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."
This is partially because children rank texture above taste. Sliminess, according to Pelchat, is a total turnoff (at least in our culture; it's all in what kids are used to). They also do not develop a taste for salt until they are about 5 months old, but from then on they like higher levels of salt than adults do.
Finally, consider what impact memory has on your food. People lose their sense of smell as they age, so our bodies compensate for that loss by allowing memory to help us know what we're eating. What's one thing 5-year-olds are lacking? Remembrances of madeleines past. Or even of cheeseburgers or tacos past.
I'm not saying children cannot be skewed by food snobs who hang out on Chowhound. Dr. Perri Klass, a professor of pediatrics and journalism at New York University, recalls the 4-year-old friend her daughter once brought home for a sleepover who rejected what she was serving for dinner and demanded noodles with pesto. Taken aback, Klass offered to run to the corner store, and the friend informed her contemptuously: "You don't buy pesto. You make pesto."
Even those of us who make pesto can't please children, though. I will never forget the first time I brought some carefully crafted tidbits involving goat cheese and roasted peppers to a party where a toddler was indulgently allowed to grab one with a grubby hand only to spit it out on the carpet.
But this is not just me yelling at kids to get off my lawn—I'm willing to set aside the annoying narcissism of parents who believe they have spawned a cross between Ferran Adria and Brillat-Savarin. On a larger scale, the trend emphasizes the worst of the food frenzy today: the celebration of celebrity and novelty over authenticity and seriousness. Julia Child was 50 years old before she flipped her first omelet on television. She got that gig only after studying at the Cordon Bleu and then devoting 10 years to perfecting Mastering the Art of French Cooking with two collaborators. Today chefs barely out of high school are competing on reality cooking shows, and the bar keeps being lowered, with Internet exposure for every little Thomas Keller. The movement devalues the very subject it pretends to celebrate. As Pelchat put it: "Kids would be excellent culinary guides. For food for other kids."