Saturday, June 13, 2009
The history of Brussels Sprouts.
And why they'll never be as good as cake. (I warned you the topics would get weird.)
First we start with a sorta-quick botany lesson. (Which thrills me, 'cause botany is my thing.)
There is a huge family of plants (taxonomy is another day) called Brassicaceae or Cruciferae, which contains a good many veggies we eat. They're known as the cruciferous vegetables, due to the taxonomy classification. Among others, there's broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, mustard, kale, turnips, rutabagas, horseradish, and wasabi. Big family of plants. Very good for you; lots of beta-carotene and fiber and minerals and all that rot. They are popular the world over because they grow in crappy soil and in weird conditions (cabbage is a WINTER crop in many places - grow other food in the 'real' growing season, then grow cabbage on the off season). For many, many years, in many places, the Cruciferae are what kept the human race going, nutritionally. It is not a coincidence that just about every culture in the world has a recipe for pickled cabbage: sauerkraut, kim chee, suan cai, etc. (I knew a guy in Hawaii; his mother was German and his dad Japanese, and his mother was famous for an east-meets-west pickled cabbage she made.)
Okay, so cabbages are a big deal nutritionally. Botanically they're pretty cool, too, because they're all the same plant, or damn near. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts, among other things, are all cultivars of one plant: Brassica oleracea. See, people all over the world took cabbage and selectively bred it into whatever they wanted. That's why there are eleventeen million different kinds of leafy greens and cabbage and radishes and, and.
Cabbage itself is a wild mustard (technically) and is thought to be native to the Mediterranean area. Broccoli and several others are thought to be native to Italy. The list goes on.
Brussels sprouts are not native to Brussels; though they did probably come from somewhere in northern Europe. I suspect they would do better than traditional cabbages, because they're closer to the ground (the ground holds heat; it's warmer down there). They'd probably survive short frosts if covered with some straw. They were bred between the 1600s or 1700s, making them some of the most recent of the dozens of cabbage cultivars out there. Alton Brown did an episode of Good Eats starring brussels sprouts, and you can find the recipes here, if you've an urge to cook some.
So why aren't brussels sprouts as good as cake? Well, that's kind of an easy answer, but it's depressing. Remember the previously-blogged-about human fat tooth? (If not, link here.) In a nutshell, we evolved to crave fats because for most of human history, they were hard to get and we needed them. In addition, we're evolved to crave sweets because sweet = mother's milk (at first) and then sugary foods contained calories that we need. Again, for most of human history, sugar was pretty hard to get, so we could get away with eating all we wanted.
Short answer? Cake tastes better because we evolved to think cake tastes better. Not a damn thing we can do about it.
Go eat your leafy greens.
at 11:30 AM