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Kids These Days

When a child crosses the line from adventurous eater to budding food snob, parental soul-searching ensues.

 

My nine-year-old son, Moss, has been exhibiting signs of food snobbery for a while now. The other day, he refused some Jell-O chocolate pudding as if it were beneath him. He lobbied for months to eat at the “real” Delfina—not just the pizzeria. And he asked me to buy him a foam charger after watching David Chang wield one on The Mind of a Chef. “What the heck are you going to do with a foam charger?” I asked. “Make Ferran Adrià’s microwave cake,” he replied.

And then there was the time that I took him to the Divisadero Popeyes, whose rumored closing had sparked in me a nostalgic desire for one last taste of deliciously fried commodity chicken. I assumed that my boys would find it exhilarating to be allowed a normally verboten lunch of fast food. But instead of getting high fives, I got judged. While his 13-year-old brother, Silas, gingerly nibbled on a drumstick, Moss flat-out refused to ingest even a biscuit crumb. “I don’t want to get diabetes,” he said staunchly, on the brink of calling child services. “Who told you about diabetes?” was the only response I could muster. It’s a strange feeling to see the values that you’ve been attempting to instill in your child come back to bite you. It makes me wonder: Have I created a wunderkind or a monster?

The boys’ father, a juice-cleansing chiropractor, might be responsible for their overt health consciousness, and I, a professional food writer, and their stepdad, a restaurateur, are probably to blame for Moss’s culinary effeteness. But we are far from the only culprits. The Bay Area as a whole is a fertile breeding ground for juvenile foodies who are abnormally nutrition-minded. Inspired in part by the Edible Schoolyard Project, public and private schools alike proudly trot out garden programs intended to educate kids about the glories of freshly harvested chicories and undervalued root vegetables. The San Francisco Unified School District Wellness Policy forbids schools from selling junk food in their cafeterias and vending machines—not to mention serving soda and potato chips at class parties.

On the epicurean side of things, our shores boast at least a dozen cooking programs for kids (Junior Chef Stars, based on the Peninsula, starts teaching kids knife safety at age three). And then there’s TV: On Fox’s MasterChef Junior, 8- to 13-year-olds compete for $100,000; the Food Network, not to be trumped, launched Kids Baking Champ­ionship. The underage foodie obsession has spread to higher-brow realms, too: The cover of the New York Times Magazine’s 2014 food issue featured Flynn McGarry, a 16-year-old, home-schooled fine-dining “chef” who conjures dishes like seawater-brined uni with carrots and coffee. In January he presented a $160 nine-course pop-up at San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn. It sold out.

Moss, meanwhile, is transfixed by Mas­terChef Junior—to the point of referring to our kitchen counter as his “station.” Ever since Gordon Ramsay submitted the young chefs to a fried egg challenge, Moss has been practicing making flawless eggs every morning before school. He’s also starting to define himself by his palate, serving as my companion for Korean barbecue and Indian thali. At the sushi bar, he’s the weird child kneeling on his stool so that he can peek over the glass to watch the chefs make nigiri.

Yes, Moss can be a bit insufferable (if cute). But given that we live in a city where good food is often conflated with existential enlightenment, I have to ask myself: What, exactly, is the problem? What’s so off-putting about a pint-size epicure?

Perhaps it’s an issue of privilege and perspective. I like to think that my obsession with good eating is the kind that stems from a relatively deprived upbringing backed by years of culinary bootstrapping. I grew up in Baton Rouge in the ’70s, well before grocery stores started selling lemongrass and gorgonzola. Gumbo aside, my hometown was an average place to eat, and while my parents were great cooks, we didn’t bat an eye at having Popeyes for a treat. The most worldly restaurant exposure I had before the age of nine was eating a strip mall lunch of Lebanese shawarma.

But Moss is growing up in a horn of plenty, a city where farmers’ markets abound, restaurants sling everything from $2 tacos to $42 steak frites, and city government is a vocal proponent of good nutrition. Many Bay Area kids, it’s true, don’t have access to sufficient food, healthy or otherwise—but for those fortunates whose parents are able and willing to make eating well a priority, good food is here for the taking. And take I have, creating in the process this heirloom tomato–sniffing child. So it’s incumbent upon me to keep him grounded—to make sure that he has an appreciation for the incredible privilege he enjoys, but also some humility. And in that, I fear, I’m failing.

Daniel Duane, the Bernal Heights author of How to Cook Like a Man—and an obsessive eater since his birth in Berkeley—shares my anxieties. He and his wife have two daughters, one of whom has taken to cooking out of the El Bulli staff-meal cookbook. “I started thinking about this when my eldest, Hannah, was really little,” Duane says. “I’d take her to the farmers’ market, and she’d scream, ‘They have channies!’ which meant chanterelles, and I’d find myself feeling this mixture of pride and profound embarrassment.”

Of course, you don’t need to be a food writer to raise this kind of kid. My friends Julia and Charlie work in law and tech, respectively, and their son, Zach, now 13, has simply followed in their food-loving footsteps. “We went to our friend’s house, and they made mac and cheese for the kids and quiche for the adults,” Julia says. “Zach asked for quiche, and the adults were like, ‘Whoa, we’ve never seen a kid who will eat quiche.’” While Julia delights in Zach’s tastes, she is also keen that he not be rude to kids who don’t share them. “It’s super fun and exciting when you have a child who’s open to trying different food,” she says. “But it’s also important that he be sensitive to the politics of it.”

For some perspective, I turned to Karen Rogers, the founder of Sprouts Cooking Club, a kids’ cooking school that’s been around since 2005. I figured that she’d seen it all, and she has: from the disadvantaged kids to whom Sprouts provides scholarships—some have never heard of an eggplant—to the, well, less disadvantaged. “We were doing a market cooking class at Oliveto in Oakland,” Rogers comments, “and a kid comes up to me and says, ‘I’m training for MasterChef.’ And we said, ‘When are tryouts?’ And he said, ‘Two years.’”

When I tell Rogers of my anxieties about Moss turning into some kind of pompous braggart, it’s clear that she thinks I’m overreacting. “It’s such a beautiful movement,” she says of the increasing number of children interested in cooking. “We’re empowering kids to preserve their health. I think it’s awesome that we’re so focused on the next generation, even if it’s a trend that we’re seeing largely with parents who have the means and knowledge to take the time to teach their kids.”

For my part, I’ve started a program for Moss that I’m calling Unlearning Food Snobbism (named after the Unlearning Racism workshop that I was required to take at UC Santa Cruz). Its edicts: No criticizing another person’s cooking; no snubbing your friend’s Lunchables; and, most of all, no showing off. Suffice it to say, it’s a learning process. The other night, I dined at Ichi Sushi with my sons, Julia, Charlie, and Zach. Within seconds of the menu’s presentation, Zach exclaimed, “Okonomiyaki! I love that!” Moss, of course, echoed his enthusiasm for the Japanese pancake. Meanwhile, Silas took a look at the menu and paused for a second, his eyebrows scrunching in honest confusion. “What’s sake?” he said, rhyming it with “cake.” Zach and Moss looked at him, slightly appalled, while I noted that when it comes to nature versus nurture, the jury is still out. As part of his unlearning, Moss was told to cool it. “Silas,” Zach said. “It’s saké. Not sake.”

At that moment, though, I was delighted with both of my kids: Silas for being unwittingly, and refreshingly, normal—a kid who appreciates food as just food, not something to be intellectually consumed by. And Moss for knowing what sake is, 12 years before he can legally drink it. For a parent, balance is everything.

 

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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