A Sprout by Any Other Name

I used to despise them. They were slimy. Vile. Freakish little things that should be grown on another planet. I’d eat them about once every five years, just to test myself: Were they really as bad as I remembered? Was I being unjust in my boycott? Should I give them another chance?

Flashback to five years ago: I’m working at a retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina. It’s a remote place, way up a winding road. The food truck comes twice a week, a big event on the mountain. And on this particular day, the delivery includes a crate of Brussels sprouts. They move quickly from the truck to the kitchen to the tabletop. Too quickly. At dinner I sit next to my friend Mike, who once gave me a piece of advice that I thought briefly of tattooing on my body. I’d been complaining of too many things I longed to do, too many excuses I’d used to chicken out. His response was matter-of-fact. “You can do anything you want to. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”

So when the sprouts hit the table, I consider his advice. I’m adult. I don’t have to eat whatever gets slapped on my plate. But I eat one, because 1) it’s best not to offend a cook who provides you with free meals (otherwise you end up like the rabbi who’s convinced she’s trying to poison you at every meal**) and 2) it’s time to re-evaluate my stance on the horrid little things. I make myself eat five. My tongue convulses. My stomach quakes. If there was a dog under the table, I would toss them to him, but I know he would wrinkle his nose and watch them roll across the floor.

Flash forward to this summer. It’s May in Michigan. Once again, I have landed in an artists’ retreat where they spoil you by cooking your meals. But these guys work miracles. They grill steaks with magical sauces, they make tiramisu while listening to trip-hop. I really want to take them home, just so they can cook for me forever. And the kicker: this dish that I can’t quite name, roasted and green, that tastes nutty and smoky and smooth. There’s something sinister and familiar about it. When I’m down to the last bite, the head cook walks by and I stop him. “Are these Brussels sprouts?” I say. He nods, grinning like the last guy who hustled me at pool. And the culinary world as I know it ends.

Skip ahead to this week. My kitchen, my roasting pan. I bite my tongue and buy the frozen sprouts. I dice them and roast them until they no longer look like slimy little marbles. Now they look like miniature cabbages, and I feel like a giant as I hold them on my fork. I’ve made my peace with the once vile little sprout, and I’m going back to the freezer section to stock up while they’re on sale (because apparently everyone else in this town feels the same way I used to about them). I’ll sit in my kitchen, the smell of garlic and a dozen other spices filling the room (because let’s face it, they still need all the help they can get) and I’ll make a list of all the other things I’ve written off too quickly, the things I’ve hastily blackballed. And then I’ll think of Mike, and I’ll try them all again. One by one, because tastes change. And the world as I know it will be different every day.

**a true story that must be saved for another time…