Earlier this summer, I was excited to begin reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books with our daughter. Starting at the beginning of Little House in the Big Woods – a book that had captured my imagination and led me to read all the books in the series – I was dismayed to find that we are introduced to the Ingalls family with Pa almost immediately shooting two deer, skinning them and setting up a DIY log smokehouse. At about page 3 of the blow-by-blow description of preparing the meat to be smoked my daughter called out “Enough!” and has not looked back. I’m wondering if I’ll ever get her to read it now.
My girl once took her grandmother to task for smooshing a silverfish in the hall of our apartment, “He’s one of God’s creatures!” my daughter exclaimed. We now have a list of bugs that it’s permissible to annihilate, but silverfish are still in the category of bugs hustled out of the house in a catch and release operation. She has not declared herself a vegetarian by any means – I don’t think she eats enough vegetables for that – but she passionately cares about animals and I can see her forming the opinions and paths to compartmentalizing the eating of meat in her mind, as many of us have done on our way to adulthood. Today when she asked what was for dinner and I said ‘ham steak’ she said ‘Yay! No offence to the pig.’ Then after a moment, she asked, ‘Did you get it from one of the farms that treats it nicely?’
It’s that thoughtfulness that we are striving to bring back to our family’s table culture as we move ahead from our child’s consumption of gateway meats like SPAM (a gelatinous meat composite) and breaded chicken ovals to the real, recognizable parts of the animal. Some weeks ago I was serving duck confit, a packaged of 4 cooked duck legs from Grimaud Farms, and I ventured to serve a leg to my daughter too. She noticed it was smaller than a chicken leg and learned upon asking that it was duck. She said, “I’ll try it, but I’ll never eat it again.” At the end of the meal, which she very much enjoyed, she said “Okay, I lied. I will eat it again, but I’m going to feel sorry for the duck.” It was then I realized that my daughter had an uneasy relationship with meat and that that was as it should be.
One of the first things we ask toddlers to do in preschool is go through the “what does the cat say, what does the dog say, what does the pig say, what does the cow say?” litany. Kids’ imaginations are heavily wrapped up in animals and identifying with them, via pictures, books, and T.V. shows they are encouraged to practically transfer their identities to sweet and cuddly animals. Many cartoons play out conflict through dogs vs. cats vs. mice. I often wondered as I sat through such cartoons if the Sylvester and Tweety and Tom & Jerry canon had an underlying agenda of introducing kids to violence or predators and their prey for some perceived higher purpose. The Roadrunner was my daughter’s favorite because the coyote’s convoluted efforts to get the bird never paid off. It was my least favorite because I found the repeated waste of energy and failure of technology more depressing than funny, especially as I knew there was never going to be enough food to go around in the picturesque desert that Wile E. and the Roadrunner inhabit.
So what I’m wondering is, are we asking our children to damp down their imagination when (or if) we exert pressure on them to fall in with the family pattern and eat meat? Sometimes we do, I think. Every time red meat is served at an extended family event, my mom hopes that this will be our big chance to introduce it to my daughter and win her over. I keep telling my mother to forget about it. The kid doesn’t go for red meat, and that’s probably for the best. It’s a guilty pleasure that I still like to eat steak and roast beef occasionally. While I want to become more of a flexitarian, eating less meat than I do, it’s hard for me to imagine our household getting enough nutrition and pleasure out of food by going without meat completely. For a start, I think I will get a lot of complaints from my 4th grader when I put a plate of falafel in front of her at dinnertime tomorrow night.
Perhaps part of our inconsequential or insensitive patterns of eating were able to develop because meat is so readily available and is purposefully packaged so as to distance us from its source – the animal it came from. In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura and her sisters are very curious and invested in the process of preparing the venison for winter. But Laura enjoyed getting a meal of the fresh meat so much she “wished they could eat it all.” When the girls first wake to see the deer hanging from a tree outside their cabin, they know their father put them up high to keep the wolves from getting to them. These children understood a lot more about food chains and practical realities than we do now. In a later book in the series, The Long Winter, when there is a scarcity of food for the Ingalls, they spend months eating nothing but brown bread. Meat to the Ingalls girls was a big treat, and never taken for granted. It’s probably why the books are so full of descriptions of food and special meals. Also, from diaries of 49ers who came West to California on the overland trail, the wagon trains had almost nothing besides a steady and monotonous diet of corn bread, corn cakes and salt pork for months on end. When fresh meat and produce came across a pioneer’s path it was a cause for excitement and celebration.
On a practical note, I want to mention that many kids aren’t really capable of eating meat competently until they are eight or nine years old. Perhaps that’s why chicken nuggets and SPAM came to be so popular with kids to begin with: they are soft and easy to chew. Nutritionist Ellyn Satter writes in her book How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much that school age children
…still have some trouble chewing and swallowing tough or dry or fibrous foods, like steak or chops.
“Part of the problem might be that they don’t have the jaw strength to chew up the meat (although their ability to manage bubble gum belies this theory). Another part is that up until about age eight their swallow is immature. They swallow with their cheeks, as if they were sucking from a straw, not using their tongues like you and I do.” (p. 226.)
I recently learned about a local organization that specifically gives children opportunities to think about table-to-source background of all the foods they eat. It is called DOOF (Food Backwards). Having missed their three previous annual festivals called “Doof-a-palooza” I will be on the lookout for the next opportunity to go to one of their events. It is worthwhile to check out Doof’s ideas and happenings on their website whether you are young or old.
So when all is said and done, I think it is the right response to have a relationship with meat that is not easy. We adults could stand to meet our children halfway, and use our imaginations – to remember that the cow says ‘moo’ and to help our youngsters decide how they’re going to be mindful and comfortable with their food choices. Retracing back to our imagination-fueled empathy might also help further our own resolve to only bring into the house meat that someone took extra care to treat well when it was alive. Maybe a natural part of mentally returning to that perspective, from when people were just starting to populate the West and were closer to the killing and preparing of the meats we eat, is a reintroduction to the importance of expressing our thanks to the animals before we eat them (speaking to those of us who don’t do it more than sporadically already). After all, what is grace but a formal way of saying “I am going to eat this again, but I’m going to feel sorry – and grateful – for the duck”?