Are Baby Vegetables Really Baby Vegetables?

The state of the universe.
May 17 2012 6:40 PM

Eating Babies

A study of youth horticulture.

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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.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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.

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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.

Baby artichoke.
Baby artichoke

Ingram Publishing

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.

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