A seductive advertisement appeared in my inbox Tuesday from two wonderful neighborhood chefs. In true street food fashion, they're going to deliver modestly priced steamed buns "Made from scratch, baked with love, and totally self-enclosed so there's no mess" at my child's school two lunchtimes a week. Bring it on! Having prepared countless take-to-school lunches over the last five years (and then washing out the vessel that comes back), what could be more appealing? And no chicken nuggets to boot!
College food has taken some adventurous leaps over the past decade, but this spirit hasn't trickled down to the little kids. Aside from the obvious funding issues and constraints posed on kitchen staffs (where they even exist), it's as if children's eating habits have been assumed to be immobile. The standard practice is to cater to their immature longings rather than educate their palates. And the routine "kid-friendly" options offered by most contracted services from central commissaries have been, well, best befitting the label "convenience food" (a term I like to think of as oxymoronic).
But my hoped-for promise of influencing children's palates with this effort at culinary creativity was dashed when I read the proposed menu: Slow-Smoked Pulled Pork, Bacon Cheeseburger, or Veggie. Pulled pork is adventurous for most kids—I'll gladly give them that—but what is "Veggie" anyway? Is it the consolation prize for kids who don't eat meat, or a true vegetable-based option? And with a description of simply "Veggie," why would anyone who likes meat even consider it?
Too often the vegetarian or "veggie" option in our food culture is defined as the "absence of meat"—especially for lunch. Shredded lettuce, tomato slices, and a slice of Swiss between two pieces of bread is wanting for most vegetarians and is downright laughable to meat eaters. It's an option characterized by the omission of an ingredient, not a celebration of what's inside.
We don't tend to celebrate vegetables as valid ingredients in their own right for kid- or adult- food in the U.S. The chance encounter of vegetable options on kids' menus at restaurants is equally unlikely. Try finding something other than tomato sauce (with the apologetic "we can substitute butter" on pasta). Note to chefs everywhere: peanut butter, jelly, and grilled cheese may be delicious—especially in your hands—but they are not vegetables.
Some Asian cuisines provide hope, though many noodle dishes offer the same heaping amounts of starch and sauce—but with egg or bean curd on top. Instead of vegetables, the "vegetarian option" is defined by an alternative protein. Why should the options without vegetables even be called vege-tarian? And why should we relegate vegetables to only the meat-free choices?
If vegetables aren't cast in starring named roles, why should anyone choose them when faced with more deliciously described options? Alternatively, what if they were the deliciously described options?
My mind wandered back to the menu at hand. I imagined the street food cart advertising these three steamed buns options: (1) braised spinach, caramelized onions, and cheddar; (2) roasted carrots, spring peas, and slices of Yukon Gold potato; and (3) animal flesh. Anyone in his or her right mind would be justified to inquire about the last option. (Most people would be insulted, too.) So why the equivalent opaqueness for "veggie" options? And why not see the opportunity in marketing great vegetable combinations?
The report of the President's Task Force on Childhood Obesity is the most recent effort to say, in effect, "eating vegetables is a good idea for everyone." And they don't mean French fries, America's favorite vegetable. Achieving better public health, a more sustainable food system, and more culinary pleasure may depend on something simple yet difficult to achieve: reintroducing our menus and our palates to the variety of vegetables that we might enjoy if we only get regular chances to try them.