The epic struggle of parents versus kids. Yummy versus gross. Humans versus broccoli!
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This episode was edited by Alex Blumberg and produced by Travis Larchuk and Rachel Ward, with help from Emma Jacobs and Caitlin Kenney. Andrew Dunn mixed the episode.
In an earlier version of this episode we said that Red Russian Kale is a member of the brassica oleracea species. We were wrong – it’s brassica napus, which is similarly flexible and omnipresent, but different. The error was pointed out by a listener who writes, “I also love broccoli, so much so that my grandmother claims broccoli was my first word. Usually when she tells this story, my mom is standing behind her shaking her head. So it’s probably not true, but it does show you how much I love broccoli.”
This is what wild cabbage looks like:
A baby eating broccoli for the first time looks like this:
Compare to a baby eating ice cream for the first time, which looks like this:
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Adam Davidson: Alright, I’m recording now, but I have to figure out how to hold a microphone, and open a bag, and swab my cheek. So hang on …
AD: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome. I’m Adam Davidson.
AD: Mine is N696. Yours is NC698.
Rachel Ward: Alright there’s a letter in mine that says Rachel Ward on it.
RW: The letter says hello, enclosed you will find ten labeled bags, each containing two sterile buccal swabs?
RW: Oh it’s buccal. Step two … step two, Adam, is verify that your mouth is empty. What? Who has to check that!
AD: And I should say, Rachel Ward.
AD: You’re my co-host for this episode. You’re also the senior producer of Surprisingly Awesome. You’re filling in because Adam McKay is away promoting his hit movie, The Big Short.
RW: Everybody go see it.
AD: Yeah it’s really great. And Rachel, the reason you and I are verifying our mouths are empty is because of this week’s topic.
RW: Right this week’s topic is broccoli.
AD: Broccoli is the perfect Surprisingly Awesome topic. In fact, I was once telling the premise of the show to a friend saying we take things that are sort of everyday in your life that are kind of boring and reveal their hidden amazing awesomeness. And my friend said “oh, you mean like broccoli.”
RW: Right, exactly that refrain of eat your broccoli even though you hate how it tastes, it’s good for you blah blah blah. But there is an inherent contradiction there. The idea that you would even bother to eat something that you hate so much. It turns out that is the actual reason why broccoli is fascinating. And THAT’S why we’re swabbing our cheeks, that’s why we are doing these buccal swaps.
AD: And what we’re swabbing the inside of our mouth for is we are doing DNA tests, to find out our personal relationship with broccoli. Buccal, I learned, means having to do with the inside of your mouth. B-u-c-c-a-l.
AD: So we have these two swabs in here, gonna open one of them, and it’s just a giant Q-tip. Putting it in my mouth. [MUMBLING]
RW: What Adam to translate what you’re saying is “I’m rubbing it all over my cheek.” And then I did the same thing.
RW: This is so gross.
AD: It’s not that gross.
RW: It is really gross. Like …
AD: It is not that gross. You know what now that you’re doing it and I’m not doing, it does feel a little gross. I’m not kidding.
AD: Like somehow when you were doing it while you were doing it I was just thinking about oh you’re putting a Q-tip, but now all I’m thinking about is you getting saliva all over the place.
RW: Way to make it weird Adam.
AD: I’m just trying to be honest. So it turns out that the reason at least some people, but not all people, don’t like the taste of broccoli, as a species, is buried deep in DNA, the DNA of human beings and as we’ll learn, the DNA of broccoli as well. But before we get to that, we first wanted to learn a little more about our subject today, about broccoli.
RW: So we turned to this guy:
Thomas Bjorkman: Yes. I have a cartoon on my door that says cauliflower is the brain of the cabbage kingdom. [LAUGHS] My name is Thomas Bjorkman. I’m a horticulture professor at Cornell. And I work generally on making it easier and more sustainable to grow really good vegetables commercially. So I’ve been asking questions about broccoli for about 20 years or so. I keep finding interesting things about it.
AD: Awesome thing number one, the first most interesting thing Thomas explained to us about broccoli is that broccoli is not in and of itself a plant. It’s just one manifestation of a truly amazing plant: brassica oleracea.
RW: The species name, oleracea, just means “vegetable” in Latin. And that’s really appropriate, ‘cause it feels like half the vegetables that we regularly eat are all just different parts of this same, single plant. The grocery story is full of brassica oleracea. I know, because I went to the grocery store and filled a cart up with different versions of this plant, put them in a box, and then brought them into the studio with us when we Skyped with Thomas.
AD: So Rachel you brought this giant box.
RW: Yeah hold on let me take off my headphones. All week people have been asking me if this is my CSA.
TB: So the brassica oleracea vegetables are collard greens, cabbage and kale, would be the leafy ones. Stem development is kohlrabi and brussels sprouts. Flowering ones are broccoli and cauliflower.
AD: So a bit of background about this remarkable plant. The oleracea plant has existed for millions of years. One scientist told me about 46 million years. And most of that time, it was just this weedy, stemmy thing. In fact we have a picture of it here, we’re gonna put this on our website. And it just looks like a long, thick weed with some yellow flowers, something you’d walk by and definitely never say oh, you know what, I want to eat that, does that look edible to you?
RW: That does not look edible. So you can picture that original weedy brassica oleracea plant. It’s got genes that tell it to stem, leaves, flowers, and like any species there’s a lot of variety in its genome, in that set of genes. So just like with humans some of us are tall, some of us are short or bald or blond or whatever.
AD: Why were you looking at me when you said bald?
RW: I was not. I was looking straight forward.
AD: And you’re genetically a dyed blond. I just want to point that out.
RW: I would have more time to get my roots dealt with if I wasn’t doing this podcast.
AD: Fair enough but actually this will come up later genes are not destiny. I have no idea what your natural hair color is and no one ever will. So some of the plants the genes are telling them hey, grow a super super thick stem. Make it really bulbous. And that is what we call kohlrabi. Other strains the genes are telling the plant to make the leaves really tightly bunched into a small ball. That’s brussel sprouts.
RW: And in other iterations of this brassica oleracea, the genes are saying hey make that tight bulb really really big and while you’re at it make it purple and that’s cabbage or make the leaves really really long and then you get kale
AD: And there’s genes that tell it yes, make the leaves really long but make them a different color and make the edges curly and also change how much protein and different vitamins there are in those leaves.
RW: Right and this is where get collard greens, dinosaur kale, all of the other varieties of this thing.
AD: But all those varieties, all those different vegetables, they’re just variations of the same basic species. In fact we got a really clear explanation of this when you brought something in as part of your giant box of oleracea vegetables.
RW: So these are broccoli microgreens.
AD: And all that means is they just pick it really early?
RW: So these are broccoli microgreens.
AD: And all that means is they just pick it really early?
TB: They’re seedlings they’re about a week old.
RW: And these are kale microgreens. And what do you see here?
AD: They look identical. I couldn’t tell them apart.
RW: They look totally the same and from this I was like oh I totally get how these plants have the same genome.
TB: Right. They do look exactly the same when they start.
AD: I want to eat those and see what the taste is but Rachel will not let me because she left them out overnight and she thinks sprouts will kill you.
RW: I feel like it would be very bad for my resume to kill the host of the radio show that I’m working on.
AD: Um. And you like me.
RW: Also I like Adam a lot.
AD: Rachel I just want to say how much it meant to me to hear that spontaneous and genuine expression of affection.
RW: Oh, good I’m happy.
AD: So the point is here for however different these things look, they are exactly the same species. They can have kids together.
TB: They’re the same species. They all cross with each other. You can make intermediates of all of them.
RW: So they can mate together, in the same way that Americans and Canadians can mate.
TB: Right. [LAUGHS]
AD: So if I had a field of brussels sprouts next to a field of broccoli eventually the brussels sprout plants and broccoli plants would eventually mate.
TB: If you made them flower at the same time, and collected those seeds you would get a real menagerie. So if you take a random American and a random Canadian you’re not likely to get that much variation really. However if you were to take dogs where there’s a lot more genetic variation in the species so the classic I guess is a Doberman and Pekinese or something, where you have a big size difference.
AD: A Saint Bernard and a chihuahua.
TB: But even the same size, a mellow Labrador and high-strung terrier – what are you going to get? You’re going to get all kinds of stuff. So there’s many appearance and behavioral characteristics of a dog that vary a lot.
AD: But it’s fairly superficial. At the core, broccoli brussels sprouts cabbage …
TB: All of the vegetables they’re all brassica collaresea.
RW: They’re very similar to the extent that they have the same genome.
AD: Now, another thing I learned from Thomas is that genetics are not, entirely destiny here. It’s just like the genetics of your hair, Rachel. Even if you had genetic twins, identical plants, they react very differently to cold weather or warm weather, to more rain or more drought. And, very importantly, when they are planted and when they are picked, harvested. Human beings and brassica oleracea have been in this intense dialogue for 10,000 years. As we move around the world, as we change how we eat and what we want to eat, and where we eat we change the plant.
RW: When people first saw this plant out in the wild they decided to give it a try and eventually some people began to cultivate it.
So the people who really liked to eat the flowers of this plant they kept growing the seeds of the plants that grew the most flowers. Other people preferred the leaves so they grew the plants that had the biggest leaves.
AD: By recorded history, by the time humans had started writing down what foods they were eating, they had already established a bunch of different lines of this plant. They had domesticated it. And some people who really liked the leaves there was something a lot like kale. And some people who really liked the flowers, they had developed something a lot like broccoli. And I did not actually know this but every time you eat some broccoli you are actually eating a huge bouquet of brassica oleracea flower buds.
TB: Each little green dot is going to be a flower.
A: So if we had not cut this, if we had just left it it would have become a flower?
TB: Yeah you would have had 1000s of flowers coming off that.
A: And they’d be yellow? What color?
TB: They’d be yellow.
A: So when I’m eating broccoli I’m actually eating thousands of flower buds.
A: That’s interesting. I will not ever again eat broccoli the same way. I will always think oh I am with my teeth destroying thousands of potential new broccoli plants by eating their flowers.
TB: That’s how you get a three-year-old to love broccoli.
RW: And Thomas explained that there’s a really big huge economic component to all of this. Like the broccoli we all know, that I grew up with. This tight, uniform thing. That’s really young concept. Broccoli was sort of solidified into this form in the 1960s by Japanese scientists. And they wanted to make it very orderly and uniform, indestructible and easy to pack and to ship. But before that, broccoli was a lot looser, and like stemmy-er, and like looked a little bit more like its wild predecessor than it does now. It was known almost entirely as an Italian ethnic food, mostly from southern Italy.
AD: Modern cabbage, the purple kind, that’s also a modern industrial product. It is incredibly hardy, which is the strong point for the people who grow and sell it. You can pick it in November, store it and then sell it, looking like it’s fresh from the field, in June. And, Thomas said, right now there are thousands of breeders and scientists and farmers trying to figure out all sorts of new easier-to-sell, easier-to-transport, easier-to-store versions of brassica oleracea.
RW: His life’s work is developing a broccoli that can be grown in the eastern U.S. Because right now, 90 percent of broccoli that’s grown in the US is grown in California and that imposes a lot of like shipping cost, to get it from California to the East Coast and then sort of is tricky with California’s drought issues. So Thomas is trying to develop a type of broccoli that will thrive on the East Coast.
AD: And by the way, one note, Thomas – this man who has devoted his life to studying broccoli, to making it possible to grow more, and so all of us can consume more, he loves this plant for scientific reasons. He finds its genome fascinating. He finds all sorts of scientific characteristics fascinating. But as a food product, he said he’s pretty much like the rest of us. It’s there. He eats it. He’s never very excited about it. And if he ever does have broccoli and thinks wow, that is delicious, it’s because it’s you know grilled and cooked in olive oil with some garlic and a squirt of lemon.
RW: But Thomas did hip us to at least one brassica oleracea that doesn’t really need to be gussied up in order to taste delicious. Unlike broccoli we found that kohlrabi is actually really good, even raw.
AD: So that actually has a lot of sweetness.
TB: Yes, there’s quite a bit of sugar in them.
RW: Oh snap.
AD: It’s good, right?
RW: That’s really good.
TB: Cutting kohlrabi sticks to have on a vegetable platter works really well. Not that many people know to do that but that works really well because they hold onto their sugar.
RW: Kohlrabi, I had no idea that that was actually tasty. It’s not at all bitter. It doesn’t have that kind of cabbagy vibe to it at all. It just tastes like sweetness.
AD: You know what it’s problem is is the name. If it was broccoli stem bulb.
RW: Oh you think that would be a big seller.
AD: I think that would be a big seller.
AD: Alright I’m cutting in. That’s what I’m eating more of.
RW: Okay we gotta go so Adam can finish this entire raw kohlrabi by himself.
TB: Thank you very much.
RW: Are you just gonna eat that like it’s an apple?!
AD: I ate that whole kohlrabi. It really is good. That was my biggest takeaway of this whole experience. More kohlrabi but what’s weird to me is that kohlrabi is so good, so much better than broccoli and brussel sprouts and all the other oleraceas – why is it the most obscure form of the oleracea plant? Neither you nor me Rachel had ever eaten it. We told the whole Gimlet staff. None of them had ever eaten it.
RW: It is almost unheard of in the United States. It’s apparently very popular in Germany. But it is a big mystery, like why aren’t we eating kohlrabi all the time when we could choose to eat almost any version of brassica oleracea that we want, when farmers could choose to grow any version of this plant, why do we subject ourselves to the bitter taste of broccoli?
AD: So after the break, that’s what we’re going to investigate – with the help of an expert, with very strong feelings about brassica oleracea.
Ash Davidson: No I don’t like it!
Jen Banbury: Have you ever tasted it?
Ash: NO! I don’t like it!
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RW: I’m gonna go take a nap.
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AD: Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Adam Davidson.
RW: And I’m Rachel Ward. It is no secret that the topic of today’s episode is pretty much universally reviled by children. Kids hate broccoli. In fact, if you think of all the oleracea vegetables: broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, it’s basically like an instruction manual for child torture but in cookbook form.
AD: That’s definitely been my experience. I hated it as a kid. My kid hates it. I’m pretty sure all his friends hate it. But I was talking to somebody I know, a mother, and I told her about this episode and she said I always wondered, my kids love broccoli more than anything. They just snarf it up all the time. Why do they love it so much.
RW: And that’s one of the really interesting things about broccoli is that some people – our genes tell us you hate broccoli. Don’t eat this stuff. And then for some people that’s not really the case. So earlier you remember, we swabbed the inside of our cheeks and we did those DNA tests. We sent them off to the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. And they went to the lab of Danielle Reed. But everyone calls her Dani so that’s what we called her.
AD: And you have some information about us in particular, right?
Danielle Reed: I do, have your information right here on this piece of paper. So I have your results.
AD: Alright let me explain what’s going on there and the only reason I can explain it because I learned it myself about four days ago. So there are a bunch of compounds in nature. I’ve seen estimates of two dozen. I’ve seen estimates of 100. Science is still trying to figure it out but there are these compounds in nature, these chemicals that some human beings experience as tasting bitter. Caffeine is one of them, quinine, the brassica oleracea vegetable produces another one which is known as goitrin.
RW: But we don’t all taste all of these bitter compounds. Our genes determine if we do or don’t. Like take goitrin, Dani, the scientist, told us that she doesn’t have the tasting gene for this.
AD: So but you can’t taste this so when you eat broccoli, does it taste sweet, or does it just tastes kinda neutral?
DR: The best way I know to show you is that we’ll actually have me taste a little of this compound. This is similar to the goitrin that’s found in broccoli so you can watch me tasting it, so cheers.
AD: So Dani has this clear bottle that looks like any bottle you’d pick off a shelf in a lab. And inside of it is just the pure concentrated form of the bitter part of broccoli. She’s poured herself a little nip into that little plastic cup you use to measure cold medicine into. And the liquid inside is clear. It looks like water to us. And to Dani.
DR: To me this tastes just like water. I could drink this whole little bottle full and it doesn’t bother me whatsoever. So if you’d like to taste it.
AD: I would. I feel like nervous. Oh my god, that is awful!! That is awful. Like my whole tongue is coated. I taste it …
DR: You’re turning red too.
AD: That is the most … so I’m clearly a major taster.
RW: Your whole body shook.
AD: That is awful. Can I have some water.
DR: It is awful and I knew in advance so that was fun for me. [LAUGHS.]
RW: So before Dani fed us the goitrin compound, she told us one of us that would have a clear result, and one of us was more ambiguous. So after you reacted like that Adam, it was obvious ion it was obvious that you were going to have the clear reaction. But I still didn’t know what was going to happen to me.
AD: Alright let’s give it to Rachel.
RW: I feel really nervous actually, I feel physically faint after the reaction you just had.
AD: And it’s still there by the way. Like it’s still sitting on my tongue, it is amazing. Go for it. Bottoms up.
RW: Oh EXPLETIVE BLEEPED no. Oh I don’t like it. It’s very bitter!
AD: So you dear listener somewhere in your DNA there’s just one little gene that’s telling your body that when it eats goitrin, when it bites into broccoli, it’s gross or it just tastes like a plant without any bitterness, and the same for all these other compounds. So from broccoli’s standpoint by the way, they really want us to taste of broccoli. Dani explained that goitrin is actually broccoli’s defense against predators. It’s a defense against us.
AD: What is happening when I bite into broccoli, why might that be bitter?
DR: When you bite into broccoli it’s like you’re attacking the broccoli, and so cells and plants can’t do anything to defend itself from you …
AD: It can’t run away, it can’t punch me, it can’t bite me.
DR: But it does have chemical defenses. So what it can do, is when you bite into it, it can release an enzyme that makes the inside of the cells more bitter, to try to get you to if not stop eating, at least slow down. So goitrin is one of a member of a family of compounds that are in things that are familiar like broccoli, but there are many other kinds of bitters, like for instance quinine comes from the bark of a tree, and that’s a first line of defense drug for quinine. It stimulates entirely different receptors but you still have the sensation of bitter.
AD: In fact, it turns out that, that when it comes to bitterness, Rachel and I are twins. Hated goitrin, really gross. But when we swallowed some quinine we barely tasted a thing. Dani, she’s the opposite. She could drink goitrin all day. But she definitely has the quinine tasting gene.
RW: So that’s the thing – maybe you’re like Dani and you don’t have the gene that allows you to taste goitrin. You could eat raw broccoli and brussels sprouts and they just don’t taste bitter to you.
AD: And in your most natural state, you hate them. It’s easy to understand this phenomenon when you contrast it to one of the other tastes, one of the other things that we and all living things that eat plants are programmed to love.
GB: Of all all the things that one can imagine that are innately built into us to like, it’s sweetness.
AD: This is Gary Beauchamp.
RW: When we were writing this episode you started referring to him as the wizard in the castle of taste.
AD: That’s right because we were at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. That’s the leading place in America that scientifically studies why we taste what we taste. It’s a building filled with scientists and Gary explained to us that they’ve been doing research for decades. He ran the place for much of its history and there’s really only one thing about taste that they know with 100 percent certainty. Living things that eat plants love sweet things.
AD: We are biologically determined?
GB: That is part of our biology and it turns out that is probably part of the biology probably of all species that eat plants.
AD: Everywhere? Every culture?
GB: Every culture we know of. It’s just a fundamental part of biology.
AD: Gary explained that we humans, in this way we’re exactly like a lot of insects, like rodents, like any plant-eating animal. We like sweet things and we avoid things that are bitter. Interestingly he said a lot of carnivores like your cat they can’t taste sweet at all. And it makes sense that we would be programmed from birth to prefer sweet over bitter – it makes evolutionary sense – because in nature, bitter is often a signal that “this thing is poisonous, move cautiously.” Gary calls this a “innate first step warning system.”
RW: Because when little kids like at the dawn of humanity were out playing in grasslands in east Africa, if they came across some bitter plant, it was way better for them to be repulsed by it if they stuck it in their mouth and started eating it.
AD: And if you were genetically not able to taste bitterness, and you didn’t have that experience when you stuck something poisonous in your mouth, you maybe didn’t make it to the point where you were passing on your genes.
RW: You got selected out. But this doesn’t answer our question about why eat bitter things at all – like why not just bypass broccoli entirely, never develop a taste for it, and exclusively eat kohlrabi.
AD: It’s because most of the history of humanity was not about choosing what you prefer to eat. Most of the history of humanity was eating enough calories at all. Eating enough nutrients that could keep you alive. And in that history there have been some pretty lean times.
RW: Only eating sweet stuff would have been so problematic from an evolutionary standpoint. Because nature doesn’t actually make very much sweet stuff. Most plants are bitter. Remember, that as humans we actually had to breed kohlrabi to make it sweet. Because what nature served up initially – the wild brassica oleracea, or wild cabbage is this weedy, scraggly stuff. It is not sweet – Adam, what did you want to call it earlier?
AD: Kohlrabi should be called broccoli stem bulb.
RW: Right. So if you were waiting out at the dawn of humanity to find broccoli stem bulb or kohlrabi, you would probably starve to death. So it makes sense that people figured out at least a few of these bitter plants, while they might taste crummy, at least they’re not poisonous.
AD: And think about why plants are producing compounds that all plant eating animals hate: it’s because the plants know that they have something inside of them that those living animals want. They have nutrition. Broccoli in fact most of the the oleraceas, are filled with non-bitter compounds, really great compounds that are so good for us. There’s polyphenols, and glucosinolates, and sulforaphane. And I don’t know what any of those things are, but the National Institutes of Health website tells me they’re really good for us.
RW: This makes sense, like if you’re a burglar looking to steal something valuable, you’re not gonna go in the house where like the door is falling off the hinges. You’re gonna go in a house with the most security. So if you’re a plant-eater and you want something good. You want these good compounds. You’re going to eat the plant that’s actually kind of trying hard to keep you away.
AD: And we human beings have evolved this incredible system to deal with this. We’re biologically programmed to avoid bitter so we don’t as kids eat it but then over time our culture kicks in. In fact I started thinking hey you could explain a lot of the history of human cuisine by looking at the lens of people coming up with ways to eat things that are bitter and make them delicious using garlic and salt and spices and grilling and cooking and steaming and all the things we do to make bitter things delicious.
AD: And by the way I saw this happening in my own life in my own house. It is a big part of being a parent, of being a custodian of a infant plant-eating animal. One thing I learned at Monell is, if an adult likes a bitter food, if you like the taste of something bitter, it’s really likely that’s because as a kid your parents kept pushing and pushing it on you and getting kids to learn to like the foods their parents eat, is really really important.
RW: Because from the kid’s perspective, it sucks. Adults constantly saying: hey, eat this thing. It tastes really horrible. But I promise it’s good for you. Just eat it!
AD: But there’s a really nice side to this, too. Which might explain something that happened in my own family, when I tried to do a stunt for this very podcast.
Ash: I want headphones!
AD: You wanna wear the headphones?
Ash: Yeah so I can hear it! I love mommy and daddy so much …
AD: This is my four-year-old son, Ash. Who, every time I bring out my radio equipment, grabs the microphone and headphones.
RW: And what’s happening here is that you and your wife, Jen, are about to tag team this poor kid.
AD: Now his entire four-year-old life, this kid Ash, has hated broccoli. We didn’t genetically test him, but I’m going to say with 100 percent certainty: This kid tastes the bitter in the broccoli oleracea plant. Just a couple weeks ago, we were sitting in this very room, begging him: Please eat your broccoli. So, I thought it would be fun to get tape of him hating broccoli. I actually prepared a whole brassica oleracea feast for him. He wouldn’t touch the kale, or the cauliflower. Here’s Ash’s take on brussels sprouts.
Ash: No thank you. I won’t eat it. No! I don’t like it!
JB: Have you ever tasted it?
Ash: No. I don’t like it!
AD: That’s the tape you heard before the break. But, when we fed Ash broccoli, he really surprised us.
AD: Hey Ashy, I want to give you a special treat.
Ash: What, broccoli?
AD: Yeah broccoli, do you like broccoli?
Ash: Yeah. I like broccoli so much. Can you believe it?
AD: I don’t believe it, will you eat some?
AD: Okay, you really want to eat broccoli?
Ash: For the first time!
AD: Here’s broccoli.
Ash: I like it!
AD: You like it?
JB: That’s a first!
AD: That’s a first! You’ve never liked it before! So what does it taste like?
Ash: Sweet butterly milk!
AD: Sweet butterly milk?!
Ash: Daddy do you like butterly milk?
AD: I do! What does broccoli make you think of?
Ash: Mommy and daddy.
AD: Broccoli makes you think of mommy and daddy?
Ash: Yeah, right?
Ash: Because I love them! [LAUGHS] All the audience claps!
RW: So the last thing he says there is “all the audience clap!” Which is how I’m going to end every show from here on out. All the audience clap and subscribe and rate on iTunes!
AD: I love that boy. Now, to me broccoli definitely doesn’t taste like sweet butterly milk. But, for him, it clearly tastes like mommy and daddy. Which is exactly how human beings make the transition to liking foods we used to hate. We talked to another researcher in Philadelphia, Julie Mennella.
RW: Julie told us that what Ash is displaying there is “plasticity” – this human ability to eventually develop a taste for stuff that you’re not biologically programmed to love. And it’s a key feature of human taste, of what Julie calls our “sensory system.”
Julie Mennella: Plasticity, we’re not … we’re open to learning, and these sensory systems, the taste and smell in particular, are very open to learning, because when you think about it, eating or feeding behavior is a basic biological commodity. We’re not the panda that’s fixed on eating one food. We’re omnivores that are open to a wide range of foods.
AD: I have to say, listening to Julie talk I started picturing this species evolved on the wild grasslands of Africa, eating a very specific set of foods, and then spreading all over the globe, confronting all sorts of foods it had never seen before. And I was thinking how incredible this combination of biology and culture is. It’s designed to allow us to spread to all sorts of new places, confront new foods and safely begin to consume them. Some of us are super-sensitive to bitter. Some of us aren’t. That allows us as a culture to begin to test different kinds of plants. See which ones kill us and hurt us, see which ones don’t. And then we also have this ability of culture. We have this ability to make choices all our own, to cook things in different ways. To present things to each other in different ways, that allows us to deal with the things we’re biologically programmed to hate and begin to like them. But while all that is going on, we’re also protecting the kids. We’re making sure that as kids we’re super sensitive. We’re not eating lots of bitter stuff and getting poisoned. We just focused on consuming calories and trusting our parents. It was so exciting to see that entire sweep of human evolution in a broccoli plant. But I also realized that we don’t experience all of that when this is happening. What we experience is we smell or taste a food that just makes us feel safe, that just reminds us of home. Here’s Monell’s Gary Beauchamp again.
GB: There was a colleague of mine, she wrote cookbooks, and she adopted a Vietnamese child, and the child came to them and he was about 14-, 16-years-old but she knew all about cooking and flavors and so what she did was, she cooked Vietnamese foods. And so what he did was when he came to see her for the first time, to see who his new parents were going to be for the very first time, and opened the door, the aura of the Vietnamese food came to him, and he describes this as having been terrified before he came, and then, when he opened the door, all of the sudden he knew everything would be okay.
AD: So when Ash said, I love broccoli because I love mommy and daddy, he was right.
RW: Right, Ash was facing this countervailing force to his genetics. His experience, and what he associates broccoli with. And Julie Mennella, who we talked to before, this is her speciality: how kids develop their tastes. She showed us some videos that made this point really, really well. The first one was of a baby having its first taste of something really sweet, and it’s basically just like a video of a really, really happy baby. So the baby gets something sweet, and it’s like grinning and giggling, and it’s asking for more.
AD: But then she had this other video, where researchers gave a baby broccoli for the first time, and that was a totally different story.
JM: So contrast that to ..
JM: So you see the grimace … maybe you probably saw that in your son early on. But look at that.
AD: Oh that is an angry face!
RW: And then he shakes his head!
AD: That was such an unhappy baby. But then something really key happens:
JM: But what’s also important – on that second spoonful, he opens his mouth again. And the only way this sensory system learns is to taste the foods to learn to like it.
AD: Julie told us that on average a kid has to eat a food eight or nine times before the taste is familiar enough that they’ll give it a chance. Which is not to say this baby is eight or nine bites away from eating broccoli but maybe being a little more comfortable with it. Though she said that tasting actually begins in the womb. A pregnant mother’s diet has a huge impact on that baby’s food preferences later on.
RW: And she says that as we get older, it becomes harder for us to adjust. So even though kids are not super polite about refusing foods when they don’t want to eat something, they’re actually are much more open to new flavors than adults. So it’s really important for kids to be offered a lot of good food early, so they get a chance to learn to like it. Lots of our favorite foods that we have now, as adults, are weird ones that we totally hated when we were children.
AD: That’s true. Like, I love ice cream, and I would eat it all day. And I would eat all the brownies I could. But, for me, when I eat grilled brussels sprouts, that isn’t just good. That touches my soul. That makes me feel connected to my childhood, to my parents.
RW: To this episode.
AD: Yes I will never eat any of the oleraceas without thinking of this episode. And Rachel and I think now it’s time to sum up our defense of broccoli. That broccoli is surprisingly awesome. So awesome thing number one, when you eat broccoli, you’re actually eating thousands of tiny flower buds.
RW: Awesome thing number 2, 2a, 2b blah blah. Broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, collard greens, kohlrabi, cauliflower are all different versions of the exact same plant.
AD: Awesome thing number 3. Bitterness isn’t a thing in and of itself. We human beings need specific genes to taste specific kinds of bitter. And we don’t all taste the same bitterness.
RW: And dealing with that bitterness. That’s actually like a central part of our food culture.
AD: And let me say the biggest thing I learned on this whole journey. I will say a few weeks ago, before we started, I really did think broccoli was pretty boring. I wasn’t sure what we were gonna get out of this. I didn’t like the taste. I wasn’t that interested in the plant. I did not care. And I did not realize there was this other thing going on in my life that was related. Ash is actually a really picky eater and I’m not going to say it’s the worst part of being a parent but trying to get this kid to eat food is definitely high on the list. It is annoying and boring and endless and I just felt like I can’t wait to get to the part where he actually consumes nutritious calories voluntarily.
AD: But now, I’m thinking: Wow, broccoli is part of one of the most amazing stories of the development of humankind. Here’s this plant that has things inside of it that are very good for us, but it also has this defensive bitterness to keep us out. And we, with our biology and our culture have been shaping this plant, shaping ourselves and it’s a really central part of being a parent. Until this week, I really thought trying to get Ash to eat foods he doesn’t like was a chore, but now every time I feed him broccoli, I’m gonna realize oh this is something human beings have been doing for thousands of years and trying to shape Ash’s food preferences, trying to go against his biological dislike, this is a central part of a parent bonding with a child.
RW: So QED. Broccoli made you a better father.
AD: I know. Like every podcast is going to end with “And then, I became a better father.”
RW: All the audience clap.
AD: Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by the fabulous and dear friend Nicholas Britell; our ad music is by Build Buildings. This episode was edited by Alex Blumberg and produced by Travis Larchuk and
RW: Me, Rachel Ward
AD: With help from Emma Jacobs and Caitlin Kenney. It was mixed by Andrew Dunn.
AD: Laura B. Russell, author of the cookbook “Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables” helped us out with this episode too.
AD: And get this: Her middle initial is B. So Laura B. Russell – BRUSSEL, LIKE BRUSSELS SPROUT.
RW: Oh perfect like the world’s healthiest vegetable.
AD: Thanks Travis for pointing that out. You can tweet at us at @surprisingshow, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on Facebook, and at gimlet.com/awesome.
Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media. I can’t wait to get out of these old studios.
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AD: Why don’t I run ahead to the car because I’m worried about the ticket?
RW: You’re so worried okay, um so …
AD: You remember where it is? You know what, I’ll come around and pick you up out front.
RW: Okay great, don’t forget your coat.
DR: Are you guys married?
RW: I’m his producer!