February 10, 2014

Becoming Vegetarians

SI and DD
When M and I started dating, he made a huge effort not to eat meat in front of me. I thought this was adorable but misguided- my objection has never been to seeing meat.

As things got more serious he got more comfortable ordering a steak on our dates, or eating a burger in the car on long trips. We never teased each other about it. He never waved bacon in front of me, joking about delicious delicious dead pig. I never squealed, "Mother! Where are you mother?" when he bit into venison jerky.

We respected each others' choices when it came to our diets. I had been raised since birth as a vegetarian, and he had been raised in a very American meat-and-potatoes environment. And we were both comfortable with our own choices.

For our last dating anniversary before our wedding, I made him lamb. I'd never cooked any kind of meat before, and I wanted to make some sort of grand gesture. I did a lot of research, too. I chose the kind of meat, not for ethical reasons, but because I was confident I would be able to prepare it without killing him.

And now here we are. I cook meat regularly, for him, and never taste it. And no, I never have the impulse to taste it.

Sometimes, at our dinner table, the children eye daddy's food curiously. They rarely ask about it. But that is starting to change.

I remember how old I was when my classmates started making fun of my diet. I was about five years old. I always assumed it would be around that age, for similar reasons, that my children would question their diets as well.

Turns out, I was wrong.

The other day we sat down to dinner. It was a rough day, so we ordered in Thai food. M had chicken pad thai, the girls had tofu pad thai. Everyone was eating happily until SI, the never-ending fount of questions with no answer, asked why daddy was eating from a different container.

"Daddy's pad thai noodles have chicken in them. Yours have tofu."

I watched her try to wrap her head around this. She's long known that daddy eats animals. But recently she's been very interested in the nutritional content of things. She knows she can't have ice cream every day, because it's made of fat and sugar. She knows that fruits and vegetables are nutritious, she knows that protein is important.

"Is chicken nutritious?"
"Well," I answered, "it's got lots of protein."
"But does it have fat and sugar?"
"It has some fat, not as much as red meat."
M piped in here, cautiously. "Like steak or burgers. Those are red meat, and they have much more fat."
"Why don't you eat meat, mommy?"
"I'm a vegetarian."
"What's a vegetan... why?

I hesitated for moment, and threw a quick apologetic glance to M. "I don't eat meat because I think it's wasteful."

SI nearly dropped her fork at this. "Wasteful" is a word she believed she understood, completely. She and DD love to play the "wasteful" game in the car, where they come up with examples of things that are "wasteful," and generally these things involve throwing food into the mud. Eating food is wasteful? This made no sense at all.

"You see, sweetheart, a long time ago, people had a hard time finding all the food they needed to have nutritious meals. It was hard to find sugar, and fat, and also protein. But if you killed an animal and ate it, you could have protein for a long long time.

"Do you remember the Buffalo Woman book? People used to eat meat like the Native Americans in that book- they would kill one buffalo and use every single part of the meat to feed their family for a long time. They didn't have to kill very many. Each buffalo had enough meat to feed the family for months.

And they used every part! They used its bones, and its eyes, and its skin, and its teeth, and its horns, and even its bladder! They didn't waste any of it. They were very respectful of the buffalo they killed to get protein in their food.

But now that's not how people get their meat. Instead of killing one animal and using all the parts, they kill lots and lots and lots of them, and only use a few parts. And a lot of the other parts just get thrown away. Sometimes the whole animal just gets thrown away. And that's not respectful at all."

She frowned at M's plate. "So why do you still eat it, daddy?"

And there it was. The question I never asked him. Because his diet is his choice, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was guilt trip him over it. His eyes widened in a guilty panic. I started talking again.

"Daddy eats meat because protein is an important part of his diet, and meat is one of the easiest ways to get lots of protein."

"Even though it's wasteful?"

M sighed. "Even though it's wasteful."

"Everyone has to make a choice about their food," I added. "Daddy chooses to eat meat because the protein is important to him. I choose not to, because I don't want to kill animals unless we need to. But it's up to you to choose whether you want to eat meat or not."

"I don't want to waste animals," she said. "I'm a vegetarian too."

"Me too!" said DD.

"Me doo!" said RH, with a mouth full of noodles. And like that, the conversation was over.

As soon as the kids went to bed, M and I apologized to each other a dozen times. Him, for not having any answers for the kids. Me, for possibly shaming him about his food. Something I never wanted to do.

I expect our family will talk about this again. Probably lots of times. And in the meantime, M can figure out what he's going to tell the kids about his dietary choices, and his reasoning for them.

And I can keep figuring out ways around conversations about our food industrial complex and the ethical treatment of animals. I'm not eager to talk to my kids about the unpleasant things we do to animals in captivity. And I'm fairly confident that my children will continue to choose not to eat food that is wasteful, and inhumane.

If we lived somewhere where it was feasible for us to buy meat from a family farm, where we could visit the animals, maybe even pick out our own cow before slaughter, things would be a little different. If we bought a whole cow, bones and organs and all, rather than just the bits and pieces that make the act of killing seem sanitary and mundane, it would be a different story. And the girls and I can have that conversation whenever they want.

But the most important thing is that our children know what their food is, and where it comes from.

They know that ice cream is fat and sugar, with no nutritional value. And they know sometimes it's okay to eat that.

And they also know that meat is a dead animal, that people eat. And that can be okay too.

They know what waste is, and that it's a bad thing.

I'm pretty confident they'll make good food choices so long as they remember those guidelines. And really, giving them guidelines and sending them into the world to make their own choices?

That's pretty much my job, isn't it?

1 comment:

  1. For now, I suggest you get on your state police/county sheriff/municipal police (some states have all three) Road Kill Call List. When a deer, elk, moose, or bear is hit, they start at the top of the list and call until someone agrees to come remove the downed animal; that person keeps the meat, and goes to the bottom of the list for next time. Since the animal would otherwise certainly be wasted, this is a good guilt-free source of meat. I raised my son on road-kill venison, and he's still fine at 29.



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