You know those adorable little ears of corn that show up in some of your favorite Chinese take-out dishes? Ever wondered how they grow 'em so small? Are there tiny little farmers out there somewhere tilling tiny little cornfields? Are they specially grown to be tiny or are they just little baby regular corn?
Well, the answer is that they truly are just baby ears of regular corn. The corn is harvested in an immature stage from nearly any variety of regular-sized corn plant. Typically, once an ear designated to be "baby corn" reaches 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) in length, and is about a half inch (1.27 centimeters) in diameter, it is picked. From there, it can be pickled, canned, blanched or frozen — or it can wind up in a movie classic like "Big," starring Tom Hanks:
An Ancient Fascination
Yes, we are enamored of tiny vegetables, but then we have a long history of fascination with things of diminutive scale. From Egyptian tombs to modern miniacs — people who make, collect or appreciate tiny versions of everyday objects — we have a long history of fascination with things of diminutive scale.
There's evidence dating back to the third millennium B.C.E. of Egyptian tombs outfitted with dinky models of livestock, boats and furniture in an effort to ensure a comfy afterlife. By the 1400s, miniature portraits had become all the rage, with painters like Jean Fouquet creating images only 7.5 centimeters, or just under 3 inches, wide. And in the 1600s, German dollhouses complete with pots and pans became popular as informative playthings, an idea that bloomed in the 1700s as wealthy English families commissioned itty-bitty replicas of their homes outfitted with family heirlooms.
Somewhere along the way, our fascination with things in miniature, from goats and owls to tiny houses, came to include itsy-bitsy vegetables, too. Baby carrots, little ears of corn, infantilized squash and micro greens are commonplace today, from fresh produce and frozen meals to take-out and fancy restaurant fare.
So why do we love baby vegetables? "In terms of our psycho-emotional relationship to tiny things, I think it relates to the way you feel when you're in a cathedral," said Merry White, a Boston University anthropologist, in an interview with New York magazine. "The enormity and intricate detail of the space are awe-inspiring, and humans can experience a flipped version of that awe when looking at meticulously reproduced tiny things. That something can be that small is a wonder."
Babies, or Hybrids?
But where do those tiny vegetables come from? Turns out, a veggie packaged, sold or served as a baby may actually be a young vegetable — or it may not. It's also entirely possible that a baby vegetable is a dwarf or hybrid version of a full-sized vegetable.
Baby bok choy, for example, is a young vegetable that is harvested early for its tender and mild qualities. However, there also are dwarf varieties of mock baby bok choy that have a similar look and taste to their early-harvested adolescent cousins.
A hybrid developed in the early 1990s led to the debut of baby broccoli, also commonly called "broccolini." This baby veggie is the offspring of regular-sized broccoli and gai lan, a Chinese plant with similar qualities. Broccolini, like a lot of vegetable youngsters, is known for its tenderness and small, bite-sized presentation.
Size can also be determined by the way a vegetable is grown. Baby artichokes and regular-size artichokes come from the same type of plant. They are even harvested at the same time. The big difference is size lies in the fact that the "baby" version is grown in the shade, leading to its diminutive size.
The Tiny Carrot Story
Some baby carrots are harvested early to create delicate, finger-sized edibles, and a few varieties are genetically predisposed to diminutive size, but some baby carrots are not babies at all — they're chopped or whittled down from regular-sized carrots.
So when did growers start whittling carrots down into smooth, miniature versions of regular carrots? The idea is generally credited to a California carrot farmer named Mike Yurosek, whose operation needed a way to deal with the daily loss of 400 tons (363 metric tons) of carrots that were too misshapen to fit into the bags his company used for retail sale.
Yurosek experimented with peeling and shaping a few bags of crooked carrots into a "baby" size and sent them to a customer, a grocery chain that almost immediately demanded more. The process was later industrialized, using machines to cut, peel, grind and polish the carrots into bite-sized form.
"There are so many people," said David Just, professor of behavioral economics at Cornell, in a Washington Post article, "who honestly believe there are baby carrot farmers out there who grow these baby carrots that pop out of the ground and are perfectly convenient and smooth."
The advent of the two-bite perfectly sculpted "baby-cut" carrot grew the United States' carrot consumption by leaps and bounds. In 1987, one year after they hit the marketplace, people were buying 30 percent more carrots. A decade later, the average American was eating 117 percent more carrots than before, an estimated 14 pounds (6.35 kilograms) per year. By the 2000s, the baby carrot had come to dominate the fresh-cut vegetable category.
It's fairly easy to tell the difference between a carrot that is naturally small and one that is cut: Larger carrots ground down to baby carrot size are labeled "baby-cut," while carrots that have been harvested in their infancy are labelled "baby carrots."
Other Micro Veggies
There are about 50 different types of vegetables that are grown or imported as miniatures in the United States, ranging from baby artichokes to squash, zucchini and micro greens of all kinds. And while the United States produces the most corn of any country in the world, it imports almost all of its baby corn from other countries. Thailand produces the most baby corn, followed by Sri Lanka, Taiwan and China.
Baby squash look improbably perfect in miniature. They are 1- or 2-inch (2.5- to 5-centimeter) round vegetables with scalloped edges and delicate green, white or yellow skin. Some are harvested so young that their embryonic flowers are still intact, decrying a gentle and conscientious picking.
Micro greens, the tender young leafy plants that often appear on salad plates, are produced year-round. Baby lettuce, specifically, comes in a number of varieties, from romaine, green leaf and iceberg to the dark red hue of Red Royal oak leaf lettuce. Harvested early, these greens contain the same nutritional composition as their older counterparts, but are known for their tender and delicate nature.