One fall day about a year ago, struck by the guilty feeling that hits after baking a particularly wicked and sinfully rich chocolate cake, I vowed for the sake of health and all that’s dear to me to cook more vegetables. But not just any vegetables. No, I wanted to cook those that rarely, if ever, filled my pots or waited in vain in my vegetable crisper until I discovered their rotten remains long past their expiration dates.
The litany of possible vegetables turned out to be more complex than I expected: Parsnips. Turnips. Rutabaga. Sweet potatoes. Mustard greens. Brussels sprouts.
So I soon found myself in the produce section of my local grocery store, humming along with the song playing in the background. I glanced up and saw rows of plastic boxes of Brussels sprouts sitting on a very high shelf.
And I realized that I’d never eaten a single Brussels sprout in my entire life. How had this happened?
After all, they look like tiny cabbages, toy-like, the sort of thing you might find in a dollhouse. And most people eat cabbage without too much fuss, don’t they? What could be so bad about them?
You know how certain things trigger little videos in your mind, bringing up memories best forgotten or maybe those that seemed of no significance at the time. Food aversions tend to fall into the first category. The whole question of eating or not eating Brussels sprouts reveals a lot about American cooking, how cooks treated vegetables, what they serve with Brussels sprouts, beliefs about food, familial habits, and even seasonality of food.
Standing there with a box of Brussels sprouts in my hand, I remembered a conversation with friends about those cute little mini-cabbages. To a person, every single one of them groaned and made retching noises as they recalled the horrors of Brussels sprouts. One friend, Janice [not her real name], told a sad story: Her mother forced her to sit at the table until she ate every single Brussels sprout on her plate. “Even our dog wouldn’t eat them,” she wailed, her inner child emerging up for a moment, shuddering as she told how their usually omnivorous dog slunk away, leaving her in the dark kitchen to face her fate. Years later, she still knew the exact number of nicks in the yellow Formica table top and how the cold metal rimming the chair seat chilled her thighs. A tear or two rolled down her cheeks as another friend handed over a Kleenex. No one said anything for a few moments, sunk in their own memories of hated foods.
Just as I was about to put the box back on the shelf, a woman of a certain age came up behind me and reached over my shoulder to grab a box of Brussels sprouts.
“How do you fix those things?” I asked her. “I’ve never eaten one in my life, much less cooked one.”
She looked at me as if I’d just sprouted another head, but plunged forth with a long discourse on how she treated those little green things. “But the best way,” she said, “is to roast them with garlic, olive oil, and some pancetta. Be sure to serve mashed potatoes and roast pork with them.” She, like so many people today, snuck a look at her watch and darted off with a quick “Good luck. Enjoy,” and a long white scarf trailing behind her.
And that is how I finally ate Brussels sprouts, something people had been doing since the 18th century,* when all sorts of experiments in French and British gardens resulted in the most loathed vegetable of all, even more detested than spinach.
I must thank my mother for never cooking them. If she had, I might never have known how good they can be. I came at them, it might be said, with a clean heart.
Thinking about the ramifications of Brussels sprouts, it’s interesting, too, how prejudice against foods presents, in a way, a microcosm of how other human aversions and prejudices develop, isn’t it?
*Some commentators suggest that the Romans knew of Brussels sprouts and imply, too, that Burgundians living in the 15th century served Brussels sprouts.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen