Do you remember that commercial—the one where the mom carefully carves a heart in the peanut butter before packing up a sandwich for her kid’s lunch? I always wondered how the kid was supposed to see it after mom crammed the other piece of bread on top and then the thing sat in a stinky plastic lunchbox all day—like the pink one I had with Smurfette on it—whom I later scratched off painstakingly with my fingernails because it was not cool to like the Smurfs past the third grade. I think of that commercial a lot, not just because my 4-year old loves peanut butter sandwiches and eats one almost daily, but because I envision myself packing his lunches when he starts school next year, and into the years after that, and trying to pack as much love into that lunchbox as possible, because he’s going to need it. All kids need love. But I’m talking about that extra punch of acceptance from Mom and Dad at home, that says, “this is who you are; who WE are, and it’s good and it’s OK and it’s normal. That little extra something that gives him the confidence he needs to give a strong, matter-of-fact answer to that question he’s going to get over and over:
“Where’s the Beef?”
I’m dating myself—no kid in 2018 and beyond is going to reference a 1984 Wendy’s ad campagin. And what is up with me framing my life in commercials? Because I can—I can keep going. But I imagine I should Avoid the Noid and get to my point. They’re going to ask him—these other kids—why he doesn’t eat meat.
Now, I know it’s too early to start thinking about this. My son has only recently begun sleeping without a pull-up, loves graham crackers and Tumble Leaf, and still looks like a baby when he sleeps. He doesn’t even understand the concept of meat—he doesn’t know the word and has no idea of how it correlates to his plastic cow and pig toys, or the chicken or fish in his storybooks. He eats “nuggets” and “hop-dogs” both made of vegetable protein, but doesn’t know that his are any different from those of another preschooler down the street. For him, ham is just the green stuff on Sam-I-Am’s plate.
I can’t explain death to a 4-year old. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t even try to make him understand what has to happen to an animal to turn it into food.
There’s a book on the market titled “That’s why we don’t eat animals,” but it’s targeted at six-to-ten-year-olds.
So we just don’t talk about it.
But we’ll have to, and probably soon.
I grew up in a town of around 50,000 people, and never once did I encounter a kid who didn’t eat meat, including myself. I was 17 before I met my first vegetarian. The percentage of Americans who identify as such is around 3 percent, roughly the same number who identify as atheist (another conversation we’ll have to have when my son comes home from school for the first time asking, “Mom, what’s ‘God?’”) For me to not have run into any vegetarians in a city of that size is a pretty good indicator that now, living in a town of less than 7,000, the chances are even slimmer.
My husband and I don’t preach at carnivores; we both grew up eating and enjoying meat, and can still appreciate the appeal—at least taste-wise. We do talk openly about how meat production is terrible for the environment, but my philosophy has always been about comfort level. If you know how meat gets on your table, if you’ve ever thought that animals suffer like humans, if you agree that it’s detrimental to the earth, and your health—at least in the quantities most Americans consume it, and you’re OK enough with all of this to keep eating it, then I’m not going to change your mind. And I know it’s not easy to change the palate you grew up with—maybe you would like to stop eating meat but feel you can’t, or maybe you love it and think bacon is mana from heaven, which many of my friends and family do—well, if it’s that important to you, then whatever. Have at it.
But we’ve been meat-free for a little less than 20 years. There was no doubt in our minds that we would raise meat-free children.
Most little kids don’t eat a ton of meat anyway—at least not racks of lamb or turkey legs or anything like that. Their exposure is more likely to be the ubiquitous nugget or some ground beef in chili or a bologna sandwich. I don’t even know if most kindergartners really know what meat is or where it comes from; it seems like a hard sell to me, for an age group who are still instinctively drawn to cute baby animals, zoos, farms, Noah’s ark, dinosaurs, whatever. There must be a point at which all kids, carnivorous or not, begin to understand that Peppa Pig is a basically a talking future pork chop and that Shaun the Sheep (my son’s favorite) is delicious with mint sauce.
How does that conversation begin? I certainly don’t remember having it. I do remember being so traumatized by Watership Down that I felt genuine anger at my father for insisting we eat a naked, hairless rabbit that had been chilling in the freezer. I remember feeling genuine sadness about the deer hanging in the garage, I remember the smell of blood, of dead meat, the tongue pushed out of the mouth, the dead eyes that somehow still seemed to hold fear, the dark viscous stuff dripping onto the cardboard on the concrete floor.
I was a sensitive kid who liked animals far more than people, and would push the top of the fish-cage down at the side of the boat to let the sunnies my dad had just caught swim away to safety.
I was also born at the tail end of a generation that believed that the non-consumption of meat or dairy meant you would be weak, develop rickets, osteoperosis, become anemic, stop growing, and basically die. Meanwhile my son, who has never eaten meat and has only ingested cow’s milk a handful of times, is half a head taller than the average 4 year-old and is strong and healthy and has never been sick a day in his life.
Regardless of how the conversation will go—the one about how animals become food—there is a more complicated answer I will have to provide my son:
Why? Why have some people—most people—decided to go ahead and do this thing, and we haven’t?
Why do Grandpa and Grandma eat animals? Auntie and Uncle? My friends? My neighbors? Most of the people I love and respect? Why are we different? Is it bad? Is it good? Why?
I don’t know, kid. It just “is what it is.” I ate meat because my parents ate meat, and because 97 percent of the country eats meat. You don’t eat meat because your parents don’t eat meat. We reflect the values of the people who love and raised us. Different people believe different things. When you’re old enough to make choices for yourself, we hope you’ll base those choices on what makes sense to you—what you value, and we hope those values will reflect ours. But maybe you’ll see things differently. Maybe we’ll fight about it. Maybe you’ll love veal, become Christian, shoot guns, drive big gas-guzzling pickup trucks, listen to country music and vote Republican. Jiminy Crickets…maybe you’ll be nothing like us. Maybe it’ll be like when Alex P. Keaton wore sweater-vests and hung a portrait of Ronald Reagan in the kitchen of his public-television loving peacenik parents on Family Ties.
See, how it always comes back to 80’s TV?
I think I watched too much TV. When I was in high school, I started to notice that more and more of my friends had pianos in their living rooms instead of televisions. If you wanted to watch something, you had to go to the “Rec Room” or some shit.
There’s going to be a lot of questions in my son’s life that I won’t be able to give good answers for.
I just want him to think about things. I hope he approaches life with sensitivity and compassion. That’s all I really want. He doesn’t have to be a vegetarian or an atheist or even a Radiohead fan. I just want him to be kind.
And a feminist.
Addendum: I was going to call this post “Meatsplaining,” but I Googled it and found it’s already a term, used by meat-eaters to explain vegetarianism or veganism to a vegetarian or vegan. Which I imagine is pretty damn funny.