When I first embarked on the 50 Vegetable Challenge, I talked to absolutely everyone in my life. Why I felt compelled to actively campaign for vegetable variety, I do not know. There are so many other worthy causes in the world that it still seems silly to get fixated on this one. I think part of the appeal was that I simply wanted other people to feel the same sense of adventure I was experiencing. I genuinely felt I could add some element of joy to their lives.
As a result, I tried to draw people into my new hobby. I took hummus to work to gather data for my Ho-Hummus or Hum-mazing taste test. I invited a friend over to eat Experimental Eggplant. I even enlisted the aid of a few very special Sous Chefs to help me try recipes. Several months ago, replete after some Radical Radish Risotto, I asked them about their own vegetable journeys:
What vegetables did you eat as a child?
Christina Peas. Lots and lots of peas. Usually frozen, reconstituted, never fresh. Lot of corn, again frozen. Boiled.
Leslie Same here. I had peas, and I grew up thinking corn was a vegetable. [We had] some broccoli. I do remember the occasional canned green bean. Green beans are usually canned. I don’t know why—everything else was frozen. I didn’t realize I liked green beans until I was an adult and had them outside the can.
Ladi My mother told me stories that when I was younger I would go to the refrigerator to get out the carrots. That was my jam. I hated corn. It turns out, I actually love corn, especially right on the cob.
At this point, the conversation devolved into a discussion of street corn as a new food fad. Apparently, whole cobs are boiled or roasted with the stalk intact as a handle, then coated with a myriad of toppings (Cheese? Mayonnaise? Call me a purist, but whatever happened to butter, salt, and pepper?). However, since corn is not actually a vegetable, and therefore excluded from the list, I attempted to get them all back on track.
What do you eat now that you wouldn’t eat back then?
Leslie Tomatoes. I hated tomatoes back then except as tomato sauce or spaghetti sauce. I forced myself to learn to like tomatoes in my 20s because they were good for me. I thought, “This is ridiculous. You need to like a larger variety of vegetables,” so I started forcing myself to eat them. Now, I really enjoy a good cherry tomato.
Christina Brussels sprouts are the great lie of pop culture. There were so many things from when we were kids where brussels sprouts were the thing kids hated. The first time I had them prepared well, I was thinking, “This is the best thing I’ve ever had. Where has this vegetable been all my life?”
Frankly, I did not like vegetables. Again, frozen peas and corn are not the best introduction to a kid on what vegetables can do. For me, it’s almost them all.
Ladi: Asparagus. I really like asparagus.
How has your relationship with vegetables changed?
Leslie: Moving to New York has improved my relationship with vegetables because I no longer have to worry about them going bad in my refrigerator. I just pick them up from the market or the guy on the side of the road on my way home from work. If I just want one banana, I hand him my quarter and he hands me my banana, and I walk away.
Ladi: Like a toll booth?
Leslie: We’re almost to that point. He even knows how much green I like in my banana. When every single day on your way to the gym you buy a banana 5 days a week…
Ladi: My vegetable intake for the last several weeks has been a sauteed medley. Right now I’ll do asparagus, spinach, mushrooms, and then I love broccoli slaw with shredded broccoli, red cabbage and carrots. When I cook them, they almost get this glassy look so they almost look like noodles. I’ll add turkey and then put something like teriyaki sauce on it or I’ll use a little scoop of hummus.
Leslie: I’ve learned I don’t want to doctor my vegetables as much as I did when I was a kid. You gotta let the real flavor of the vegetable come out. You want the complimentary flavors now as adults. You’ve learned to appreciate the freshness of that produce. I don’t want a ton of dressing on my salad, but as a kid, just slather that ranch dressing to disguise it. Now I want to taste those mushrooms and that tomato.
Christina: Living here has actually really helped my food life because Phoenix is where my world expanded a lot. I had a friend who would always talk about how your food heritage follows your matriarchal line because your mom teaches you how to cook, her mom taught her, blah, blah, blah. My matriarchal line were Swedish farmers as far back as the eye can see. Not a lot of spice. Not a lot of variety. Meat and potato–that’s how I was raised. My mom, when I try to spice things behind her back, will still say “Not too much!” I was not raised with spice at all.
At college, my roommates opened my eyes to this world where spice even exists. I was like a little kid learning how to walk and trying anything, so I would over-spice because I would go nuts. When I moved here, this is a giant metropolis. We have restaurants from all over the world, so I’d go explore with friends and roommates. This is where my food world matured. I was also cooking for myself, friends, and roommates. There are foods on this list that I’ve had because of a roommate who had lived in Japan.
What is your favorite vegetable or dish now?
Leslie: I have gotten addicted to salad in general. I love being able to stop after work at the corner bodega and getting a $5-6 salad that I would never be able to put together on my own without it taking forever or the vegetables going bad before I could eat them all. I get all kinds of craziness going on in there and think, “YES!” because I didn’t have to cook or prepare it.
Christina: I legit love with all of my heart the sweet kale that’s sold kind of everywhere–Costco, grocery store, etc. It’s so good. I love it with all of my heart and soul. Also kale chips are really good if you just kind of roast kale and break it up into little chunks. You put some salt, olive oil, pepper, and roast it. It comes out crunchy, delicious, a little satisfying like chips you can just pop in your mouth.
This launched another side discussion, this time regarding the bitterness of kale and appropriate preventative measures. That led to cilantro tasting like soap and the “asparagus problem.” I wasn’t sure how to tell if I am so afflicted, but I was assured that I would know because the smell in the restroom is “penetrative.” Again, you can imagine what a struggle it is to keep such entertaining friends on topic.
How many of the vegetables on the list have your never eaten?
Christina: I think I just like the sound of rutabaga, but I don’t think I’ve actually eaten one. Taro–I don’t think I know what that is. I think I’m up to maybe 13.
Leslie: That would be 4. Cassava, daikon, rutabaga, and Jerusalem artichoke. All the others I’ve had, surprisingly. I expected there to be more on this list I hadn’t had. You can make a vegan merengue from the liquid in canned fava beans. I’ve tried some of these things simply because I’ve had friends drag me off to some restaurant I hadn’t heard of and decided to give it a try even though it sounded strange. I’m also surprised plantain is on there. I never considered the plantain a vegetable. I thought it was related to the banana.
Ladi: 6 or 7. I would venture a guess that a lot of those are found in more Asian recipes or maybe vegetarian or vegan recipes. I follow Tish Wonders on YouTube, and she does a lot of plant-based recipes. Her emphasis is on using seasonal, local vegetables. She tends to use a wide range of different types of vegetables, and I find that if veganism or vegetarianism isn’t the focus of your eating habits, you’re less likely to try different vegetables. Vegetables are always a side to meat and starch, as opposed to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle where that’s the star of the show.
The other thought I had about this is maybe the reason the average person hasn’t tried those is because they require preparation. If you want a basic salad, just lettuce, tomatoes, onion, maybe a little bit of something else. But buying beets–if you don’t want to go the canned, pickled beet route, which is how I think most people eat beets–you have to seed them, you have to peel them, you have to figure out how you want to prepare them. Most people think, “I don’t have time for that” or “I have kids who will not eat that because they’re picky.”
Which one are you inspired to try?
Leslie: The other 4 vegetables I haven’t had. I don’t know that I will go out looking for them, but I will be more aware of them. It definitely inspires me to eat more vegetables in general, and maybe when I see something on the salad line I don’t recognize, maybe give it a try.
Ladi: I would love to do more plant-based. I’m not saying I’m going wholly vegan, but having vegetables be more of the focus. The fiber is good, it’s good for helping lower blood sugar, and it’s overall better for me in general. I would like to branch out and try to make more of a variety of vegetable dishes and have those be the star.
Christina: The list reminds me that vegetables are awesome. I usually am not super inspired to cook amazing things for myself. It could be that I’m to stuck in my matriarchal line of what is quick and easy and familiar. I could say, “I’m going to be inspired and I’m going to cook all these amazing vegetables!” I won’t. But I can remember they exist. I do want to get takeout on the weekends to support local restaurants again, so this reminds me that I can have somebody else make these delicious things for me.
I’d like to thank the Sous Chefs for their candid participation. It’s inspiring to me that each of them started with a fairly limited range during childhood and then had a food awakening as adults. I think we can all relate to the joy of discovery, especially when we can repeat the experience as soon as our next meal.
The 50 Vegetable Challenge is deliberately uncomplicated. It is all-ages, non-religious, nonpartisan, multi-cultural, and a prime example of how diversity makes our lives richer. Yes, it’s a fun way to introduce variety in your diet, but it’s also an invitation to keep your mind open to new experiences in whatever form they come.