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The cordon bleu kid

By Michael Steinberger

Published: March 1 2008 01:07 | Last updated: March 1 2008 01:07

On a visit to Boston last summer, just before our son’s birthday, my wife and I gave him the gift he most desired: we allowed James to eat his first raw clam, thus ending three years of simmering frustration for him.

True, he was only turning six, but that meant he had spent half his life pining for a taste of uncooked bivalves. His reaction, when the moment finally arrived, was unsurprising: he loved the clam, so much so that he proceeded to help himself to the five others on my plate and declared that henceforth I would need to order double the number so that he and I could each get our fair share. Between slurps, he reiterated his determination to eat that other long-forbidden fruit of the sea, raw oysters.

We had held him off raw shellfish out of health concerns, which in retrospect was probably silly. We were certainly guilty of inconsistency. When James was three, we let him try sushi, and ever since he has been ordering his own sashimi (early on, he decided he had no use for the rice and wanted the fish straight up) whenever we went out for Japanese. Were raw clams and oysters really any riskier than raw tuna? We had also given in to his pleadings and allowed him to eat unpasteurised cheese, and it was not as if raw-milk Camembert – his favourite, although he is also fond of Époisses, Comté, and Langres – was without potential hazards. And if we were worried about polluting his young body, we certainly would not have permitted James to get in the habit of taking a sip from my wine glass every night.

On the other hand, all that sniffing and swilling has served him rather well. He has become a very able blind taster, with a particular knack for identifying Burgundies and Beaujolais. He has a good nose for herbs and spices, too, and can often pinpoint specific seasonings in dishes. It probably helps that he now keeps his own herb garden during the summer, which he very much enjoys. He would doubtless be even happier if we bought him a lobster trap, built a pond and stocked it with sturgeon, and filled the yard with ducks and geese; James has a prodigious appetite for lobster, caviar, and foie gras.

Like most kids his age, he has a sweet tooth, but his taste in treats is not limited to chocolate bars and ice-cream cones. He recently chastised me for returning from Paris without the box of Ladurée macaroons he had requested. I apologised and promised it would not happen again. When people talk about how expensive it is to raise kids these days, I just smile; they don’t know the half of it.

You might think we are creating a monster. I prefer to think that we are nurturing an intelligent, wordly omnivore, suffused with what Brillat-Savarin described as “an impassioned, considered, and habitual preference for whatever pleases the taste”. Of course, how much of this is our doing and how much of it is innate is hard to say. From the time James could stand on a chair, my wife, a food writer and editor who trained at New York’s French Culinary Institute, had him in the kitchen cooking and tasting alongside her.

But even before then, there were indications that he was to the table born. At 10 months old, he sat through a long lunch at a three-star restaurant in Paris without so much as a moment’s fuss, astonishing us and the wary waiters, too. Barely out of the womb, Tiger Woods was mimicking his father’s golf swing; James was jealously eyeing my mille-feuille. The greatest athletes come by their talent naturally, and it seems reasonable to assume that the greatest eaters do, as well. Great eaters, like great athletes, possess a certain ruthlessness. James loves his pet goldfish and hopes to have a dog. But for him, animals exist mainly to be consumed. On a visit to an aquarium when he was two, he startled me and the people nearby by pointing to one tank and asking: “Can we eat them?” A few months ago, watching a documentary about giant squid, James turned to me and said: “I’m getting kind of hungry. You, too?” (He was disappointed to learn that giant squid is not very tasty; he adores squid and octopus and orders them whenever possible.) Last year, his kindergarten class readCharlotte’s Web. One evening, when we were two-thirds through the book, I asked James if he was worried about what might happen to Wilbur the pig. He shot me an incredulous look. “Of course not; if Wilbur dies, that means we get hot, juicy bacon,” he said, elongating the last three words to underscore his delight at the thought.

School has provided some amusing moments. One morning in pre-kindergarten, James told the class of his fondness for the smoked salmon from Zabar’s, the Manhattan delicatessen. His teacher later confided to us that she had no idea what he was talking about and had to be clued-in by a school administrator who grew up in New York. That same year, a teacher on cafeteria duty said to my wife: “James doesn’t eat lunch; he dines.”

Actually, he gorges. His usual plate consists of the day’s entrée, a piece of pizza, several slices of salami, and a side of vegetables, followed by yoghurt, fruit, and (whenever offered) ice cream. I expect the school will soon be doubling our meal surcharge. Word of his Rabelaisian appetite has gone round; it seems some parents are invoking James’s example as a way of coaxing their children into being more adventurous at mealtime. So far, this has not hurt James’s popularity, but I worry.

Still, while James may be a little extreme, he is hardly the only child these days with a precocious palate, and we are certainly not the only parents trying to turn out discerning eaters. At a time of soaring obesity rates, there is growing recognition that children need to be taught the virtues of a healthy diet as early as possible. And with epicureanism an increasingly popular lifestyle choice, it is only natural that the whims of the parents are being passed on to the children (or embraced by them).

Cooking classes for children are turning up everywhere, as are cookbooks, and parents and offspring alike are rebelling against that grease-speckled restaurant staple, the kids’ menu. There is a book waiting to be written about this trend (I’ll even suggest a title: Raising Foie Gras Kids in a Fast-Food Nation), and it has already yielded a wonderful animated film, Ratatouille.

Moreover, it is not as if James is an oddball, or that we are denying him a normal childhood. Quite the opposite: he is a typically energetic six-year-old boy, who loves aeroplanes, is infatuated with dinosaurs and outer space, and enjoys fishing and baseball. While he has eaten at McDonald’s only a few times, we allow James his share of junk food, and he likes nothing better than curling up on the couch, soda in one hand and popcorn in the other, and watching SpongeBob SquarePants. Of course, he sometimes multitasks by lying in front of the television with a notepad and pen conceiving recipes and menus. Here is his latest à la carte offering, reprinted as it was written:

Chicken Souffla Carrot Soup Salad with Black Bean Sauce Coreane Nuts with squid Chicken Cordon Blue Salad with very, very spicy dresing Coconut split Chocolate Milk Ice Cream Beverage of Choice

Do we have a budding chef on our hands? James says he wants to be a scientist, but when I recently told him about molecular gastronomy and how some chefs have turned their kitchens into chemistry labs, his eyes lit up. Should a poster of Ferran Adrià materialise on his bedroom wall, I suppose we will have our answer.

We have an idea as to how all this fine dining is influencing his growth. His paediatrician recently informed us that we can expect James to be around 6ft 4in tall by the time he reaches his 18th birthday. My initial reaction was laughter; my second was horror as I contemplated having to stock the refrigerator for a caviar-besotted teenage goliath. Help may be on the way, however. James’s three-year-old sister, Ava, does not show quite the same zest for food but seems to have some real athletic promise, which I am now determined to cultivate. Someone is going to have to bankroll her brother’s appetite.

The Financial Times Limited 2009

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