Cauliflower had become Lauren Hetrick's go-to vegetable. "We have it as often as possible," says the Rockville, Maryland, mother of three. "Once we roasted it, my kids really liked it - and they'll eat anything if you put cheese on it."
But for weeks, Hetrick was unable to find any cauliflower, anywhere. Her quest for it "became a joke," she says. "I went from grocery to grocery," futilely stalking the elusive object of her family's desire. "If I found cauliflower, it was $6 and a really little head, like the size of your hand. That's not going to feed anyone. Well, maybe the guinea pig."
These are heady times for cauliflower. High demand, unseasonably cool temperatures in farming regions and limited supply are resulting in scarcity or absurd prices for the latest "it" food.
How absurd? You may want to sit down for this: $7.99 for an organic head at the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op in Maryland. In Philadelphia, Weavers Way Food Co-op suspended stocking the vegetable for three weeks out of concern that the lofty price tag would discourage buyers. But demand persisted.
Produce Alliance, a consultant to produce distributors, reported in the Christmas week edition of its market review that cauliflower, the veggie that uprooted king kale, was - not to get too technical - in "ACT OF GOD" status.
In layman's terms, this means "high prices and NONEXISTENT supply." (The all-cap alarm is the Alliance's doing. Vegetable shortages apparently make some people extremely anxious.)
Long the bland steamed side dish routinely raked around the dinner plate, surreptitiously fed to pets and plants (not that we speak from experience), or cloaked in hazmat-like cheese sauce in a (mostly failed) effort to fool the family, cauliflower has become beyond cool.
It's as though the kid you ignored through elementary and middle school, to say nothing of excluding from basement make-out parties, grew up to become the Jennifer Lawrence of cruciferous vegetables.
"Cauliflower is getting its time in the limelight and finally getting some love," confirms Lorri Koster, a third-generation vegetable supplier in California's Salinas Valley.
It's certainly a favorite of chefs, who are serving cauliflower-crust pizza, cauliflower rice, cauliflower cupcakes, General Tso's cauliflower, Buffalo-spiced cauliflower, cauliflower patties and cauliflower mash. Chef Dan Barber of New York's Blue Hill has a celebrated cauliflower steak with cauliflower puree, a timely dish now that cauliflower costs almost as much as steak.
And, yes, cauliflower ice cream is a thing.
A vitamin-rich, low-calorie veggie that can behave like a carb, cauliflower is a monster in the popular Paleo diet, because "it substitutes for rice," says Paleo blogger Russ Crandall, who runs the Domestic Man website. His readers frequently request cauliflower recipes.
CrossFit fanatics, too, are deeply enamored of the long-neglected member of the Brassica family. "I've been eating more of it than I have in my entire life," says Bryant Boucher, a CrossFit instructor in Frisco, Colorado, who follows recipes on Paleoplan.com. "I fool myself that it's rice or mashed potatoes."
Add to these cravings unseasonably cool weather at California and Arizona farms, and you have the makings of a major shortage. Koster says that her firm normally ships 60,000 cartons a week, each box containing a dozen to 15 heads, but the frost has zapped shipments to 5,000. "The way demand escalated really caught us off guard," she says.
Which makes for some desperate shoppers, who'll pay any price to get their hands on the coveted crucifer.
"People get crazy about it," said Robert Cahill, filling orders earlier this week at the Whole Foods in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, for Instacart, an online grocery shopping service. "They're not happy about the prices, but they're buying."
For some, half a head is better than none. When the price spiked to $7, "I split the cost with a friend," said resourceful shopper MirnaWay of Philadelphia. "We cut the cauliflower right in half."
Chefs are feeling the pinch, too. Cauliflower is a "huge staple" in Mike Isabella's collection of Washington, D.C., restaurants. The best-selling item at his G on 14th Street and at Nationals Park - bigger than chicken parm! bigger than the Italian sub! - is the $9 roasted cauliflower hero with pickled vegetables, paprika and romesco sauce. Washington has gone from a meat-and-potatoes town to a cauliflower-and-pickled-vegetables town.
"It probably costs me $8 to make it right now," says Isabella of the sandwich, as the price of cauliflower "has doubled over the past few weeks."
"It's kind of scary," he says, again demonstrating that produce can produce fear, "but we're not going to change the prices." Whew!
Cauliflower's time was long in coming. For decades, it was "in broccoli's shadow. Now it's the star of the show," says Christine Keller of CCD Innovation, a food industry trend analyst that pronounced cauliflower the kale of 2015.
This year, the firm is crushing on kelp, the vegetable formerly known as seaweed. But Keller says there's also another up-and-comer, a vegetable so cool it has yet to make the trend report: kohlrabi. "Have you tried it?" she swoons about the turnip cabbage. "Delicious."
Meanwhile, cauliflower relief may be in sight. Hetrick finally found decent-sized heads at the Safeway last weekend for $6, a relative bargain.
Another cold snap, though, and those dollar signs could multiply again. In which case, you may have to help yourself to a dollop of kelp.