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Defining Vegetables Down

The more we know about, say, cauliflower, the less we like it.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Recently I read a story in my local newspaper reporting that high school kids routinely throw out tons of vegetables because the food in their school lunches is so awful. It would seem that the youth of America particularly object to the lettuce. 

Cauliflower

elizabeth west

Purists may argue that school lunches are always fairly repellent, so you cannot really hold vegetables’ feet to the fire. But this raises the larger point: Aren’t blandness and tastelessness and overall horribleness generally true of vegetables? Wasn’t George H. W. Bush on to something when he talked about how vile broccoli is? If the price of being strong to the finish is having to eat your spinach, is it any surprise that so many kids have expressed little interest in being strong?

Although vegetable aficionados (and they are everywhere) may deny it, vegetables are a retrograde, vestigial anomaly in a society where everything else constantly improves. The record is clear. Cars constantly get more fuel-efficient. So do airplanes. And tractor trailers. And ships. This ceaseless improvement is particularly noticeable in the field of consumer electronics. Every six months or so, the iPhone gets a significant upgrade, as does the Droid and the iPod and the iPad. Every time you turn around, someone has come out with a sleeker, faster tablet that can run more apps and take better photos and just generally do more things. Software gets better. Hardware gets better. Apps get better. Life gets better.

Nor is ceaseless progress limited to the world of machines. Shoes keep improving in quality, especially footwear designed to be worn in the great outdoors. Today’s running shoes are a million times better than they were a generation ago, and the same is true of basketball sneakers—which actually lend support and cushion the foot from shock, unlike Chuck Taylors of yore. Under Armour and other perspiration-absorbing products constitute a huge improvement over generic T-shirts. And few would argue that contemporary lingerie is not a vast improvement over the tragic merchandise sold in bygone eras. Girdles? Garter belts? Granny panties? All those sad vestiges of the pre-thong era? 

Get serious.

Why, then, is it that vegetables never get any better? Why do vegetables remain so stubbornly bland and awful? And don’t try to pretend this is not the case: Who actually likes iceberg lettuce? Who invented lima beans? Are peas not the least ingenious, least culturally rewarding food ever invented? And carrots? Carrots? Are you kidding me? Carrots?

As the foregoing makes clear, I hold no brief for vegetables in general, and feel pretty much the same way about legumes and tubers. Yet, lest anyone dismiss me as a crank, I adore fruits of all varieties, gleefully ingesting everything from pygmy bananas to mangoes to kiwis. Every year for my birthday, my wife used to give me a box of bananas shipped out from a San Diego firm specializing in exotic fruit stuffs. No enemy of natural foods am I. 

But vegetables are another matter entirely. Vegetables get my goat. Vegetables enrage me. Having devoted years to the study of vegetal cartels, I am struck that incredibly uninteresting perishables like zucchini and okra only hang on in this society because of evil middlemen and corrupt farmers and shadowy oligopolies, and maybe even organized crime—all of which prevent inventors of exciting new vegetables from bringing their products to market. There is literally no other explanation for the continued existence of cabbage in the 21st century. Celery should have died out 300 years ago. Ditto cauliflower, the most repellent of foodstuffs. Yet they have not. Why?

Well, when a maker of a new strain of cauliflower—one you didn’t have to drown in cheese to make edible—tried to market his products a few years ago, he disappeared for several months and was subsequently found dead in an Iowa cornfield. I am not ruling out the possibility that murderous vegetarians may have been involved. Neither are the police. The fact is, conscienceless, ideologically twisted vegetarians will do anything to persuade the public that butternut squash tastes better than veal. Anything.

Earlier this year, a deadly frost in California wiped out most of the lettuce crop, making salad unbelievably expensive all over the rest of the country. As a result, restaurants are charging more for salads, and consumers, responding to crushing market forces, are almost certainly eating less of it. 

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