Gourmet Tastes at a Tender Age

I'll have the steamed mussels and the flounder coated with pecans,'' he orders.

The waiter looks down in amazement.

``Wouldn't you rather have a hamburger?'' he asks.

``No, the mussels and the flounder,'' is the reply.

The waiter looks at me for verification. I nod. The waiter walks away shaking his head, while Josh scrambles up onto my lap.

``Why did he want me to have a hamburger?'' he asks.

``Because six-year-olds don't eat mussels and flounder,'' I say.

My son Joshua certainly does not eat like most six-year-olds. In fact, most adults don't eat the way he does. Josh begs for broccoli at dinner time. He asks for grilled swordfish for his birthday dinners. His pizza needs to be piled high with spinach. He loves green salad with vinaigrette. And he prefers his salmon prepared en papillote.

My friends, whose children live on peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies, have always been jealous of Joshua's tastes in food.

``You can serve him anything,'' they say. ``My kid won't eat anything but grilled cheese three meals a day.''

True, I can feed him anything. But they don't know what it's like to try to serve Josh breakfast in the morning.

``I'd like chicken wings and tortellini soup,'' he'll say, and at 7 a.m. our house will smell like dinner time. Why can't he eat cold cereal like the other kids?

For lunch, my friends always know what to stock for their children. I never do.

``Can I have a lobster roll for lunch?'' he'll ask. ``Or maybe some smoked salmon with capers?''

Joshua's adult tastes must have been a byproduct of the kind of life my husband and I forced him to lead. We both dislike cooking and eat out every chance we get.

As soon as Josh was old enough to chew, we started taking him with us to restaurants. At first he would just order what we did. Then, as he began to listen for the specials, he started branching out. Finally, when he learned to read, there was no stopping him. Now he'll order anything on the menu that looks good to him, no matter how unfamiliar or unusual.

``Mom, is squid called scungilli or calamari?'' he'll ask. ``Do I like it fried or served fra diavolo over linguine?''

Taking Josh out to dinner necessitates both planning and a hefty budget. Visiting a fast-food establishment isn't considered ``going out for dinner.'' He likes a restaurant where he can get a real meal with multiple courses.

``I'll have the crab cakes and the duck,'' he'll say. ``And for dessert, the raspberry tart.''

He puts on an extra-nice outfit before we go out, and then he tells me what he thinks I should wear. Sometimes he informs me solemnly, ``You don't look like you're going out to dinner, Mom.''

And no matter which restaurant we visit, Josh lives for those times when we have to wait for a table. As soon as he hears the host say that it will be a few minutes before our table is ready, he makes for the restaurant bar.

``A Shirley Temple on the rocks, extra cherries, please.'' He'll be ordering while he's still climbing up onto the bar stool.

When our table is ready Josh claims the chair with the best view, sits himself down, and puts his napkin in his lap.

This is always a welcome surprise since, at home, he is more apt to wipe his mouth on a portion of his T-shirt than on the little white paper square I faithfully set down beside his plate at each meal. But when a starched linen napkin is placed before him, he rises to the occasion.

Joshua always attracts attention in restaurants. Once, after he had placed his dinner order for steamers and a salad with Gorgonzola cheese, two elderly women approached our table.

``How old is he?'' they asked.

When we told them that he was 6, they shook their heads in disbelief.

``He must be very smart to eat food like that,'' one of the women told us.

I can't say that having Joshua eat steamed clams is a sign of either his intelligence or my own. Six-year-old fingers are incapable of ministering to mollusks, and when Josh orders steamers, I end up spending the entire meal cleaning clam shells.

Recently, I took Josh to lunch at the neighborhood deli. He ordered a bowl of soup; I ordered hummus. When my lunch arrived, it looked like a big glob of beige paste. Joshua regarded our plates, and asked if we could switch.

``Why? Don't you like yours?'' I asked.

``I do,'' he replied gravely. ``But yours looks so tasty.''

I was especially concerned when I sent Josh to school for the first time. How would he react to a typical child's diet of chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese?

``It was great, Mom, `` he assured me after the first day. ``They have a salad bar with croutons, dressing, and even olives. You can go back as many times as you want. I love school.''

Julia Child, move over. The next generation has arrived.

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