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broccoli and other vegetables

March 29, 2013

In the American children’s cartoon Arthur the other day, there was a joke about Arthur not wanting to eat his broccoli; and that very same evening on The Simpsons there was a joke about Bart not wanting to eat his. What is it with Americans and broccoli? When the first George Bush became President he said: ‘I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.’

That was in 1991, but the joke is older than that. I remember reading in Mad magazine, in the mid-70s, a feature called ‘Good News, Bad News’, in which one joke went: ‘Bad news is being sent to bed without any supper. Good news is that your Mom felt sorry for you and smuggled some up to your room. Bad news is that supper is a broccoli and eggplant casserole.’

This is all a bit mystifying to a British person. Broccoli over here is regarded as the perfect vegetable, at least in middle-class families: it’s full of iron, has an attractive appearance, doesn’t need peeling, is slightly more interesting than the peas, carrots and cabbage of our own childhoods, and has a bland, inoffensive taste which makes it easy to get the kids to eat, along with their pasta and pesto. If a British child complains about vegetables it is more likely to be about sprouts or spinach, which have much more challenging flavours than broccoli.

Unless, of course, the child is complaining about all vegetables, a strange complaint which also is regarded as somehow humorous, though I can’t see anything funny about it myself. The first time I ever heard anyone claim not to like vegetables in general I thought it was some kind of category mistake. Surely ‘vegetables’ is just too large and varied a class of things to be able to like or dislike en bloc? It’s like saying you dislike round things, or red things, or small things. And in fact most people who claim they don’t like ‘vegetables’ will happily eat chips (do they think potatoes aren’t vegetables?), and tomato and mushrooms on their pizza, salad with their burger, coleslaw and corn on the cob with their fried chicken, etc etc.

In this usage ‘vegetables’ has come to imply a certain type of vegetable: ‘dinner’ vegetables, the kind that you boil. Though that still seems to me a very large class of comestibles, and someone who disliked them all – leeks, parsnips, peas, cauliflower, carrots, swedes, celery, fennel, runner beans, white cabbage, curly kale, courgettes (that’s zucchini to American readers), turnips, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, chard, asparagus and all the restwould surely have something wrong with their tastebuds.

Be that as it may, to announce that one doesn’t like vegetables tends to be thought of as endearingly raffish and déclassé. In children especially it’s seen as comical, rebellious in a typically childlike way, as if there’s something natural and inevitable about kids not liking vegetables – this is a running joke throughout the Horrid Henry books. Actually children naturally do like most vegetables; it’s only when they go to school and learn that it’s a bit uncool to like them that they change their minds. 

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One Comment
  1. Peter Ozzie Jones permalink

    Hello Brandon
    I don’t like the taste of broccoli and some of its realtives. I also find most wine tastes like vinegar. This may be due to genetics and not entirely controllable?
    See
    http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/begin/traits/ptc/

    for example.

    Oh, got to your writings from a comment at Jerry Coyne’s WEIT web.

    Peter Jones, Western Australia

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