Chances are good that at whatever holiday feast you attend this year, one dish will include vegetables that have been simply, gloriously roasted. They will surely be kissed with oil and salt, and perhaps, given the festive occasion, burnished with bits of lardon or sprinklings of savory and thyme. But regardless of customization, it’s the bare technique—softening and caramelizing the veggies under high, dry heat—that will have made them delicious.
The presence of a bowl of crispy Brussels sprouts or a platter of blistered carrots and parsnips on our dinner tables is happily commonplace these days. However, this was not always so. In a recent meeting at Slate, everyone agreed that roasted sprouts are an ideal holiday dish, but no one recalled roasted sprouts—indeed, roasted vegetables of any sort—being a part of their family’s tradition. What I mean is that no one present could remember Mom popping a half-sheet of oiled-up plant matter into a screaming-hot oven on Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other day, for that matter. If roasting is now the default vegetable cooking technique, it certainly wasn’t 25 or 30 years ago. So the question arose: When did roasting vegetables become a thing?
Being one who appreciates both roasted vegetables and the origins of things people take for granted, I decided to look into the issue—and while I was not able to absolutely confirm a roasting ground zero (as with all food trends, certainty is near impossible), I stumbled upon a satiating theory that led me to Rhode Island, of all places.
Restaurant chefs have always roasted vegetables for certain preparations, especially classic Italian deployments like roasted plum tomato sauce and charred red peppers for antipasti. The concept of roasting as a general vegetable technique seems to have originated in a famous Italian restaurant: Johanne Killeen and George Germon’s Al Forno, which opened in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1980. Forno means oven in Italian, and the critically acclaimed chefs made ample use of that apparatus. A 1991 Newsday article relays that this was initially a result of circumstance rather than choice:
The kitchen boasted only one cooking appliance [in the beginning]—an oven. “We started to experiment with roasting vegetables in the oven through necessity,” said Killeen. The first vegetable they tried with success was asparagus. “We didn’t invent roasted vegetables,” she said, “but we knew we were on to something special.” Next came carrots, then beets, then squash. “Eating fava beans roasted in their skins was like eating candy,” Killeen said.
While it is unlikely that Killeen and Germon were solely responsible for the roasting craze, they certainly played their part. Their influential 1991 cookbook Cucina Simpatica contains extensive advice on roasting vegetables, and that book was cited in a spate of newspaper articles boasting of the pleasures and outlining the basics of vegetable roasting. This coverage culminated in a lengthy January 1993 New York Times trend piece on the subject, in which food critic Florence Fabricant surveyed chefs across the country on the rush to roast, recommending the unfamiliar technique to home cooks as well. She begins her argument by dispelling roasting’s traditional limitations:
Dry-heat cooking in an oven has traditionally been associated with meat, poultry, and game. Indeed, large cuts of meat and whole poultry are often called roasts. But increasingly, chefs are roasting other foods like fish, vegetables, and fruit, finding that the technique seals in and intensifies flavors, imparts an attractive burnish, and often uses less fat than some other cooking methods.
Fabricant adds that home cooks should not “shy away from the high temperatures” called for (425-500 degrees), suggesting that many naturally would, and points out that “professional-quality sheet pans, roasting pans, and ovenproof skillets are best.” She also tries to add a bit of sex appeal, pointing out that though “roasting is [technically] the same as baking … it suggests more invitingly rustic food. It’s more bistro, less Betty Crocker.”
Fabricant’s advice came the same year as the invention of the Food Network, and with it, the inauguration of our contemporary foodie culture. With Food Network stars like Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Alton Brown, and Ina Garten advocating roasting, the technique came thoroughly into vogue in the late ’90s and early ’00s. And according to Google Trends, searches for roasted vegetables have increased over at least the last decade, with ever-sharper peaks of Internet interest around the holidays. Popular recipe databases like Epicurious have responded to (and likely reinforced) this hunger, offering far more roasted vegetable recipes than you’ll find under searches for poached or steamed vegetables. Roasted Brussels sprouts, in particular, appear to have enjoyed a boost from the popularity of Momofuku’s addictive fish-sauce glazed innovation, copycat versions of which one now tastes everywhere. Clearly, roasting is really the only way to treat vegetables if one hopes to be modern.
So what was the problem with all of those premodern people (e.g., our parents)? Why didn’t they think to use that cookie sheet for something other than cookies?
As it turns out, that tendency has a long history in European cookery. As Bee Wilson explains in her history Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, the oven was for centuries considered to have an entirely different purpose from open fire: “The prejudice against closed-off cooking ranges was largely that they seemed too much like bread ovens. … Ovens were things that baked. In European kitchens, the two kinds of heat were kept stubbornly apart.” This division persisted into the early 20th century, so it’s not surprising that many older people cook with an implicit sense that ovens are for breads and sweets and stovetops are for vegetables and proteins (except for those joints of meat that were too large to be cooked on the range).
Accordingly, a lingering preference for boiled, steamed, and sautéed vegetables seems to be the main reason roasting took so long to catch on more widely. Oven technology has not changed that much in the last several decades, but sensibilities regarding how certain foodstuffs should be prepared—whether for nutritional value, ease, or the flavor—have shifted greatly. A preference for moist approaches is readily apparent when looking at two of the most influential cookbooks of the first half of the 20th century. The Joy of Cooking recommends first steaming and then sautéing vegetables meant to accompany roasts, and the Fannie Farmer Cookbook focuses on boiling and steaming (and, in later editions, microwaving) almost exclusively. It’s important to note that Fabricant’s “large cuts of meat and whole poultry” were very present in these tomes, but applying the same technique to plants just wasn’t done. And even the vegetable sides in Julia Child’s revolutionary Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which arise from the French “tender-crisp” blanch-it-all school of thought, are relatively blah, often depending on butter or some rich sauce for their final appeal rather than the natural goodness that roasting concentrates. It would take another decade or two before that great truth would become common knowledge.
Whereas our mothers and fathers learned to cook in a world where turning on the oven was reserved for roasting a chicken or baking a cake, the assurances of the New York Times and books like Cucina Simpatica, as well as countless hours of Food Network viewing, have trained us not to think twice about 425 degrees for 25 minutes to make a side dish. The advent of foodieism made fussy home-cooking cool; and although roasting is very simple technically, there is something fussy—and therefore cool—about turning your oven up to extreme temperatures just to get the perfect char on some specially sourced, organically pristine specimens of kale. And social explanations aside, the taste is legitimately superior to older techniques in almost all cases: After you’ve experienced the way roasting concentrates (and enhances, via caramelization) the flavor of something like cauliflower, it is frankly impossible to go back to the boiled version, even doused in butter.
Luckily, we don’t have to! However it caught on, roasting is at this point an indispensable approach to cooking vegetables. When you are preparing your own trays of perfectly singed delight this holiday season, just remember that history didn’t necessarily have to follow this trajectory—that it did is something for which we should count our blessings.