Child's play

Food - Bee Wilson tests her milk teeth on a range of baby cuisine

Fifty years from now, British eaters may have some rather surprising Proustian food associations. On drinking a glass of orange juice, you may close your eyes for a moment, lean back and find yourself transported to the sweet sensation of being spoon-fed with orangey haddock. When presented with your first bowl of cornflakes for some time, instead of remembering "how good they taste", memories of clasping cereal-coated chicken strips in an infant claw will surge inexorably back. There you are, sitting in your high chair, crumbling a piece of apple-and-onion beefburger on the floor as your mother weeps.

The woman who will have effected this collective nostalgia of the tastebuds is Annabel Karmel. If you don't have a baby, you won't have heard of her. If you do, you can't escape her: Annabel Karmel's Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, Feeding your Baby and Toddler, Annabel Karmel's Family Meal Planner . . . I could go on and on. Her "colourful"-looking recipes (polychromatic pasta bows and peppers are big favourites) brighten the pages of countless child-rearing magazines, and now the Saturday Times. Even local health authorities dole out her weaning leaflets. It's a virtual blackout of the market - like Coke with no Pepsi or Pampers with no Huggies. She has a monopoly that Bill Gates would be envious of - which is really a bit of a mystery.

Karmel cuisine is unexpectedly idiosyncratic. Her dustjackets - with their bouffoned and treacly photos - proudly tell us that she is "a trained Cordon Bleu cook". This training apparently taught her to put chopped raw onion and apple into all her meatballs, orange juice into her baked fish and, when in doubt, cornflakes or sweet potatoes into pretty much anything.

She is keen on medleys and names recipes in an unselfconsciously twee manner: for example, "Cherub's couscous" and "Cheese and Raisin Delight". She also has a good range of Jewish recipes: Grandma's Gefilte Fish, Lokshen pudding, Grandma's Chicken soup, Matzo Brei - none of which would you find in Delia.

Karmel has a special predilection for dressing food up in anthropomorphic arrangements. There is clown-faced shepherd's pie, whose two broccoli eyes and red-pepper smile sit grotesquely beneath a head of cheddar curls. "Mouse face pizza", a tomato-flavoured muffin, is a labour-intensive luxury only accessible to the nanny-paying classes: you hand-fashion two strips of courgettes into perky ears and sculpt six carrot juliennes, two sweetcorn kernels and a black olive until a suitably whiskery mouth is achieved. Still more creepy is "Sleeping cannelloni", four mushroom children under a bechamel duvet.

For all this, Karmel inspires absolute confidence. She freezes food in ice-cube trays like little blocks of medicine. Her nutritional knowledge is as sound as a tennis coach's. The customer comments at call her "a godsend". Her precise instructions on weaning stages - pears before plums, chicken before fish - chart every miniature epoch of a baby's life.

At six months, a typical day might be cottage cheese and sharon fruit for breakfast, courgette gratin and homemade fruit jelly for lunch, then haddock in orange sauce with apple for dinner, with milk in-between. Contemplating such a day is cossetting - all those sweet, bland flavours - though attempting to cook it with a screaming infant is perhaps less so.

If Karmel has convinced mothers to make their own carrot mush instead of buying Heinz jars of spag bol, she is to be greatly admired. But I just wish her food wasn't so babyish.

Real baby food. Turn to page 167 of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking and follow the recipe for "Potage creme de tomates et de pommes de terre". Make a little thicker than usual and leave out the chopped herbs if your baby can't cope. Serve with plastic spoons and a half-bottle of chambred Cow & Gate.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Just wait for the gold rush to end