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.

16 comments:

Louiz said...

But I like brussels... and so does Kathryn, strangely.

walterknitty said...

Brussels may never be as good as cake but roasted in the oven with olive oil and garlic they get a wonderfully sweet flavour. They're meant to be harvested after a frost. Something about a frost brings out the natural sugars in the plant. These are sooo going in my fall garden this year.

Barbara said...

I love Brussels Sprouts. I can't wait for fall when they show up at the Farmer's Market and I can steam them and roast them and devour them. Yum. Cake is good for a chaser.

Roxie said...

So how do we deal with the methane factor that accompanies the digestion of cruciferae? Frankly love the flavor, but I am not socially acceptable after I indulge.

What are silver plated spoons made of and is it safe to use them when the plating wears off?

Donna Lee said...

I can't even stand the smell of brussels sprouts. Even if you made a cake with them, they'd still be sprouts.

Mandy said...

Funny thing is, I was just thinking about Brussels sprouts yesterday morning in the shower, and where they originated, and how they got their name ('cause we had them for dinner the night before, so they were on my mind).

My son just asked me to read him this post while he brushed his teeth before bed. But he claims that the words "Keep brushing!" don't appear nearly as often as I said them during the reading.

TinkingBell said...

Worst job ever - picking brussels sprouts by hand. I did it at the end of high school - you got paid a miniscule amount for a garbage bin full, You crawled through red mud on your hands and knees screwing individual sprouts off the tree. They had ice on them, and you couldn't wear gloves because then you couldn't get the sprouts off. It rained. It was cold cold cold. I earned 12 dollars for a day. Worst job ever. Took me 15 years before I could even look at a brussel sprout.

Galad said...

Hate Brussel Sprouts but very interesting information about them :-)

Emily said...

BOTANY is your thing??!!? Along with everything else!? Jeepers. Is there anything you don't know?

mrsfife said...

We discovered Brussels sprouts rather late, when the fancy stores began stocking them. My mom cooks them like cabbage, but they taste so much better, especially the buttery centre!
Now where I live I see them sometimes, too, but the quality isn't always good...

Liz said...

I love Brussels sprouts - could eat them every day when they're in season... Interesting info - thanks!

Amy Lane said...

I love brussel sprouts... with lots of salty butter... the eternal nutritional paradox, right?

WikiBobo said...

After reading this, I started eating my apple.

I'll steam broccoli and cauliflower tomorrow in homage.

Ann said...

This was really interesting--thanks for explaining why it's so hard to tell which plants in my garden are cabbage, which are broccoli, and which are cauliflower!

Sherry said...

Yummy little bugers. Try stir frying bacon and garlic till crisp, take out the bacon and garlic and wipe the wok clean of grease. Add 1.5 lbs sprouts cleaned and cut in half, 1.5 cups water, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tablespoons of butter and a little salt. Cook till water reduces to 1/3. Add the bacon and garlic back in, cook 1 to 2 minutes and serve. Remember to share baby share!!

cavewomancafe said...

This post made me laugh out loud! Great writing and good fodder for the grist.