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In The Family
Why Do Mathematicians Love Romanesco Cauliflower?

The bumpy brassica is among nature’s coolest fractals.

Kale and brussels sprouts may have their own cachet, but no green vegetable gets math nerds excited like the romanesco cauliflower, a pale-green Italian variety whose bumpy flower buds are configured into conical curlicues. If you squint, you’ll see these tiny cones are stacked on top of each other almost down to the microscopic level—cones of cauliflower all the way down, as it were.

The romanesco’s funky design is a fractal, a mathematical term for a geometric pattern that repeats itself at a range of scales, and it’s one of countless fractals found in nature. Crystal structures in grains of salt? Fractals. The tapering shape of fern leaves down the stalk? Fractals. Norway’s famous crunchy outline of fjords? You get the idea. The appearance of fractals in all kinds of foods and plants is like the golden ratio, a mathematical concept that shows up in everything from seashells to da Vinci’s Vitruvian man.

It’s a nice reminder that however chaotic the universe may appear, there’s at least some underlying order in its functions. And in the case of romanesco, natural laws of the universe taste pretty good.

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Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.