Rotting cabbage is not a pleasant smell. Actually it stinks, especially a field full of them during a January thaw. Even the deer and the crows avoid the decaying crop.
One of several setbacks of the 2009 farm season was the loss of the fall cabbage crop at Brookfield Farm, the CSA that leases some of our land at Winterberry Farm. The crop went in about on time, but growing conditions never encouraged the cabbage heads to enlarge and firm up. A soft, small cabbage head in November is not worthy of harvest.
Fall cabbages are normally hardy and good for winter storage. But once they lose their luster, the isothiocynates emerge and break down into smelly sulfur compounds. This also occurs if you overcook cabbage. This goes for all the members of the cruciferous family (or if you prefer the brassicas) -- such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale.
Often the foods that have a bit of smell, are often the ones that are best for you. Apparently these isothiocynates are good for us, helping ward off various forms of cancer and cleansing toxins from the body. The key to enjoying the brassicas is to eat them raw or cooked for a short time. I like some sliced raw red cabbage in a green salad. Green and red cabbage sauteed briefly with some salt and pepper and a fresh green chili with a squirt of lemon juice is nice. My mom made us some green cabbage cole slaw this week. She grated half a cabbage, added a smidgen of grated onion, and enough mayonnaise for flavor and some cream to spruce it up. Her cabbage was from the store!
Just so I don't leave you with the thought of rotting cabbages, here is a more pleasant image. After several days of warm weather and rain the ground is bare but frozen here in western Massachusetts. As I skipped quickly past the cabbage field I caught sight of many birds feeding on seeds, fruits, and insects -- dozens of juncos, a handful of white-throated sparrows, eight cedar waxwings, a few robins, and one lone golden-crowned kinglet. A prettier bird you will not see in the middle of winter than a little kinglet.