Secret spinach

Playing tricks is not the way to get children to eat more vegetables

If there is one thing more depressing than sitting at a table with children who reject what you have cooked, it is receiving cheery advice about how to get them to eat what you have cooked. Smiling, crisply aproned supermums in spotless kitchens, offering recipes prefaced with such observations as "My kids can't get enough of these spinach and sweet potato burgers - make sure you cook plenty!" trigger guilt, envy and distrust. So the Schadenfreude inspired by a current legal dispute in the US is a welcome corrective.

In early 2006, a food writer called Missy Chase Lapine submitted a proposal for a children's cookbook to HarperCollins. The Sneaky Chef had tips for insinuating vegetable purees into children's meals. HarperCollins rejected it. Lapine found an agent and tried again; once more, HarperCollins passed, saying that it already had a similar book on the list. But the publisher forgot this reservation a few weeks later when a high-powered agent from William Morris submitted a proposal for another book of children's recipes involving disguised, pureed vegetables. HC bought the book, Deceptively Delicious, at auction, and launched it with a first print run of 200,000 copies. The difference this time - of the sort that is crucial in modern publishing - was that the author of Deceptively Delicious was Jessica Seinfeld, wife of the comedian Jerry and, as the industry euphemism has it, "highly promotable".

Jessica Seinfeld got an interview with Oprah Winfrey, whose endorsement had the usual effect: it propelled Deceptively Delicious to the top of the bestseller lists. However, readers started to notice that there were similarities between Seinfeld's book and The Sneaky Chef.

All might have been well. Lapine enjoyed decent sales thanks to the publicity, and she commented, "I'm not going to accuse anyone of anything." But then Jerry Seinfeld went on to The David Letterman Show and said this about her: "She's a three-name woman . . . If you read history, many of the three-name people do become assassins . . . Mark David Chapman. And you know, James Earl Ray. So that's my concern." Lapine saw red and sued, for defamation as well as plagiarism.

The plagiarism charge is going to be hard to nail. The notion of fooling children into eating food they think they do not like is not new; and it is a rare recipe that is entirely original. If similarities between recipes were actionable, cookbook production would become paralysed.

The mystery is why these "sneaky" recipes should be so popular. Who are these children who fail to detect overcooked - and therefore nutritionally feeble - cauliflower? Not mine, that is for sure. They are going to be rejecting their brassicas and root vegetables for some time yet.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters