1001 Arabian Bites: Are adults the biggest children of food foibles?

I don’t know many kids who swoon at the thought of a dinner of rice pudding, but I do know a few adults whose inner children embrace the idea.

In her book Cooking for Mr Latte, Amanda Hesser recalls an incident at a dinner party to which she has brought some delicious-sounding hors d’oeuvres. Her PBJs – triangles of buttery bread spread with foie-gras mousse and tart berry jam – wryly reference her contribution’s resemblance to humdrum peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Hesser was proud of her creation. But when the hosts’ 3-year-old daughter bit into one, “she opened her mouth up wide so as not to chew any more of the offensive substance and started to sob”.

When I think of the stuff that children will willingly put in their mouths, most kids’ menus seem puerile by comparison; an insult better suited, perhaps, to accommodating the whims of an inner child whose cravings have been reduced to mere scapegoat. The image of a child reaching for a familiar item amid a spread of novel offerings is an admissible one indeed, although I often question whether we underestimate children just to make ourselves feel better about our own biased, finicky natures.

Our forgiving attitudes towards riffs on classic dishes would certainly explain the blandness of most kids’ menus. After two months of being on the road and alternating between restaurant food and partially frozen energy bars kept in the glove compartment, I miss cooking above all else. But as someone who rarely eats out when at home, I have gained some insight into trends that I had no idea existed before now.

When was the last time you saw a 4-year-old grow elated at the sight of a gratin dish bubbling with macaroni and cheese? No amount of truffle oil makes this an adult dish but, more often than not, it’s adults who are ordering the plainest food on the menu, expecting something that is equal parts exceptional and photographable enough to blog about. The fussiest eaters that I know are fully grown ones – physically, anyway.

I don’t know many kids who swoon at the thought of a dinner of rice pudding, but I do know a few adults whose inner children embrace the idea. There are restaurants entirely devoted to certain “comfort food” basics on which it’s become acceptable to base entire meals.

Ultimately, the notion of comfort food, which includes certain socially neutral classics, is a contrivance made by (and for) adults. If youth is wasted on the young, it’s only because the young have yet to figure out how to sign a credit-card receipt, before it’s driven by the prejudices and proclivities that can run or simply ruin a young mind. A playful streak goes a long way in any economy.

In late 2011, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas of the Chicago restaurant Next found a way to capitalise most poetically on their own nostalgia through a coursed menu with a theme of “childhood”. Well before then, fine-dining establishments in the UAE and elsewhere had developed a reputation for encouraging diners to play with their food.

This led to curious personal discoveries, such as a rash of dishes all containing pop rocks, but more importantly, it lightened the mood in dining rooms and made it permissible for people to express wonder or delight without intimidation. Still, the concept of overly enriched childhood classics is getting a little old. And so are we.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico

Published: March 12, 2014 04:00 AM

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