Eat Your Broccoli
A CultureMap®
by Gabriel Rosenberg
Published on 11/13/13

Roman emperor Tiberius had no trouble getting his son to eat broccoli: The young Drusus Julius Caesar (no relation to that emperor or to that salad) allegedly had such a broccoli hankering that for a whole month he ate little else. The same cannot be said for children today—or for some U.S. presidents, one of whom would be damned if anyone tried to make him eat his broccoli.

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George H.W. Bush  (b. 1924 | U.S. president)
to  ObamaCare

“May 27. Sowed Lettuce, Radish, Broccoli, & Cauliflower.” With this 1767 journal entry, Thomas Jefferson—then a 24-year-old Virginia plantation owner—became the first documented broccoli cultivator in America. Since then, the presidency’s relationship with broccoli has taken a bitter turn. The nutrient-rich vegetable nearly took out Barack Obama’s health care reform—a.k.a. ObamaCare—when critics challenged the act’s constitutionality using the “broccoli argument”: If the government can mandate the purchase of health care, then what’s preventing federal enforcement of buying broccoli? The broccoli argument made it to the Supreme Court, which mentioned the vegetable 12 times in its ruling upholding ObamaCare.

Although the Obamas are supremely health-conscious, George H.W. Bush was an unabashed junk foodie while he was president. His 1990 attack on broccoli is one of the more famous diatribes against a comestible: “I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!” Bush’s poor diet had already influenced the country: After he expressed a fondness for pork rinds in 1988, nationwide sales of the snack food soared.

George H.W. Bush  (b. 1924 | U.S. president)
to  Broccoli Television

A 1928 New Yorker cartoon captioned by E.B. White depicts a mother imploring her young daughter at the dinner table, “It’s broccoli, dear.” The girl replies, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.” To a child, a slimy green vegetable by any other name is just as repulsive. An updated version could show a teenage girl plopped on the couch thumbing a smartphone as her mother gestures ineffectually toward the television: “It’s a documentary about the Civil War, dear.” “I say it’s another nature special about ants, and I say the hell with it.”

You can’t force children to swallow their educational programming. But that doesn’t stop parents—and Congress—from trying. In 1990 “broccoli television,” a term later coined by a chippy TV producer, got legislative support when, under President George H.W. Bush (whose broccoli tantrum that same year outclassed even White’s adolescent rebel), Congress enacted the Children’s Television Act.The CTA sought to increase intellectually stimulating children’s programming without compromising entertainment. Among the CTA’s many successes is PBS’s popular science cartoon The Magic School Bus. Looks like some broccoli can be tasty and good for you.

George H.W. Bush  (b. 1924 | U.S. president)
to  “Choppin’ Broccoli”  (Dana Carvey | comedy sketch | Saturday Night Live)

When the president goes on live television in the middle of a nuclear cold war and reports that “truckloads” of an unwanted substance are “at this very minute descending on Washington,” what do you do? Head for the hills? Duck and cover?

How about bib up? In 1990 California farmers sent the White House 20,000 pounds of broccoli—retribution for the broccoli ban then-president and notorious broccoli hater George H.W. Bush had instituted for Air Force One. In response Bush declared at a press conference, “I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!”

Even before his broccoli screed, the loose-lipped president was a comedian’s dream. Today’s political humor is indebted to Dana Carvey’s weekly Bush impersonations on Saturday Night Live, circa 1988 to 1993. Carvey auditioned for SNL singing about the very vegetable that made Bush tremble behind the podium. The rockstar-lampooning ballad “Choppin’ Broccoli” won Carvey his SNL spot and later proved a winning live sketch. That broccoli can both bring a mock-rocker to a state of near-orgasmic ecstasy and send the president into red alert proves there’s more to this green crucifer than meets the taste buds.

“Choppin’ Broccoli”  (Dana Carvey | comedy sketch | Saturday Night Live)
to  Mediterranean Diet

When not glorifying sex, drugs or booze, rockers and rappers embrace the hedonistic pleasures of junk food: ZZ Top gorges on “TV Dinners” (“20-year-old turkey in a 30-year-old tin / I can’t wait until tomorrow…and thaw one out again”). Jimmy Buffett wants nothing but a good old American “Cheeseburger in Paradise” (“I like mine with lettuce and tomato / Heinz 57 and french-fried potatoes”). Sir Mix-A-Lot stuffs himself with “Buttermilk Biscuits” (“You eat ’em in the morn’, you eat ’em at night / Kentucky Fried Chicken makes the suckers just right”).

Olive oil, whole grains, legumes—these heart-healthy Mediterranean staples rarely make Billboard’s Top 40.The rock parody “Choppin’ Broccoli,” performed by Dana Carvey, alas, was never released as a single and has only Sesame Street’s “Hurray-Hurrah for Broccoli” for company in exalting this much-maligned Mediterranean vegetable. For a wholesome fruit song, look to the Presidents of the USA—not the one Carvey spoofed on Saturday Night Live but the postgrunge Seattle band who made it big singing “Peaches” in 1996. And for a musical salute to an antioxidant-rich Mediterranean beverage, turn to Marvin Gaye, who pressed his grapevine heartache into sweet musical wine.

Mediterranean Diet
to  ObamaCare

Not to be outdone by her husband’s health initiatives—within two years he quit smoking, lowered his cholesterol and instituted the most significant health care overhaul in U.S. history—Michelle Obama started the “Let’s Move!” campaign in 2010, which aims to fight childhood obesity through education about exercise and diet. The movement champions the antioxidant-rich Mediterranean diet—olive oil, whole grains, vegetables, fruit, red wine (though not for the kids, right, Michelle?), fish, nuts and poultry—which has kept cancer and heart disease numbers extremely low in Italy, Greece, Spain, southern France and Morocco.

Michelle’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in the region. In 2012 she received the Mediterranean Diet Foundation Award for her health ventures. Later that year the Italian town of Salento dedicated a 1,400-year-old olive tree to the first lady and even named a day in October after her: Michelle Obama Med-Italian Diet Day. Best of all, the first family of health gets to feast on fresh Mediterranean organics at home: The 1,500-square-foot White House vegetable garden boasts such Mediterranean staples as tomatoes, parsley, artichokes, basil and two rows of a certain member of the cabbage family, broccoli.

Mediterranean Diet
to  The Enchanted Broccoli Forest  (Mollie Katzen | cookbook | 1982)

Jewish communities often label broccoli unkosher because its dense head can shelter microscopic bugs. This may explain Newman’s strong aversion, in an episode of Seinfeld, to the vegetable. “Ugh! Vileweed!” he shouts, as little green florets go flying. Newman, it turns out, “wouldn’t eat broccoli if it was deep-fried in chocolate sauce.” If the sitcom’s setting had been New York’s Little Italy in the 1920s instead of the Upper West Side in the 1990s, nobody would’ve spit out their broccoli. Tracing its cruciferous roots back to the Roman Empire, broccoli has always been a source of pride and a symbol of home for Italian immigrants. Broccoli is a staple of the Mediterranean diet (now billed as the gold standard of healthy cuisines), but its mainstream acceptance came on the back of another diet trend: vegetarianism. Mollie Katzen’s Enchanted Broccoli Forest, nearly as beloved as her Moosewood Cookbook (1977), casts broccoli in a central role. Even Newman might have been converted by Katzen’s title dish: butter-drizzled broccoli stalks planted upright in a field of garlic-and-lemon-seasoned rice pilaf. Better keep the chocolate sauce close by, just in case.

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest  (Mollie Katzen | cookbook | 1982)
to  ObamaCare

It’s no wonder Barack Obama was called Barry as a kid. Schoolyard children love dishing out unflattering nicknames, and Barack-oli Obama just doesn’t sound like someone who could impress the chicks. But there’s at least one chick who digs the name: his wife, Michelle. She debuted the embarrassing nickname Barack-oli, along with a green bust of her husband with broccoli coming out of his ears, on Late Show With David Letterman in 2012 while promoting her cookbook, American Grown. The nickname fits: Obama became uniquely entangled with the green crucifer when critics of his 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (itself nicknamed ObamaCare) challenged its constitutionality with the “broccoli argument,” likening the act’s mandated health coverage to the dystopian prospect of government-enforced broccoli exchanges.

For a warm winter treat, White House chef Sam Kass serves the Obamas his White House broccoli soup. But for a truly transcendent broccoli experience, try Mollie Katzen’s enchanted broccoli forest, from her vegetarian cookbook of the same name. Given the mouthwatering capabilities of this divine vegetarian creation—a baked dish of buttery broccoli amidst herbed rice pilaf—one has to wonder, What’s our beef with broccoli, anyway?