Hail to the Sprout

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The secular images on Christmas cards haven’t changed an awful lot over the years: Father Christmas (or Santa as he increasingly gets called) still makes plenty of appearances, along with reindeer, snowmen, robins, bauble festooned trees and puddings with a sprig of holly on top. Despite the fact that only four times in the last fifty years or so has there has been widespread snow on Christmas day there is usually a healthy covering over everything. Nothing wrong with tradition. While we’ve never received one, I discovered that there has recently been an increase in the number of cards featuring brussels sprouts- generally with an allegedly humorous content usually focusing on their smellier qualities both while being cooked and after being eaten.

A 2008 survey by Heinz found that Brussels sprouts are the most-hated vegetable in in Britain and they make it to the top five in surveys of the most-disliked vegetables around the world. Yet it still stays as one of the traditional components of Christmas dinner. Supermarkets sell approximately 750 million sprouts in the two weeks before 25 December which is about a quarter of the entire year’s sales of the vegetable. Having said that, it’s most unlikely that all those sprouts were actually eaten which is as much part of Yuletide tradition as anything else.

Although native to the Mediterranean region with other cabbage species, Brussels sprouts first appeared in northern Europe during the fifth century, later being cultivated in the 13th century near Brussels, from which they derived their name. They are not called brussels sprouts in Belgium. Just spruitjes.

Just why they’re a central part of Christmas dinner is hard to tell. Dickens may have invented the modern idea of the festive season, but the cornucopia of goodies surrounding the jovial ghost of Christmas Present doesn’t seem to include the little green monsters. The most likely explanation for their addition to the feast is that sprouts were first imported in bulk into this country around the end of the nineteenth century just as the excessive Christmas dinners became the norm.

They’re actually an excellent source of vitamin A, they contain more vitamin C than an orange, and vitamin K, as well as beta carotene, folic acid, iron, magnesium and fiber. They’re high in selenium, which is associated with reduced risks of certain cancers, as well as increased male virility. My defence of this much maligned vegetable is coloured quite a bit by the fact that I actually enjoy eating sprouts. That is with the proviso that they are not overcooked. Boiling the poor buggers to death is a crime committed by many. The Daily Mash exaggerated the point nicely a few years ago (throwing in some prejudice against northerners and elderly people to be on the safe side).

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A conversation with our friends in California on our first visit there turned (I forget why) to discussing our least favourite foods. A strange silence fell as I announced that one of the few things I just couldn’t eat was sprouts which had been boiled too long.

They asked in astonishment why anyone in their right mind would boil sprouts. Well yes, I said, they don’t need cooking for long, but they’re not very nice eaten raw. More raising of eyebrows, and then realisation suddenly dawned that they were thinking of beansprouts rather than the Brussels variety.

Laughter all round. Glasses were refilled and we toasted the differences between our two great nations swapping courgette for zucchini, aubergine for eggplant and coriander for cilantro. The recollection gets a bit hazy after we embarked into the great divide between our biscuits and theirs but that may have been a result of downing too many bottles of local craft beer.

I can report that brussels sprouts were not included in the line-up for their Thanksgiving meal.

When we were very young – or perhaps I should say when our children were very young – for several years we spent Christmas Day with another couple who had children the same age. We shared the cooking and the kids entertained each other. One year it was decided that children and grown-ups would ‘do a play’. The kids’ version always involved a lot of shouting and giggling and it was never very clear what it was about.

By the time the adults got to perform much wine had flowed under the bridge and the memory of those dramatic performances is generally a bit hazy. I recall an attempt to put on a version of ‘O What a Lovely War’ as the album (LP in those days) was available for us to mime to. I don’t think we got much beyond 1914. (Don’t worry I’m coming to the sprouts).

I think it was the final year we spent together that we fixed on doing a nativity play for our children. After all we’d suffered enough of theirs. We had five kids between us, and that’s a lot of nativity plays. And we decided for some long forgotten reason that the baby Jesus would be played by a sprout.

All I can remember of this show is the Angel Gabriel wearing a teatowel on his head and wrapped in a sheet standing on the stairs of our house, brandishing on high a sprout left over from the meal (there were lots of those) and intoning to the scandalised children clustered in the hall ‘ Hail to the New Born Sprout’.

Funny the things you never forget isn’t it. But I still like brussels sprouts.