”
The problem has gotten so bad that Sysco issued an emergency warning to its clients in December: “CAULIFLOWER ALERT: Supplies have diminished and the market is extremely active. Yields are at historical low levels,” the message read. “Quality issues of discoloration, yellowing, and inconsistent sizing are reported. Florets continue to be limited.”
In late December the Produce Alliance, a manager of 50 specialty distributors, rated the level of cauliflower, which usually ranges from high to low, an “ACT OF GOD.” Black River Produce, a massive food market with over 2,000 wholesale customers in New England, revealed a grim situation in the December market update as well. “CAULIFLOWER DEMAND EXCEEDS SUPPLY,” it reads in all caps. “We are still experiencing high prices and short supplies.”
An article on Produce News a few weeks ago painted an equally bleak picture with Rick Reed, the vice president of produce and floral at the chain Price Chopper, saying that cauliflower was becoming near impossible to find. “Forget the high prices, you can’t even get cauliflower. Nobody is even quoting it,” he said. “I’ve been around for a long time so I’ve seen some tight situations, [and] this ranks up there.”
While the most recent report (PDF) from the Produce Alliance express hope that the situation is starting to improve, it notes that producers are “still experiencing higher than normal prices and short supplies.”
A historic low of cauliflower, as farmers are calling it, is saying something. The vegetable’s history dates back to as far as 6 B.C. when the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described it as “the most pleasant tasting” of all the cabbage. It was spotted in Syria by Arab botanists as early as the 12th century, where it is believed to have originated. Eventually the vegetable moved to Spain and, from there, Germany and France.
The vegetable wasn’t introduced to the U.S. (PDF) until the early 20th century, initially produced in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Eventually the crops moved farther out to make room for the bustling cities. Today California and Arizona produce 90 percent of the nation’s supply.
While producers and farmers have been aware of the shortage for weeks, the general public seems to be lagging behind—a surprise given last year’s limepocalypse hype.
In October, right before the shortage was announced, Whole Foods declared that the vegetable was making a “cauliflower comeback,” and touted a number of delicious recipes to prove it. The New York Times released an entire section on cauliflower recipes, which range from Indian-style rice salad to rigatoni.
But while some are mourning the lack of cauliflower, which has sent prices of it up to $8 per head, others say they won’t miss it. People like Thomas Fuchs, who summed it up this way: “There’s a cauliflower shortage in the U.S.,” he wrote in a recent tweet. “I can live with that.”