A study of youth horticulture.
These were mere baby steps, and the labels at first referred to the young plants themselves as opposed to the miniature foods they might provide. Still, for the late Victorians, the baby vegetable could evoke sweet inexperience. An early ode to baby corn, published in 1899, had the mother plant "put in each small mouth / A hollow thread of silk, / Thru which the sun and rain and air / Provided baby's milk." Like children, edible babies could stand in for the bygone virtues of pre-Industrial Europe, and like children, they could be pressed just as quickly into factory work: baby cucumbers for pickling, baby carrots for canning, baby olives for jarring. They would become more convenient (but not much more popular) in the 20th century, packed into TV dinner trays and tossed into frozen medleys.
Then the development of la nouvelle cuisine in the late-1960s brought in the babies from the cold. All at once, French chefs turned away from big plates and heavy sauces and abandoned flour and fat. Baby vegetables, lightly cooked and served with their tops and roots intact, served as the their totemic garnish: small, fresh, and light. (Meanwhile, the babies' slightly older siblings, young vegetables, began to disappear from the lexicon.)
As nouvelle cuisine evolved into the New American style, we had a baby boom of our own. At her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Alice Waters created a temple to "vegetable infanticide," as one profile had it. Her carrots were "but blushing smidgens of carrot, jewels of carrot two, maybe three, inches long, each as precise and perfect as the little finger a dowager might crook over a cup of tea." European vegetables, along with European ideas about vegetables, were arriving by the boatload: Soon we had baby chervil, baby arugula, baby chicory—the whole mesclun mix of babies from Provence. Major supermarket chains like Giant and Safeway began stocking baby squash in 1984, and the Washington Post pamphleteered for the tiny revolution with a recipe for "baby vegetable medley." Here's the list of ingredients: 4 tiny red potatoes, 2 baby white eggplants, 2 baby purple eggplants, 2 miniature zucchini with blossoms, 2 miniature yellow squash with blossoms, 4 ears of baby corn, and 8 baby plum tomatoes.
As babies spread into supermarket aisles and home cooking, they outgrew their place in high-end kitchens. At first, micro-vegetables had seemed like a remedy for the Think-Big aesthetic of the Reagan years. But even in Berkeley, the dwarf garnish could be just as self-serving: With pebble beets and new potatoes, a diner was sure of having the whole thing to himself—no need to share a piece with strangers at another table. When the Fourth Symposium on American Cuisine arrived in San Francisco in the autumn of 1985, the chefs and journalists in attendance bemoaned a trend that had run its course. The babies are "getting smaller by the day," said Irena Chalmers. "Goodness knows zucchini will soon disappear altogether, or simply be painted on the plate." Ruth Reichl complained of little lettuces that "don't have any more flavor than iceberg."
So the invasion proceeded without them. In 1986, a veteran World War II pilot named Wilbur Souza started a company called Babé Farms, dedicated to the large-scale, local production of miniature vegetables. And, in the same year, a carrot farmer named Mike Yurosek had the idea to repurpose his twisted, gnarly castoffs as a baby-size snack food. He tried cutting the broken carrots into cubes and coins, and then the churned-out capsules that are so familiar today. Within a decade, Yurosek's invention had doubled the market for carrots in the United States, and an obscure baby-eating cult in California had been transformed into a national craze for bite-size snacks. Processed baby carrots arrived amid a trend toward miniaturized junk food. In 1987, Nabisco introduced Ritz Bits—the low-end, baby cracker. Then came Triscuit Bits, Teddy Grahams, and finally, in 1991, the Mini Chips Ahoy cookie.
Which is to say that baby vegetables have lived in a culinary limbo ever since the day they were born. Baby animals know their place: Veal is veal. But what about the midget plants—are they a high-end indulgence or a low-brow snack food? Are they decadent or just convenient? If we don't know (or don't care) which baby vegetables are the "real" ones, that's because we keep changing our minds about what they're doing on our plates.