grumpy about meat

Jesse and Nick are going through a classic childhood awakening: the meat we eat comes from actual animals. Jesse, who’s a serious carnivore, has been down this road before, but clearly she’s tucked memories of those conversations away in some dark, dark corner of her mind. A couple days ago at dinner, she wanted to know where meat comes from. Seriously? Animals, I answered. She was shocked (again, just like a couple years ago), but she was still happy to throw down a quarter pound of bulgogi beef. Nick, who hates all meat unless it’s processed, was stunned. We turned it into a TEACHING MOMENT.

(I put “teaching moment” on the same shelf as “use your words,” “show respect,” and “wash your hands for 30 entire seconds.” It makes me feel all crazy inside, my eyes come loose in their sockets and roll around wildly.)

We went through a short list. Beef comes from cows (“whaaaat??”), pork comes from pigs… Kids, where do you think chicken comes from? Incredibly, there was a long pause and a couple of blank looks. Finally after way too long, Nick giggled and took a guess: “chicken?” AHAHAHA, Jesse laughed sheepishly at the trick we had played.

Holy crap. Sports skills and extracurricular community service will be essential ingredients in college admissions for my spawn.

Nick was pleased to report he doesn’t like meat, until I explained that hot dogs and bologna are meat. (“whaaat??”) Then we devolved to the usual blah blah blah. Hot dogs aren’t made of dogs, we don’t eat dogs. Why don’t we eat dogs. Because they’re our friends. Does anyone eat dogs. Yes, in some other cultures. Why. Because dogs aren’t their friends. Are cows our friends.

Sigh.

Anthony and I have often considered going meatless — vegan, actually, because what’s the point of halfway when you’re an extremist like me? — but we’ve never done it. I’ve made small forays into limiting meat. I stopped eating beef for about a year in college, after choking down some very rare roast beef when I was in a be-polite pickle. I was sure blood was dripping down my chin. It was horrifying. I stopped eating pork for about 4 years after reading a long NY Times article about the horrid way smart little piggies are tortured as they’re raised for slaughter. I don’t eat baby animals. Because they’re babies.

When Jesse was allergic to both dairy and eggs, I bought a handful of vegan cookbooks to find some alternative cooking methods – mostly for sweet treats – and read the authors’ entreaties to go animal-food free. It was compelling, and it made me think more than twice about my dietary choices. But I readily embrace hypocrisy (self-absorbed pragmatism?), and my body wants meat. I’ve accepted that I’m an omnivore. This became apparent during my pregnancies, when I craved red meat more than anything else in the world.

Even milk and dairy products are tethered to an ethical ball and chain, when you consider those poor mama cows lactating day after day. I think I’d just go on a hunger fast until I died if someone told me I’d have to spend the rest of my pre-menopausal days hooked up to a breast pump every morning, my mammaries chugging out leche for baby cows to drink. I guess I’m smarter than a cow, but really, that’s just a theory. After 9 years as a housewife, I’m not sure it’s reality anymore.

Eventually, I started buying all our meat from places like Whole Foods, where I can select meat from pasture-raised animals as often as possible (with labels that say they weren’t raised in feed lots and they were slaughtered kindly) and dairy products that come from smaller family farms and pastured cows.  The sheer cost of this shopping strategy ensures that we treat flesh and dairy more as condiment than main course, plus I can hold onto the fiction that there’s any compassion or kindness at all in eating the flesh of another being or drinking the milk of a female animal forced into daily lactation long after her babies are gone.

I offer my kids flesh of some kind almost every day. I’ve read about early brain development, and what I’ve read tells me that kids need plenty of cholesterol and animal-based fats and iron to have the best chance at a well-developed, healthy brain. Since we can’t eat eggs (Jesse’s allergy is prohibitive), it’s dairy and flesh for us. I’m sure there are alternative arguments, but that’s where my head is these days.

Meat-eating came up in our morning chatter today as we drove to school. Jesse wanted homemade hamburgers for dinner tonight, which in our world means buns from scratch too. I ruminated aloud about stopping by the grocery for meat, and Jesse interjected, “No mommy, I want YOU to make the burgers.” I replied, “Well if you want beef, I need to go buy some beef. What do you think I’m gonna do today, raise a cow and slaughter it?”

“What does ‘slaughter’ mean?”

Grrrr. My big mouth. I thought quickly. Better not tell them about cattle prods and saws. They don’t need to be imagining a sweet cow being hung up, skinned and taken apart so that its flesh could be ground up for their burgers. So I said, “It means kill.”

“How do they kill the cow?”

Deep breath, as I decided how to answer this. I settled on, “With a knife.”

There were various murmurings from the back seat as Jesse and Nick pondered the life and death of a cow, and Jesse pushed me for more technical details on the killing part. Jesse’s a strange bird about stuff like this, and often takes me by surprise. She’s really curious about the nuts and bolts of life. So, while she has a lot of anxiety and dread about made-up tasks like writing summaries of chapter books at school, she readily accepts the hard realities of survival and she’s generally comfortable with the hard choices survival might demand of a creature. She’s a wilderness girl and a fighter to her bones. So maybe I could have told her about the prods and saws. But not Nick, who’s just 4.

Anyway, I finally commented that yup, we eat our animals dead, because that’s a better option than eating them alive. The kids chattered about not eating meat anymore, and I should have kept my mouth shut again. But I told them a true thought that I often have, as a meat eater who doesn’t kill her own meat and who’s squeamish about squashing large bugs. I said, If you guys were hungry and there was nothing else for it, I think I would have no problem running out in the back yard and bagging something to feed you, maybe one of those big fat rabbits that raid our gardens every summer. I’d rip its head off with my bare hands if I had to, so that you could eat and live. Jesse chuckled, like “you’re so weird, mom,” and then wondered aloud if people really eat rabbits?

Nick had grown silent suddenly, which is a rare and strange thing indeed. I looked back and was surprised to find that he was nearly in tears. “Mommy, please don’t ever do that to a rabbit, okay? Please don’t.” He sniffed. “I don’t want to eat meat anymore, okay? I just don’t.” He nodded and blinked his soft brown eyes at me, red-rimmed now with the strength of his emotions. That’s my sweet, sweet little boy.

I looked over at Jesse, now in the passenger seat next to me and about to get out of the car to head in to school. “So do you want to skip the burgers and eat something without meat for dinner?”

Jesse was calm and cheerful. She apparently had it all worked out. “Nope. I still want a hamburger. Bye.” And out she jumped.

That’s my badass girl. It’s a good thing Nick has her to rely on.