UK at war over Brussels. (Sprouts, that is)

Sprouting nonsense? Brussels sprouts are Britain’s third most hated food, after liver and fish.

Is this utterly trivial or deeply important? Our most hated vegetable will take a starring role in millions of Christmas dinners. No wonder the nation is obsessed with such a vital topic.

Why do so many people hate Brussels sprouts? The theories abound. The most common complaint is that they are too bitter. Some argue that they are particularly disgusting to children, who have more tastebuds than older people.

More recently, a team of scientists claimed that the hatred is determined by our DNA: only 50% of people have the memorably named gene TAS2R38, which allows them to taste the bitter chemical phenylthiocarbamide. Meanwhile, sprout fans spy a media conspiracy: we have been conditioned to hate the vegetables through years of unfair prejudice.

Britain’s leading sprout expert has a different theory: we have been cooking them all wrong.

Boiling them makes them “turn soggy and rubbish”, said Matthew Rawson, head of the Brassica Growers Association. Cutting a cross in the bottom is even worse, as it lets in more water. “People who do that have ruined the Brussels sprout.” His alternative? Steaming, frying or even microwaving them.

However they are cooked, the little green vegetables will be sure to cause arguments at Christmas dinners up and down the country during the festive season.

But why? After a year of turbulent news stories and fascinating developments in technology, why discuss something as trivial as sprouts? For some, it calls to mind the (probably false) story of how, during the fall of Constantinople, medieval theologians debated how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Who cares, when Turkish armies are besieging the city?

The answer may lie with Parkinson’s law of triviality, also known as the “bike shed effect”. This is defined as “the principle that the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic”. In other words, the trickier a subject is, the less we want to talk about it. But anyone can have an opinion about Brussels sprouts.

This Christmas, should we discuss more meaningful topics?

Small matters

Yes, say those bored to death with chitter chatter. We should take our cue from the psychologists Dan Ariely and Kristen Berman, who argue that people form much deeper relationships when they eschew small talk in favour of “meaningful” topics like our views on theology or willingness to donate a kidney. Debate will be much livelier, and we will know each other better by the end.

Spare me, groan others. It is the little things, like food and our top three Christmas songs, which make up the real substance of life — and there is nothing wrong with that. The whole family can discuss these things quite happily without offending each other or upsetting anyone. There is no need to sneer at such topics on Christmas Day.

You Decide

  1. Do you like Brussels sprouts?
  2. What would you rather talk about at Christmas dinner: the food or the state of the world?

Activities

  1. Write down your top three discussion topics. With a partner, take it in turns to talk about each other’s favourite subjects.
  2. Design an “alternative” Christmas dinner to the traditional Turkey roast — but you must still include Brussels sprouts somewhere.

Some People Say...

“If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.”

Emily Dickinson

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that Brussels sprouts are very good for you, whether you like them or not. They are a good source of vitamin C, B6 and folate. We also know you can, of course, discuss anything you like during your Christmas dinner. Here at The Day, we love a good debate, whether it is about the best way to cook sprouts (this year we are planning to roast ours with anchovies) or the minutiae of politics, or the possibility of life on other planets. The important thing is the discussion itself, and whether it opens your mind to new and interesting ideas.
What do we not know?
We do not know for sure why some people hate Brussels sprouts, but there may be scientific reasons for it. Nor do we know if small talk has merits of its own.

Word Watch

Phenylthiocarbamide
Also known as PTC, it does not usually occur in human diets, but very similar chemicals are found in sprouts and cabbages.
Brassica
A genus of “mustard plants”, which include broccoli, cabbage, turnips and — you guessed it — sprouts.
Constantinople
The ancient city of Byzantium was renamed in AD 330 by Constantine as the capital of the Roman, subsequently Byzantine, empire. In 1453, it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire after a 53 day siege. Now the city, the most populous in modern Turkey, is known as Istanbul.
Angels
This absurd sounding question is actually a metaphor for discussing whether angels take up space — i.e., could a lot of them dance on the same pin at the same time. It is sometimes attributed to the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, although it is not a direct quote.
Bike shed effect
The theory goes like this: if a group of people are asked to approve the building of a nuclear power plant, and the colour of a new bike shed, then they will spend far longer on the bike shed. This is because they do not want to admit that they do not know enough about nuclear power.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.