Broccoli

By Hanna Raskin

hraskin@postandcourier.com

With the approach of summer, restaurant menus begin to fill up with mentions of heirloom tomatoes. The modifier has meaning to gardeners — heirlooms are open-pollinated and predate World War II — but generally just signals to diners that the produce in question is extra-special.

As Jennifer Jordan points out in her new book, “Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods,” not every deserving vegetable is promoted to heirloom status. Even though broccoli was cultivated by the Romans, and flourished in North America by the 1700s, “there is very little on heirloom broccoli.”

For many eaters, broccoli just seems too blah to inspire the kind of stories associated with tomatoes, apples and stone fruits. Who would bother to protect and bestow a lowly crucifer?

Fortunately, somebody did, because broccoli remains a hugely important and popular vegetable. Here, seven facts worth knowing about all broccoli varieties, heirloom or otherwise:

1. Food activists are increasingly looking for ways to combat the problem of wasted food, which the federal government estimates adds up to about 60 million metric tons each year. That heap no doubt includes lots of broccoli stalks, which aren’t as visually or texturally interesting as the crowning florets. But the stalk can be shredded for slaw; boiled for vegetable stock or julienned for a stir fry. Cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman suggests slicing them crosswise and pan-frying the coins.

2. Broccoli is low in calories, running about 50 calories per cup, and high in filling fiber, yet it’s often neglected at breakfast time. Nutritionists suggest starting the day with a broccoli frittata featuring fat-free cheese or a broccoli egg white scramble.

3. According to gardener Jack Staub, Roman Emperor Tiberius’ son Drusius was so mad about broccoli that he ate nothing else for a month. When the diet eventually turned his urine bright green, Tiberius chastised him for his “precarious living.” While Drusius’ devotion was exceptional, his Roman contemporaries also enjoyed the vegetable, often prepared with cumin, coriander, onion, oil and wine.

4. If trying to keep cancer from spreading or returning, it’s better to approach broccoli with a knife and fork than to add the vegetable to a smoothie. That’s because a new research study from South Dakota State University shows a compound and an enzyme contained in broccoli combine to produce phenethyl isothiocyanate, a chemical associated with cancer prevention, when chewed.

5. The Jazz Age rage for broccoli explains the setup of the legendary 1928 New Yorker cartoon drawn by Carl Rose and captioned by E.B. White. Trying to coax her mop-topped daughter into eating her vegetables, a stylish mother urges, “It’s broccoli, dear.” (As for the girl, she says it’s spinach, and she says the hell with it.)

6. Chewing broccoli may fight cancer, but swallowing it whole wins eating contests. Tom “Broccoli” Landers employed that strategy to dispatch one pound of raw broccoli in 92 seconds, a standing world record. Landers retired in 2008 after injuring his small intestine.

7. Broccoli is grown in almost every state, but the bulk of it comes from California, which produces 90 percent of the nation’s crop.