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FDR smiling
Franklin D. Roosevelt, [between 1918 and 1920]. Prints & Photographs Division.

The Sprout Incident of FDR and Lady Churchill

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The flesh on the nape of my neck did the crawly thing that it does so well. Some people say this is God’s warning that the devil is near, but I’ve noticed I also experience it when someone serves me Brussels sprouts. – Dean Koontz

Detail of a Brussels sprout
Detail from The Sprout Incident, 1955. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 

Brussels sprouts. Well, not everyone can be a fan. Many readers will agree with Mr. Koontz that the thought of a Brussels sprout evokes a strong visceral reaction. Yet these tiny cabbage-like greens have been cultivated for centuries and, assumedly, have been dividing public opinion for just as long. An authoritative botanical history of the Brussel sprout has yet to be published, and tracing this history of this divisive vegetable is a project for a dedicated scholar.

Illustration of a Brussels Sprout from 1586
Detail of “Brassica Capitata Polycephalos” in Jacques Daléchamps Historia generalis plantarum, in libros XVIII per certas classes artificiose digesta. 1589. Wellcome Library Collection. Available through Internet Archive

By the 18th century, Brussels sprouts appeared in gardening books, such as Charles Marshall’s Plain and Easy Introduction to the Knowledge and Practice of Gardening. French settlers in Louisiana were likely the first to introduce the crop into the American Colonies, though some credit Thomas Jefferson, who was known to have attempted their cultivation.

Popular cookbooks on both sides of the Atlantic begin including recipes for for Brussels sprouts in the 19th century. The first recipe directly referring to Brussels sprouts appeared in English poet and food-writer, Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families. Eliza Acton recorded the Belgian and French ways of serving Brussels sprouts, while the British tradition held that boiling Brussels sprouts was the tastiest method of preparation.

Not everyone would agree—even in more recent history, no vegetable splits opinion quite like the Brussels sprout. In 1944, the preparation of these little members of the cabbage family even sparked an argument between political allies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lady Clementine Churchill.

It was summertime, and President Roosevelt and Lady Churchill were attending a diplomatic dinner in Quebec. A proficient conversationalist and attentive hostess, Lady Churchill inquired about when the President might next visit England. President Roosevelt explained that, while he loved England, a single, small reason might impede his return: he did not like the way the English prepared their vegetables!

“Take Brussels sprouts for instance…why…do you boil them? But if you must boil them, why do you leave the water in them when they are served? Why don’t you throw away that gray, saltless, tepid water before sending the Brussels sprouts to the table?”

Now, Roosevelt was known as something of a joker who loved a good prank, and it seems that this statement was meant in jest. Lady Churchill, however, was indignant. An argument ensued. Roosevelt recanted. He said that he would return to England, but if only Mrs. Churchill would, “promise never to boil [his] sprouts.” Joke this may have been, but it seems that Lady Churchill took Roosevelt as his word. Upon her return to England, she called the American Ambassador to learn more about the preferred American method of preparing the little sprouts.

Some months later, Franklin Roosevelt related this story to Mrs. Kermit Roosevelt (Belle, married to Kermit, son of Theodore Roosevelt, and therefore cousin-by-marriage to FDR). As Franklin D. Roosevelt laughed over the somewhat heated exchange, an enthusiastic Belle suggested that she would, “collect recipes, past, present and future for Brussels sprouts” to be gathered for Lady Churchill. Belle later reported that, “the President inquired many times regarding the progress of the necessary research. …he specifically urged that work be hastened in order that he might, himself, present this little book of recipes to Mrs. Churchill on his impending trip to England.”

[Kermit Roosevelt and his wife Belle, both full-length, standing]
[Kermit Roosevelt and his wife Belle, both full-length, standing] 1928 May 26. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Sadly, that trip was never to come. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April of 1945 without making his return trip to England. As a remembrance of this little-known chapter of wartime diplomacy gone awry, Belle went ahead, and, in 1955, she had a small volume published entitled, The Sprout Incident.

Only 100 copies were produced, one of which, the publication notes, was specially bound and reserved for Lady Churchill. The Library of Congress has two copies.

Today, the British are the number one fans of the vegetable: the United Kingdom grows about six times as many Brussels sprouts as the United States. Over the past 200 years, Brussels sprouts—love them or hate them—have been served in a variety of ways on both sides of the Atlantic. Belle’s special book of collected sprout recipes documents a playful moment in the history of the Brussels sprout.

 

FURTHER READING

Dalechamps, Jacques, Rauwolf, Leonhard. Historia generalis plantarum, in libros XVIII per certas classes artificiose digesta. Lyon : Rouillé, Guillaume, 1518?-1589, 1586. p.521. Internet Archive via Wellcome Library.

Marshall, Charles. A plain and easy introduction to the knowledge and practice of gardening, with hints on fish-ponds, 4th ed. London, Printed for F. C. and J. Rivington [etc.] by Bye and Law, 1805.

M’Mahon, Bernard. American gardener’s calendar … Philadelphia : Printed by B. Graves … for the author, 1806.

Lindley, John, 1799-1865. The treasury of botany: a popular dictionary of the vegetable kingdom; with which is incorporated a glossary of botanical terms. Ed. by John Lindley … and Thomas Moore … Assisted by numerous contributors … London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1866. 

Sturtevant, E. Lewis (Edward Lewis), 1842-1898. Sturtevant’s notes on edible plants, Albany, J. B. Lyon company, state printers, 1919.

Roosevelt, Belle. “FDR and the Big Sprout Crisis” THIS WEEK Magazine, January 24, 1960.

McLagan, Jennifer. Bitter : a taste of the world’s most dangerous flavor, with recipes / Jennifer McLagan ; photography by Aya Brackett. First edition. Berkeley : Ten Speed Press, [2014]

Realfonzo, Ugo. “A Belgian History of the Brussels Sprout,” Brussels Times, December 21, 2023.

Massachusetts Horticultural Society Library

Comments (2)

  1. Love this blog on Brussels sprouts! Very interesting index of recipes. My mother served them throughout my childhood, with a variety of ingredients including brown sugar and butter. My favorite recipe is roasted Brussels sprouts with grated Parmesan cheese.

  2. Hello from Australia. Yes, the humble sprout – hate them. My Scottish mum, a wonderful cook with a wide range, served me and the rest of my family sprouts and from my earliest days usually with the Sunday roast dinner, alas Brussels sprouts was not her forte. The sprouts were always to me soggy and bitter. Perhaps, The sprout incident may have helped her and cured me of my lifelong distaste.

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