Brussels Sprouts

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Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea, Gemmifera group) did in fact originate in Belgium as a mutant or dwarf cultivar of Savoy cabbage. It surfaced in the sixteenth century and spread to the U.S. only after 1800, but never captured the hearts and minds of the people. Indeed, before I learned the historical truth, my assumption was that the plant’s name was intended as a slur, part of a widespread humorous tradition of anti-Belgian invective. This tradition, the moral equivalent of Polish jokes in the U.S. and Aggie jokes in Texas, eventually became a joke on its own, so that in France the expression “c’est Belge” evolved as a humorous play on the normal phrase “c’est bète, ” or that’s dumb. Mark Twain, ever ready to lampoon a Brassica (see under cauliflower), once said that to eat Brussels sprouts was to deprive cabbage of their young.

Despite all this, Brussels sprouts appear on supermarket shelves all year, and somebody must be eating them. The standard method is to trim away tough or withered leaves, cut an X at the stem end to promote even cooking, and boil in salted water until tender. For a far grander presentation try this molded loaf.

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