Brussels sprouts grow on stalks, and the smaller the sprout, the sweeter. They have been around since the 16th century and found their way through Europe and across the channel to the British Isles from their native Belgium. Their larger relatives, cabbage and kale, had originally grown wild and are believed to have been domesticated centuries earlier by the Celts, presumably before 1000 B.C. Although the Romans are often given credit for introducing this vegetable to their European neighbors, the humble cabbage appears in food histories and is generally credited to the Celts, as their armies invaded the Mediterranean regions, where the Romans embraced it (but they most certainly did not embrace the Celtic armies). It became a popular food, as it was easy and inexpensive to grow and could be dropped into a pot of boiling water and eaten plain or in a soup or stew. No blue-blooded Irishman would celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without a plate of corned beef and cabbage.
Throughout history, conquering armies have frequently taken their popular foods into other countries and, depending on the climates and growing conditions, cabbage took on different colors and appearances. Regardless of who gets the nod for discovering this popular vegetable, it was widely accepted in Europe and frequently sliced and fermented. (Once again, explorer Marco Polo lost out discovering cabbage in his travels but possibly ate it in his native Italy.)
Cabbage made its appearance in America around 1700 and was probably grown and eaten by the colonists, as well as some Native Americans. Although usually cooked, in the 1700s the Dutch created a raw “cabbage salad” which became what is now our modern day coleslaw. Centuries before, cut up and originally eaten with vinaigrette, the Dutch took coleslaw to a new (and less healthy) level by adding egg, some type of fat and dairy, usually in the form of our mayonnaise. This version has been referenced in American literature as far back as 1785. Some adventurous chefs added shredded carrots and jazzed it up a bit, but the basic recipe still dominates American menus. Because it was highly perishable and messy, it certainly wasn’t packed into the bags of military soldiers or cowboys, but it has thrived as a popular side dish with all-American sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers, and a popular salad with barbeque and fried chicken.
When the wildly popular fast food restaurant which specializes in chicken eliminated it from their menu, there was a national uproar (including from this author). They replaced it with a kale salad, but that just didn’t cut it for coleslaw fans, which attests to its popularity. Kentucky Fried Chicken still continues to serve it as a popular side, and no self-respecting deli would dare keep it off their menu.
And speaking of shredded cabbage, the Germans, Czechs and Polish all have their beloved fermented sauerkraut, which is usually served as a hot vegetable. Jewish delis
serve it cold as a side for sandwiches and a major filling in Reuben sandwiches.
So where does this leave our Brussels sprouts? Over 90 percent of the U.S. supply of these miniature cabbages are grown in the cool climate of San Francisco and
agricultural areas just south of the Bay. Estimated total United States production is well over 35,000 metric tons annually. For all you Brussels sprouts haters, you can blame the French settlers who brought them to the U.S. around 1800. Production began in the Louisiana delta and eventually found its way to the West Coast where the growing climate was more favorable.
Although they are a popular item on holiday tables, this author advises that you follow recipes from top chefs to ensue they turn out tasty, firm and well-seasoned. And by the way, Brussels sprouts top the list as the most hated vegetable in the U.S. and always make the top five list worldwide. So for those of us in that camp, they will be absent from the family dinner table. Bon appetit.
Author Dale Phillip confesses that she abhors Brussels sprouts (no hate mail, please). It was painful to just write this article, but she feels she has a duty to the Brussels sprouts lovers. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, she lived in one of those households who was subjected to over-boiled vegetables, although her mother was an excellent cook. Her favorite veggie is spinach, and she is a huge fan of sauerkraut (Czech style) which her family enjoyed weekly. She also makes and buys coleslaw and took to a long mourning period after her favorite chicken fast-food restaurant removed it from their menu.
Please visit her other articles on the history of food and drink, and her blog: http://myfriendlyu.blogspot.com/
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