Brussels sprouts

The Brussels Sprouts Controversy

| published September 5, 2015 |

By Michael Sigler
(excerpted from Tales From The Frying Pan)
Thursday Review contributor

Throughout my life, my love affair with food has included most types of cuisine, from the first slobber of mashed and strained Gerber’s comestibles, to that sensational last bite of Coq au Vin at the Chez Monclair.

From my humble beginnings, I was not really a fussy eater. Obligingly, I opened my mouth (here comes the airplane) for anything that came my way; old photographs will attest to that.

In the days of my youth, food was more to be tolerated than to please the palette. Armed with her Betty Crocker Cookbook in one hand and Dr. Spock in the other, the mom of the 1940’s doggedly set out to nourish and raise her children.

During my formative years, we were warned repeatedly not to stick rocks or dirt in our mouths. If the truth were known, we were young pioneers, driven to experience something other than corned beef hash and green Jell-O laced with carrot curls.

We were also surrounded by an array of formidable looking household appliances, from the ringer washing machine that was known to swallow kid’s whole, squeezing them through its evil rollers, to that great citadel of the kitchen stove - the pressure cooker. Whenever that mechanical contrivance was in operation, us kids ate with one foot towards the door. “Thar she blows,” I thought I heard a sea captain yell. It was like something from a Herman Melville novel. The old girl could blow steam from surface to ceiling.

Upright and ominous was our vacuum cleaner. When it headed our direction we were confronted with its one large light, looking, for all purposes like the headlamp on the Orient Express. If the cat went missing, we could just about guess what happened.

The 1940’s and 50’s were also times of new and creative things for home and hearth. I came from a very matriarchal family. One afternoon, I arrived home from school, walked through the back door, and found myself in the middle of befuddled grandmas, aunts and moms. They were all huddled around a small red and white innocuous looking aerosol can, with the words Redi-Whip inscribed on the side.

The history of this Machiavellian concept dates back as early as 1790. Quite possibly with the advent of the French Revolution, it was a time for the oppressed masses to break free, so a man with the unlikely name of Perpigna invented a soda siphon, incorporating a valve. Maybe his thinking was that if it could generate enough power, it could blow a hole in a rival’s castle.

Metal spray cans were being tested as early as 1862, but being constructed of heavy steel, they were too bulky for commercial use. Norwegian engineer Eric Rotheim is credited with obtaining the first patent on the aerosol can and valve that could hold and dispense products for commercial use, but credit my mom for bringing the first one of these devices into our home.

None of the ladies could quite figure out how to make it work. That tempting little device defied logic, until up stepped Grandma. Being the head matriarch, she immediately took control of the valve. What happened from that point was sheer pandemonium. Pressing the valve, whipping cream began shooting everywhere. Grandma, in a panic, would not let go of the valve. While my siblings took cover wherever they could, my aunts and mom tried to wrest control of the demon can.

But I promised a story about Brussels sprouts, not spray cans. While that is true, let me now embark on that most distasteful of subjects. There are few things in this world I dislike, and even fewer that I loath and detest, one of them is that little compact green cabbage we lovingly refer to as the Brussels sprout.

I do not know if there is an adjective that transcends the definition of repugnant or ghastly, but if there were, it would aptly describe this vegetable. With each excruciating forced nibble, I am reminded of Dante Alghieri’s masterpiece “Dante’s Inferno.” Describing his journey through hell, he finds himself in its lowest dimension, a place reserved only for the wicked. The wretched, trapped souls must spend an eternity struggling to push a huge rock up a steep hill. Getting to the top only means that for their eternity, the rock would continue to roll back down and the process would continue ad-infinitum.

If I was not a believer in and servant of Almighty God, having an assurance of something far greater than eternal separation, then this would surely be my fate. Just replace the boulder with a very large Brussels sprout, and you would understand my feelings in this matter. To all of you who love these tiny cabbages, I offer my humble apologies.

Edward Lewis Sturtevant was a renowned botanist, physician and author in the 1800’s. He stated that A.P. de Candolle, another great botanist of the time, described Brussels sprouts as commonly cultivated in Belgium, and implied its general use in French gardens. In England, the sprout has only been recognized since about 1854.

Having spent three years living and working in the United Kingdom, I can attest to the fact that often hot cooked dinners were accompanied with sprouts. In French cookery, they are essential for Bruxelloise and Brabanconne garnishes.

In truth, sprouts have long been a part of our American and English diets. Many botanists agree that the origin of the Brussels sprout dates somewhere around 1500, but some have actually placed it as far back as the Middle or Dark Ages. (That makes sense).

In 1945 the frozen food industry helped to make sprouts a household item. That year, I was two years old, so one might say that sprouts and I have grown up side by side. In our family of five kids, the hard fast rule was that nothing was to be wasted. If it was set in front of you, it had to be eaten.

I have always been amazed at how God could provide us humans with the same four taste senses, sweet, sour, bitter and salty, yet individuals differ so much as to what they like and dislike.

Next to me at the dinner table sat my brother Patrick. He could never be shown a vegetable he didn’t like. Across from me sat my sister Molly. She and I inherited the “I-hate-sprouts-gene” along with a general contempt for any vegetable. In those formative years, sprouts often found their way to our table. If eating one hot was not bad enough, when they were cold, it was ever so much worse. Too many times to count, my sister and I were left alone (remember the starving children in China), while everyone else had departed the table for better things.

The one thing that separates a good cook from a great one is the gift of imagination. In fact, I believe that rule applies to almost any project a man puts his hand to. Let me elaborate. For a number of years our church members have been involved in the never-ending challenge to lose those post-holiday pounds. Many make resolutions, while some of the ways of getting it done can be quite inventive.

For our little group it involves what’s called The Daniel Fast. A physical, as well as Spiritual cleansing of sorts. Put simply, this idea comes straight out of the bible at a time in the Old Testament when King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the chief of his court officials to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility. These young men were to be assigned a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that were to enter the king’s service.

Daniel resolved not to defile himself or his men with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile themselves this way. A plan was set forth that Daniel and his men would eat nothing but vegetables and drink water for ten days, then their appearance would be compared to that of those who ate the king’s food. At the end of the ten days, so the account goes, Daniel and the other young men were healthier looking than those who ate of the king’s table.

When you embark on this kind of a dietary change, the word creativity becomes of utmost importance. A vegetable is just a vegetable unless one can match it up with some wonderful side dish or place it such a way that after two days it does not comes back to haunt you, as was the case in the story of the evil cabbage.

Some time back, my wife and I felt the need to lose some weight. A trendy program making the rounds was what some heart specialists were calling ‘the cabbage soup diet.’ This method was designed primarily for pre-operative heart patients who needed to lose weight quickly before surgery and it actually works, that is unless you lose your mind first.

For seven days you eat nothing but this special recipe cabbage soup, then on the fourth day you are allowed some fruit. With great gusto I started the whole process and actually managed to get to the third day. Now while we may not find this in any medical journal, in my personal experience, consuming a steady diet of cabbage caused all kinds of physical anguish, the least of which was bad breath.

On the third night of my diet I had a particularly horrifying nightmare, one which jolted me out of my slumber. In my dream, I was being chased by a large head of cabbage. Closer and closer it came until I could smell the fetid leaves.

Just in time, I bolted out of my sleep, only to be faced with another day of this dreaded diet. When I politely and soft-spokenly commented to my wife that I no longer wanted cabbage, sweetly, yet firmly she reminded me that I was only part way through the program, dear! Then, with a look that could stop a clock, my face contorted in a rage, and I retorted, “I want meat, and I want it now.” So ended the saga of the sodden cabbage.

I realize there are plenty of people who swear by the taste of cabbage and if you look at the facts, it really is a good food source. Known for over 4,000 years in Europe, it was at first valued for its medicinal properties, but later was used as food, particularly as a basis for soups. Through cultivation and selection, green, white and red varieties of cabbage were produced, as well as many other brassicas, including Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli.

I am grown now and the choice to partake or not in the consumption of such vegetables is mine. There are those around me who love cabbage and Brussels sprouts very much, and take pleasure in deriding my taste, or lack thereof.

It’s nice to know that in this big world of ours, we can still settle on compromise. Mine is this: on Thanksgiving, I silence my critics by making an announcement. Holding up my once-a-year obligatory sprout, I partake, thanking God that it is all over for another eleven months and 29 days. My brother-in-law Scott, who shares many of my sentiments, has joined me in this tradition. We may form a club.