I had a friend in San Francisco who would get all bent out of shape over baby carrots. "They're not baby carrots," she'd say. "They're differently sized carrots." I looked more closely. She was right.
What is a baby carrot? Is it a carrot's little offspring, or some kind of mutant half-breed? I pulled a thumb-size nubbin from a plastic pouch, bit it in half and studied the core. This was no child, and no dwarf, either—but a healthy, full-sized carrot in cross-section, pared down in a factory and reshaped to queer, child-like proportions. My orange baby was a grown-up in a diaper, a vegetable with Peter Pan syndrome. It was a weirdo. It was a fake.
So you knew this already; good for you. But what about the other "babies" at the grocer? Baby artichokes and baby corn, baby broccoli and baby beets, baby spinach and baby bok choy? Baby squashes that wear flowers in their hair? Baby-size onions and tiny tomatoes? Baby vegetables have taken over my local supermarket—but which of these bonsai plants are babies, and which of them aren't?
"Carrots are the anomaly," said Carol Miles, an associate professor of vegetable horticulture at Washington State University who has studied, among other things, the cultivation of baby corn. (Those are plucked from regular corn plants just a few days after the silks emerge.) Most "baby" vegetables are the real deal, she said: They're harvested early and immature. Baby greens are youngsters. Baby zucchinis are grabbed before they've thickened. These are the veal of vegetables—tender and mild and innocent.
Except when they're not. If some baby veggies are like baby cows, then others are more like full-grown midget cows, or they're not even cows at all. Baby broccoli, for example, is its own thing—a hybrid of regular, grown-up broccoli and a Chinese plant called gai lan. Baby turnips come from their own Lilliputian race of plants. Baby artichokes are neither babies nor dwarves, but rather small-bore siblings that form in the shade.
Some vegetables have real babies and fake ones, too. Irwin Goldman, a beets-and-onions man at the University of Wisconsin, explained that scallions might be sold as fetal bulbs in the United States, but they come from a different species altogether overseas (cf. Allium fistulosum, the "Welsh onion"). Or bok choy: American grocers sell a baby version harvested before it gets too big and fibrous. A true infant, perhaps, but also a hack; an Asian dwarf variety claims to be the real thing. Even the baby carrot, that original fraudster, can't so easily be categorized. Some farmers breed carrots for length and shape, so as to peel and splice them into supermarket snack capsules. But a "real" sort of baby carrot comes under the same label, as do certain specialty breeds that take on a babyish form.
What's to love in this hodgepodge of ersatz babies and half-formed runts? Viewed together, as a class of ingredients, they're neither unusually sweet nor especially tender. They're just small, and, in that sense (and that sense alone), we like to think of them as children. Baby animals are prized for qualities of taste—for their succulence: weaker collagen, softer gristle, more delicate meat. Baby vegetables, whatever they are, hold little appeal for mouth and tongue. We love them for their youthful good looks, and that's reason enough to eat them.
The history of baby vegetables goes back a long time, but the history of baby vegetables—as a culinary diminutive, as a category for foods—is somewhat shorter. People talked of young vegetables, as if they were hearty teenagers, but it wasn't until the 19th century that the language of the nursery was applied to the pantry. When John Keats declared in 1819 that his "modest feathered Pen frizzles like baby roast beef," he helped invent a cliché in the discussion of dinner. Eating was infantilized. Childhood itself would be reconfigured in the decades that followed, and the baby roast beef gave way to an incipient cult of the baby vegetable: By the 1870s, Anglophones spoke of "baby cucumbers" and "little, tender, white, baby onions," then came baby lettuce and baby cauliflower, and eventually a full range of infant plants.