For the last few years, the most burning question in the food world has been: Is there any phenomenon more annoying than Rachael Ray? And, finally, we have the answer: Absolutely.
Call it "a little child shall lead you." First there was the 12-year-old "restaurant critic," David Fishman in New York City, whose "review" of a neighborhood salumeria somehow snared him huge coverage in his hometown paper and then a long appearance on the CBS morning show, replete with warnings that his power had local chefs quaking in their clogs. Next a 5-year-old, Julian Kreusser, was touted for his cooking show on public access television in Portland, Ore., with the Times of London warning that he might get a cookbook deal at an age when most kids need In the Night Kitchen read to them. Now the New York TimesMagazine has pledged one-quarter of its monthly food real estate to the kitchen exploits of a 4-year-old, Dexter Wells, who just happens to be the firstborn of the newspaper's food editor, Pete Wells.
If all this kinder-worship was intended to get children more interested in restaurants and cooking, it would have McDonald's CEO quaking. But it appears these features are meant to appeal to adults, since not many little kids peruse the Sunday magazine for recipes or control the remote. And that is absurd: Children are typically not equipped to deal with the real dangers that exist in the kitchen, their palates are undeveloped, and their ability to communicate nuanced ideas is limited. The chance that a child is going to come up with food to rival Cook's Illustrated or Ina Garten is about as likely as a 17-year-old perfecting the next great malbec-syrah blend.
Presenting children as inspiration is troublesome not least because kitchens are not nurseries. Check out the Wrestler-worthy scars on real chefs' bodies, and you can see why. Reading Pete Wells' most recent piece, on overseeing his son at the stove, had me conjuring the horrific tale of late Republican strategist Lee Atwater's toddler brother, burned to death when a pot full of boiling oil spilled over on him. Watching the Oregon whiz kid cram clementines into a food processor reminded me of how Philadelphia chef Georges Perrier famously lost several digit-tips with the same tool, and he had decades more experience with its blades.
And then there is the problem of what children produce. The "Yummy Yummy Citrus Boys" Julian Kreusser allegedly invented, demonstrated over 18 very long minutes, look to be perfectly ordinary cookies (the ratio of butter to flour seems stingy to this old baker), though I couldn't bear to sit through the cooking lesson again to get the recipe. So I opted instead to try his widely distributed recipe for zucchini chocolate-chip bread, which yielded everything I dread. It was gooey, due to a cup of molasses, a cup of sugar, and chocolate chips, and it was as subtly flavored as an all-day sucker. (I had to guess the pan size, and I knew enough to let the thing bake 60 minutes, not the 30 "he" prescribed.) Fortunately, the New York Times spares us from the recipe for the perfectly dreadful-sounding vegetable pies Dexter Wells decides to make, but we do hear about his insistence on grinding coffee beans just so for a morning brew he won't even be able to drink. While the tangerine sherbet he inspired his dad to develop wasn't bad, the gelatin and the excessive labor of zesting and juicing the tangerines guarantee I will never bother with it again.
No matter how precocious the kid, it's difficult for him to truly educate and enlighten adults. Nature might trump nurture here. While children do have taste buds that adults do not—inside their cheeks and on their palates rather than only on the tongue—studies at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia have found that children are always worse than adults at flavor identification simply because they are less experienced eaters. According to food psychologist and scientist Dr. Marcia Pelchat, even if children like something, they cannot qualify how good it is because they lack the necessary math skills to do so. Studies at the center have also determined that children favor sweet to savory more than adults (this may be an evolutionary issue–children need more energy because they are active and growing, and sweet foods generally have more calories), and they tend to reject vegetables (possibly because they're unfamiliar, partly because of their individual genetic makeup) and, often, meat.
I can hear all the parents insisting, "My child is different. He eats what I do." Sure, there are ways to help influence a child's tolerance or penchant for sophisticated flavors—dining out, helping in the kitchen, being exposed to strong flavors (spicy food, for example) via amniotic fluid or breast milk. But Pelchat says, "Even those kids eat like children."