Brussels sprouts grow on stalks, and the smaller the sprout, the sweeter. They have existed since the 16th century and found their way through Europe and across the channel to the British Islands in their native Belgium. Their bigger relatives, broccoli and cabbage, had originally grown wild and are believed to have been domesticated centuries earlier by the Celts, presumably before 1000 B.C. Though 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 areas, where the Romans embraced it (but they certainly did not embrace the Celtic armies). It became a popular food, since it was easy and inexpensive to grow and may be dropped into a pot of boiling water and eaten plain or in a soup or stew.
Throughout history, conquering armies have frequently taken their favorite foods into other countries and, depending on the climates and growing conditions, cabbage took on various colors and appearances. Regardless of who gets the nod for discovering this popular vegetable, it had been widely accepted in Europe and often sliced and fermented. (Once again, explorer Marco Polo lost out detecting cabbage in his travels but maybe ate it in his native Italy.)
Cabbage made its appearance in America around 1700 and was likely 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” that became what is now our modern day coleslaw. Centuries before, cut and initially eaten with vinaigrette, the Dutch took coleslaw to a new (and less healthy) level by adding egg, some type of milk and fat, normally 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 cluttered, it certainly was not packed into the bags of military soldiers or cowboys, but it has thrived as a favorite side dish with all-American sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers, and a favorite salad with barbeque and fried chicken.
When the wildly popular fast food restaurant that specializes in poultry removed it from their menu, there was a nationwide uproar (including from this author). They replaced it using a spinach salad, but that just did not cut it for coleslaw lovers, which attests to its popularity.
And talking of shredded cabbage, the Germans, Czechs and Polish all have their cherished fermented sauerkraut, which is generally served as a hot vegetable. Jewish delis
Serve it cold as a side for sandwiches and a significant filling in Reuben sandwiches.
Where does this leave our Brussels sprouts? Over 90 percent of the U.S. supply of those miniature cabbages are grown in the cool climate of San Francisco and
Agricultural regions 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 into 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 consistently make the top five record globally. So for those people in that camp, they’ll be absent from the family dinner table. Bon appetit.