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The Big Appeal of Tiny Food

Making tiny and cute things is a billion-dollar business, so naturally, the food-obsessed are getting into the game.

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Sharon Harbison's miniature bowl of veggies is just a little larger than a nickel. 

Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s classic The Borrowers is the story of the Clock family—Pod, Homily, and Arriety—six-inch-tall people who live behind the grandfather clock and beneath the floorboards of an old Victorian house. Generations of kids have been fascinated with the Borrower lifestyle: their furniture made from matchboxes and spools, their postage-stamp pictures, the thimble they use for a soup pot, and their meals of cinnamon bread crumbs, sliced roasted chestnut, and—food for three—a single potted shrimp.

Dollhouses and model railroads, toy soldiers and painted fantasy figures all reflect the evocative pull of the very small. Some four million people a year flock to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry to visit the Colleen Moore Castle, which features a tiny bearskin rug, a minuscule working pistol, a gold chandelier, a playable piano (provided you have very small fingers), and running water in the bathrooms.

My grandmother’s dollhouse—which I was allowed to view, but not play with—featured a two-inch cook stove, pots and pans, and, in the dining room, a miniature roast turkey and a centerpiece of purple-glass grapes.

There’s now a name for people who create such tiny objects: miniacs. And, inevitably, there are miniacs who are into food.

Artist Sharon Harbison, for example, specializes in near-microscopic replicas of fruits and vegetables: teeny tomatoes and carrots, grapes, red onions, and potatoes.

The ultimate food miniacs, however, may be the Japanese.

Clever Japanese cooks have created real meals fit for the Borrowers: penny-size omelets and strawberry shortcakes, spaghetti boiled in thimble-size pots, pea-size potato salads. All are prepared and cooked using miniature kitchen appliances—stoves fueled with tea candles—and utensils the size of straight pins. Videos of some of these preparations are available on You Tube. One even features miniature coffeemaking, with a pot the size of an acorn, an even smaller coffee filter, and—eventually—a tiny pair of coffee cups on a table set for two. It’s weirdly irresistible.

For those of us who aren’t Lilliputian, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. What’s the point of a sip-size portion of coffee or a breakfast dish the size of your thumbnail?

The best guess seems to be that the appeal of the teeny meals is an offshoot of the Japanese obsession with kawaii culture—that is, with things that are little and cute. Think Hello Kitty, Pokemon, or Totoro. Or Winnie-the-Pooh. Tiny meals are—well, yes—pretty adorable.

Tiny is also a billion-dollar business. Psychologists hypothesize that its appeal is escape: It gives us a respite from real life. The small, the delicate, the unexpectedly miniaturized allow viewers to live, at least temporarily, in a fantasy world.

Also, the idea of tiny cuisine may appeal because many of the recipes use real ingredients and tools–things you could actually cook with or consume, if you wanted to.

So … let’s all think small.