It’s Not Easy Being a Leafy Green

When the Obama campaign attacked John McCain for owning seven houses—or was it eight ? or 12 ?—a McCain spokesman hit back , calling Obama “an arugula-eating, pointy headed professor-type.” Such a vicious attack must not go unsanswered. How dare he insult arugula like that?

Thanks to Barack Obama’s complaint last year about arugula prices at Whole Foods, the leafy green ( Eruca sativa , aka rugola, rucola, roquette, ruchetta , or garden rocket) has become synonymous with elitism. Part of it is the price—at the local supermarket, a 5-ounce bag of arugula costs twice as much as a head of iceberg lettuce. It’s also the foreign-sounding name, which betrays the herb’s European ancestry. But stereotyping arugula as an upscale import ignores its many virtues. Lettuce review:

It’s tasty. Let me rephrase that: It has a taste —as opposed to regular lettuce, which often seems chemically engineered to have all the properties of air, plus texture. (Hydrogen actually has four states: solid, liquid, gas and lettuce.) One salad seller described arugula’s flavor to me as “nutty and peppery.” Others call it “peppery-mustardy.” The disagreement makes it versatile as a salad base, one flavor in a mix, or as a garnish. (Just ask Olive Garden .)

It’s healthy. On the nutrition spectrum, arugula falls somewhere between iceberg lettuce and spinach. It’s rich in vitamins A and C, with even more calcium than spinach. It also packs nearly twice the calories of iceberg lettuce—after eating arugula, you actually feel like you’ve eaten. (Plus, if you look at cost per calorie instead of per ounce, their costs are much closer.)

It’s popular. Haters tend to lump arugula in with caviar, filet mignon, and Grey Goose as if it’s rare delicacy only swells can afford. Indeed, arugula itself makes up only 1 percent of pre-washed salad sales, according to AC Nielsen. But “tender leaf salads,” those mixes that tend to include arugula, represent 25 percent of salad sales—more than iceberg lettuce’s 22 percent market share. So even if arugula alone isn’t sinking the iceberg, all those other fancy salads are.

It’s American. Arugula originated in the Mediterranean and came to America via Italy. But when it became popular in the 1970s, American salad entrepreneurs started growing it in the United States along with other non-domestic greens. “We smuggled in some radicchio seeds from Italy and gave ‘em to this farmer in Pennsylvania,” Joel Dean of Dean & DeLuca told author David Kamp. “And it all came up green.” Nowadays, most of the arugula you see in the supermarket comes from California .

It’s an aphrodisiac. OK, so that might be hearsay. But you hear it said a lot. “I once got a call on our consumer line from some 18 year old boys trying to verify that,” says Samantha Cabaluna of Earthbound Farm . There’s a reason they call it “rocket.”

It’s too early to tell if anti-arugula sentiment has hurt sales. (Remember what happened to merlot after Sideways ?) But if so, it’s through no fault of the leaf. Food prices in general are soaring , which may push people to buy cheaper (and local ) greens. And there’s no doubt that if you’re tightening your belt—in more ways than one—iceberg is the way to go. Still, there is no shame in arugula.