A Scot’s dislike of broccoli

The Herald, Editorial Notebook, 20 Feb 1993.

THEY are serving broccoli again at the White House, as a side dish to taxation stew. Mrs Clinton has restored them to the menu from which they had been hounded by Mr Bush. He also banned them from the presidential jet, Air Force One.

Mr Bush made no secret of his detestation for broccoli. Many Scottish males will have sympathised with him, for broccoli seem supremely the kind of vegetable foisted on them by improving females, of whom Mrs Clinton is now the world’s leading example. A childhood of being told to eat green things ”because they’re good for you” must lie behind Mr Bush’s prejudice.

My own old dislike of broccoli has no such justification, since my mother, an excellent cook in other respects, entertained a dislike amounting to contempt for vegetables. My youth was innocent not only of broccoli but also of parsnips, courgettes and aubergines (though no doubt the war had something to do with this too). For salad she reserved her most withering scorn. ”Rabbit food,” she would say as she served it under protest.

She had been brought up in the north-east of Scotland, in a fishing village, and she subscribed to the rather romantic notion that there was Arcadian virtue in the old Scots diet of oatmeal, herring, potatoes, and kail; and it is true that some modern historians believe it to have been much better than the additive-rich and packaged fodder of our own age.

My mother’s attitude, and the superior quality of the fruit and vegetables I discovered when I went to live in England for a while, led me to believe that there was a strong cultural and historical basis for Scotland’s neglect of broccoli and other such exotica.

The industrial urban culture, with its need for the energy and gratification of starch and sugar, helps to explain why people in Scotland still underdose on fruit and vegetables, just as Scotland’s relative poverty meant that it was unable to sustain markets as highly developed as those of a more populous country. According to our own food writer, Catherine Brown, in her Scottish Cookery (Richard Drew, 1989), Scottish consumption of vegetables continues below the UK average, and of fruit only slightly better.

But the idea that the Scots have a specific prejudice against vegetables I discover to be far from the truth. F. Marian McNeill, in her classic book The Scots Kitchen (Panther 1974), did refer to a generalised dislike of them but ascribed it to Highlanders.

The vogue of kail was confined to the Lowlands; the Highlander preferred nettles for his broth ”and regarded the use of kail as a symptom of effeminacy”. A Gaelic poem on the battle of Killiecrankie, that supreme triumph of Highland arms, mocks the defeated soldiers as men of ”kail and brose”.

The Lowland Scots, on the other hand, were enthusiastic cultivators of vegetables. They played a leading part in the agricultural revolution. By the end of the eighteenth century abundant quantities of broccoli and other delicacies were available in our cities.

In Edinburgh the kail-wives took their stance at the Tron, with creels full of produce from Musselburgh. Meg Dodds, writing in 1826, recorded that the ”vegetable markets of most towns have . . . undergone a wonderful improvement . . . so that a healthful luxury is within the reach of all classes”.

Scottish gardens became famed for their beauty. The ”best houses” in England would have a French chef and a Scottish gardener. In one of the Jane Austen novels there is a reference to the appointment of a Scottish gardener and the question of whether the ”old prejudice” against the Scots could now be overcome (in the seventeenth century the Scots army sent to England in support of the Parliamentarians exacted free quarters and became deeply unpopular). P. G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth went in perpetual terror of his Scottish gardener, a tyrant of the rake.

Few prejudices can be sustained when exposed to the light of reality and reason. Broccoli have been scurvily treated by their detractors. They are a brassica, a member of the cabbage family. They originate in Italy and their name is treated as a plural noun because it is derived from broccolo, meaning a cabbage sprout.

Nor need they be symptomatic of austerity and dreary health faddism, as I discovered when I went in search of enlightenment to Ian Murray at his bookshop Word of Mouth in Bank Street, Glasgow. In Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book (Penguin Cookery Library) we found a number of broccoli recipes rich enough in butter to blow any low-cholesterol diet to eternity.

Take a pound of trimmed broccoli, 6 beaten eggs, salt, pepper, and 4oz butter. You trim a large slice of toasted cottage bread to fit in the base of a round serving dish. Cook the broccoli, keep them warm; season and scramble the eggs in the generous dod of butter but keep them soft; finish them by placing them on the warm toast sitting snugly in the heated dish; stick a large piece of broccoli in the centre and arrange the rest around the side.

A couple of years ago, at a dinner party in Dublin, I was in full flow in a diatribe against effete vegetables like broccoli, aubergines and courgettes. They were, I suggested, expressive of do-goodery and faddism. My hostess listened politely and then lifted the lids from the serving dishes. There they were; broccoli, aubergines and courgettes.

Crestfallen, I resolved never to be rude about them again. I eat them with a pleasure that is genuine if still a little dutiful. I shall be buying some broccoli this weekend. These past 10 years the quality of fruit and vegetables available here in the West End of Glasgow has improved greatly, though it is still rather below the standard to be found in England (the same applies to cheese). But we travel hopefully. Mrs Clinton’s gesture is overdue: even I concede it is time broccoli came in from the cold.