I remember being grossed out by Brussels Sprouts as a kid. Because I was a kid, and there were reasons to be grossed out by every vegetable, probably because of some off-hand comment you overheard in a cartoon or something (How much damage did the Ninja Turtles really do to the anchovies industry?). I don't recall exactly when as an adult I finally tasted delicious Brussels Sprouts and became a full-on devotee to those weird green nubs, but I am definitely a fan. As I learned the last time we hosted Thanksgiving, however, my father-in-law is still firmly against them, even when slathered in bacon.
It turns out, his distaste for Brussels Sprouts may not be so crazy after all. As I've now learned thanks to this NPR piece, the Brussels Sprouts we eat today are in fact less bitter and stinky than the Brussels Sprouts of yore:
This all started to change in the 1990s, and it began in the Netherlands, where Brussels sprouts have a simpler name: spruitjes. A Dutch scientist named Hans van Doorn, who worked at the seed and chemical company Novartis (the seed part is now called Syngenta), figured out exactly which chemical compounds in spruitjes made them bitter.
At that point, the small handful of companies that sell Brussels sprouts seeds started searching their archives, looking for old varieties that happen to have low levels of the bitter chemicals.
There are hundreds of these old varieties. The companies grew them in test plots, and they did, in fact, find some that weren't as bitter. They cross-pollinated these old varieties with modern, high-yielding ones, trying to combine the best traits of old and new spruitjes. It took many years. But it worked. "From then on, the taste was much better. It really improved," Sintenie says.
I suppose this isn't too surprising — humans have always indulged in culinary chemistry, and all of the produce we eat today has been carefully bred over the years to make it more robust and palatable. But I don't think there are many people still alive whose tastebuds still recall the trauma of some proto-carrot or banana from their youth that would be radically different than it is today.
Now I just have to figure out how to convince my father-in-law to try Brussels Sprouts again…
From Culinary Dud To Stud: How Dutch Plant Breeders Built Our Brussels Sprouts Boom [Dan Russell / NPR]
Image: Rusty Clark / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)