Corn, carrots, potatoes, acorn squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, peas, asparagus, peppers, broccoli and cauliflower.
I’m probably missing a few, but those are the vegetables that come to mind as favorites. My wife asked me to try Brussels sprouts once and while I was game to eat one, that little green ball hovered in front of my mouth for the longest time before it went in. When it finally did, I felt as if I was eating an eyeball—a bitter, gnarly roasted eyeball. Everybody who likes Brussels sprouts claims that they have a special way to prepare them that makes them delicious, but if you have to go through that much trouble to make something palatable, just bake a sweet potato. A child could bake a sweet potato and it would be wonderful.
I don’t think I’m particularly fussy, but I will admit that this aversion to eyeball shaped vegetables probably has some deep roots. Mrs. G. and I have had many discussions over the years about our dietary history, mostly because she grew up in a German household whereas I did not. The realization is always the same: Our groceries could not have been more different.
When I grew up, we usually had some sort of meat for dinner along with whatever vegetable could be thawed out of a frozen rectangle and still be called a vegetable. In the summer, we had vegetables that were picked out of the backyard garden, usually peas, beans or corn, but I swear I never had broccoli, cauliflower or asparagus until I was well into my twenties. We seldom had salads but if we did, it was only on spaghetti night and only iceberg lettuce with some tomato slices and globs of Thousand Island dressing from a bottle.
About a mile away, my wife and her family may as well have been in Stuttgart. Their meals were grounded on some variety of meat, along with a mixture of cabbage or beets and a salad made with mixed greens and homemade vinaigrette. Mrs. G. claimed that everything was fresh, even in the winter, which made me doubt my wife’s memory of things until I went to Germany. I saw firsthand what they ate and soon came to realize that the menus in German restaurants contained an almost obsessive amount of vegetables from the cabbage family. They also favored root vegetables, but cabbage was clearly the king of the produce aisle.
This fixation with cabbage is clearly a European thing, and I did catch a glimpse of it when I was a kid when my Hungarian grandfather occasionally made sauerkraut in our basement laundry tubs. He’d fill one side of the double tub with brine and cabbage, give it a stir and then go back to his house. My father would take over, stirring the bubbling brew every once in a while, and as the weeks went by, the aroma increased until the entire house smelled as if we rented out the living room to a herd of flatulent dairy cows. To this day, I can’t stand the smell of cabbage let alone eat it. In an ironic twist of fate, there are farmers who grow vast fields of cabbage about five miles from my house, and right around harvest time, if the wind is right, a cloud of funk drifts over the neighborhood that smells as if someone tipped over a Porta-John the size of a shopping mall.
I also have a strong dislike for spinach, although it doesn’t smell nearly as bad as cabbage. Back in the early days of TV, Popeye cartoons were a heavy influence on my generation and as everybody knows, Popeye got his strength from spinach. This was vegetable chicanery of an unprecedented magnitude, as parents’ foisted spinach on their boys with promises that it would make them strong. This contrasted greatly with the same message we received from Tony the Tiger, who boldly stated that breakfast cereal with visible chunks of glistening sugar on corn flakes would make us strong. Spinach clearly had an uphill battle. Even as a kid, I knew that no amount of spinach could save a skinny, mumbling sailor from a muscular tiger who was amped up on sugar chunks.
This puffery was spearheaded by Big Spinach Inc. and was designed to promote a product that was not only bitter but also impossible to clean. Sure, I choked back my gritty share of spinach as a kid, but I never enjoyed it, and one of the first adult decisions I made was to ban this loathsome slop from my diet. I did this right around the time when Big Spinach, Inc. merged with Big Salad, Inc. and together, they tried to force-feed entire salads made up of raw spinach on a gullible nation. Raw spinach tastes even worse than cooked spinach, and the only reason anyone was able to choke down a salad full of this stuff was because they put crumbled bacon on top of it.
These days, spinach has been replaced by kale, which used to be the garnish they’d toss on the side of a plate because it looked pretty. I used to wrap my gum in restaurant kale, but now it’s some kind of superfood. Nobody actually ate kale until somebody discovered that Dr. Oz liked it so now it’s everywhere, even my house.
Mrs. G. grinds up huge handfuls of kale in her lunch smoothies and a one-ounce bag of this stuff fluffs up to the size of a couch pillow, which hogs valuable real estate in the refrigerator that might otherwise go to pickle jars or rotisserie chickens. The only thing I like about kale is that it gives me something to dislike even more than spinach. Also eyeball shaped vegetables.
I’m always a little leery of food fads, probably because I grew up with a serious lack of food variety. I remember bringing my mother some bagels when I was around twenty-three or so and she asked me in all seriousness if I had converted to Judaism. I told her that it wasn’t a Communion wafer—it was just bread with seasonings stuck to the outside. Anybody could eat one. I couldn’t blame her though. For the longest time, she thought English muffins were exotic, so I suppose a lack of food diversity is simply a byproduct of my upbringing. I’ll try almost anything once, but I don’t see the need to add a lot of new things since most of the olds things are fine, besides—it’s hard to keep up with what’s trendy.
The muffin craze became the mini muffin craze, which is now the macaron craze. Quinoa burst on the scene not too long ago and is already being replaced by kaniwa as the new super grain. I’m still fighting the good fight against cilantro (admit it, it tastes like shoe insoles) and I don’t even know what aioli is, but I know it’s not better than mustard so I’m not even going to try it.
Dark chocolate is good, but I’m getting more than a little suspicious of all the alleged health benefits of dark chocolate. Nobody will ever convince me that the Society To Make Periods More Bearable doesn’t fund those dark chocolate studies. The dark chocolate advocates have nothing on the Red Wine Cures Everything devotees though; which is a trend that I’m certain was started by book clubs.
I think it’s important to eat a balanced diet, but we all did fine without chia seeds and lingonberries and weren’t the same people who were telling us that eggs were bad, suddenly telling us that eggs were good but only the whites? How many people forced down a tasteless egg white omelet with goat nipple cheese curds and artisanal asparagus tips only to find out that the best thing to put with egg whites were actually egg yellows?
Aside from banning gluten from my diet (not because it’s trendy, but because I have to) I’m on a kick now to eat the same foods I’ve always eaten, just healthier versions of them. I’m more Paleo diet than anything these days, which is exactly how my badass grandpa ate before they started naming diets, and he lived into his pipe-smoking eighties. I’m all about locally grown, organic and fresh, which is how my grandparents ate and how my in-laws still eat and if I could ever get the smell of cabbage past my nose, I might even try Brussels sprouts again—but you’re going to have to wrap them in bacon. Those little wads of bitterness are just nasty.
The truth about the nutritional value of spinach has some history before Popeye. Back in 1870, Erich von Wolf, a German chemist, examined the amount of iron within spinach. In recording his findings, von Wolf accidentally misplaced a decimal point when transcribing data from his notebook, changing the iron content in spinach by an order of magnitude. While there are actually only 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100-gram serving of spinach, the accepted fact became 35 milligrams, which is more iron than one would find in a basket of horseshoes. While spinach is definitely more healthful than Frosted Flakes, so are a ton of vegetables that actually taste good.
Oh, and I just found out that Mrs. G. has been slipping me baby kale in those wonderful salads she makes, and I have suffered no ill effects. I’m now on the lookout for clandestine lima beans.