In a café in Norfolk last week, my seven-year-old son uttered words that mortified me. No, he didn’t comment loudly on someone’s weight, or ask why the lady next to us had a moustache. It was worse than that. Asked by a kindly man at the next table if he was enjoying his bacon sandwich, he declared to the café at large: ‘Yes, but I prefer them with rocket!’
Judging by the gentleman’s slightly blank smile, I’m not sure if he even knew what rocket was, let alone that in the London suburb where I live, it’s now as much a part of breakfast as smashed avocado on toast. Inwardly, though, I cringed — just as Peter Mandelson presumably did when, according to legend, he mistook mushy peas for guacamole in a Hartlepool chippy. I’d been exposed, by my own young son, as a fashionable metropolitan type. I might as well have asked for gluten-free granola, or worn a T-shirt saying ‘Bollocks to Brexit’.
With the summer holidays in full swing, I predict many more scenes like this around the country, if conversations with other parents are anything to go by. One mother recalls one of her offspring, aged around six, announcing she wanted ham only if it was prosciutto. Another child, asked by a neighbour if he’d like a snack, requested dried mangos. My nine-year-old daughter, if treated to a fizzy drink in a café, now insists on Sanpellegrino — aka Fanta for the middle-classes. When I was shopping with her in the Co-op recently, she demanded to know why I was buying sliced bread rather than sourdough. I wandered off to another aisle for a bit, pretending I wasn’t with her.
Tough luck, you might say. Surely, if your children choose to identify as junior Tarquins and Jocastas, that’s because you’re like that too, right? But I’m not. Or so I prefer to think, anyway. Like many other London parents, I grew up in the provinces. Two decades on from moving to the capital, I still like to virtue-signal about how down-to-earth I am. I eat kebab and chips. I drink beer, especially non-craft beer. I don’t know how to pronounce ‘quinoa’. And when I’m sent to the newsagent to buy my other half’s Saturday Guardian — our homestead straddles the political divide — I hide it under the Times or Telegraph.
But inevitably, yes, some of the capital’s culinary habits have rubbed off on me. That caramelised red onion houmous is quite nice, isn’t it? Rocket and ciabatta with a burger, rather than lettuce and a stodgy white roll? Ooh, go on then. The problem is that we pass on those acquired food tastes to our children, and what I see as trendy indulgences, they see as normal. And they are not inhibited about letting the world know.
Hence those toe-curling moments — usually in a greasy spoon, non-gastro pub or other blue-collar setting — when they demand their right to organic tomatoes and almond-milk babyccinos. Through the tofu-munching mouths of babes, we are denounced as the bourgeois creatures we really are. If Chairman Mao were alive, he’d be using this system for his Cultural Revolution, despatching offenders like me for re-education at some McDonald’s in Teesside.
It isn’t just our children’s food preferences that give us away. Another parent remembers the period when his teenage daughter would tell people that she found it ‘quite hard to get to sleep at night without listening to a bit of Beethoven’. Her sibling threw a party where, rather than legal highs and alcopops, she and her friends played their own version of Radio 4’s Just a Minute. I once saw a fellow dad pretending not to hear when his daughter asked: ‘Why can’t we just go the Tate Modern café as usual?’
Then there’s the eco-consciousness stuff. Or, as it might be called, eco-precociousness. After endless lessons on climate change at primary school, my son is showing signs of turning into Greta Thunberg’s pious little brother. At a filling station on the way back from Norfolk, he asked why we’d hired a diesel car rather than a petrol one, reminding me that diesel was ‘killing the planet’. Just the comment to lighten the mood when you’re in a long and impatient queue of van and lorry drivers.
I could go on, but I suspect that many of you have your own versions of this story, even if you’re too embarrassed to mention them. Besides, I have to get some planning done for my daughter’s birthday, which is at the end of the summer hols. I’m thinking of Green & Black’s mini chocolate bars for the party bags, but I’m still struggling to find an appropriate children’s entertainer. Seems that round my way, all the good poetry workshop organisers get booked up months in advance…
Colin Freeman and Leah McLaren on what kids are really eating.