A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tofurky Trot

            “What kind of animal was this?” Molly asked.   I glanced at her, perched next to me at the table in her blue plastic booster seat.  Her mouth was decoratively adorned with barbecue sauce.  In her small hands, the meaty bone looked like the rib of a mammoth, or at the very least a muskox. 
            “A pig,” I told her, trying hard not to put any particular weight on my words.  Please pass the pepper.  Would you like some more peas?  You’re eating the flesh of a pig. 
How, exactly, did I want her to react?  Did I harbor a secret desire that she would hurl down the bone in horror and never touch meat again?  Or did I want her to continue her dinner in peace and contentment, thus avoiding a lifetime of suspiciously poking at potluck casseroles in order to determine whether they are animal, vegetable, or mineral?  The truth was, I wasn’t sure. 
I’ve been a vegetarian for twenty years.  The twins know that.  They like to roll the word off their tongues, savoring the extravagance of five syllables.  They like to tell me what I can and cannot eat:  “Oh, Mommy, you can’t have any soup.  It has meat in it.  You’re a veg-e-tar-i-an.”
I’ve always maintained that I want the kids to choose for themselves whether or not they will eat meat.  But I still don’t entirely trust my own motives.  Am I biased as to which choice I want them to make?  Am I subtly stacking the deck?  After all, kids are contrary.  If I withheld meat, at some point it would probably become as wildly desirable as Snickers bars and Pringles.  Maybe by allowing them to eat it, I am actually hoping to influence them not to eat it.  Am I, at heart, a sneaky, manipulative mommy?
Molly didn’t recoil, but she didn’t let the subject drop, either.  She licked her fingers and paused in her munching.  “Who deaded it?”
“Who – oh, you mean who killed it?”  One day, I’ll miss how four-year-olds wreak havoc with verbs.  “The pig?”
She nodded.  Grownups were sometimes so slow on the uptake.
“I don’t know who killed it.”
“Why not?  Why don’t you know who hunted it?”
“Well… pigs aren’t hunted, like moose and caribou.” 
We live in Alaska.  People hunt here.  That includes my husband, although Jay’s infrequent hunting trips seem to involve avoiding shooting game, in favor of taking a nice hike over some remote terrain. He once explained: “If you actually get an animal, you have to spend the rest of the time gutting it and hauling it out.  It’s a lot of work,”
I don’t have a problem with hunting.  For the most part, it seems a lot more appealing than the way most of America’s meat is obtained.  I don’t really want to go hunting myself, though.  I’m not squeamish – I was kind of annoyed not to be allowed to watch my own c-section -- but I don’t enjoy killing things.  This was part of why I decided not to eat meat in the first place.  It seemed hypocritical to pay someone to do your behind-the-scenes dirty work for you, and then pretend it never happened. 
An aversion to death was part of the original rationale for my dietary choices, but it wasn’t the whole reason.  Decimating a rainforest seemed like a steep price to pay for a flaccid, greasy, McBurger.  The idea that cow farts are altering earth’s climate was darkly humorous, but kind of wrecked the flavor of rib-eye.  I wasn’t a big fan of deli-cut-hormones and antibiotics-on-rye, ether.  If I were a self-sacrificing idealist rather than a slightly hypocritical one, I would have become vegan, and given up fresh Parmesan, aged cheddar, spinach-and-feta pie, and Cadbury’s milk chocolate – but I don’t have that sort of fortitude.  I never craved meat the way I crave pizza.  The truth was, I couldn’t find many reasons why I should eat meat, other than social convenience.
“Pigs are raised on farms,” I told my daughter now.  I thought of the farms in the Molly’s and Lizzy’s picture books: idyllic, sunny places with cows grazing in wide-open pastures.  I thought of Charlotte’s Web, the very first big-kid book I’d read aloud to my four-year-olds, a few months back.  Molly was the twin who sniffled when the spider died – even though Wilbur the pig was saved. 
I explained that farm animals are raised for food, then killed and packaged up and sent to supermarkets.  I tried to be honest about the process, although I left out descriptions of feed lots, slaughter houses, and runoff from sewage lagoons.
“They bring it to Fred Meyers in a truck?” asked Lizzy.  Lizzy is fond of trucks.
I became a vegetarian when I left home, as a teenager.  I remained a vegetarian for four years of college, and two years of grad school.  During my two years in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, I ate rice and beans, papayas, breadfruit, mangoes, pineapples, callaloo, cho-cho, star fruit and bammy.  I was gloriously well-fed, and happy to have a polite reason for avoiding goat-testicle soup and roasted chicken feet.
I stuck with my plant-eating ways when I moved to Alaska, even though the irony of living up here and not consuming salmon was glaring.  I was just so used to eschewing anything with a face that I found I didn’t want to change my diet.
I didn’t eat any meat while pregnant with twins.  I had the full approval of my cheerful and down-to-earth family practitioner, who also allowed me to commute by bike until the day before the kids were born.  Her go-ahead made it easier to ignore the politely constrained horror of the more traditionally-minded folks in my life, who think that vegetables, if they are served at all, should be limited to iceberg lettuce and limp green beans smothered in Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and Bacos.  When the kids were born full-term and robust, I felt like I’d scored a couple of points for Team Tofu.
I remained a vegetarian while I was nursing, although I don’t know whether I would have been able to sustain veganism, had that been my normal diet.  Two ravenous six-month-olds could, between them, consume half a gallon of my milk – or more – each day.  “You’re producing as much as a good dairy goat!” one agriculturally-minded friend told me.  I was pretty sure she was impressed, so I took it as a compliment.  I also gained new respect for the animals who provide me with my yogurt and my smoked Gouda.
But when the kids started slurping strained peas and gumming Cheerios, Jay and I had to make a decision. Would they be vegetarians?  It didn’t seem fair to make that choice for them, I said.  Jay, never one to sweat this sort of detail, shrugged and agreed, but said that it would have been ok with him either way.
Three years later, we had kids who ate some – but not a lot – of meat.  We didn’t limit it, but we just didn’t have it around all that often.  This allowed me to feel like I’d taken the high ground, and yet gave me the freedom to not think about the issue very much. 
But now, thanks to the fine cooking of a friend, Molly was wallowing in a plate of ribs and giving me the third degree.  And I was toying with self-doubt.  What, exactly, did I want?
I snuck another glance at my kids.  On Molly, I saw an expression of thoughtful concentration worthy of a great philosopher – albeit a philosopher with round cheeks, bangs crookedly trimmed by her mother, and a patina of barbecue sauce.  Next to her, in a second booster seat, Lizzy was capturing a strand of pork with a kid-sized fork, her brow furrowed.  I was pretty sure she was conjuring up a new line of questioning that might or might not include pigs, farms, or trucks.
As I waited for the next brain-spinning non-sequitur, I found myself grinning. The world is rich in subjects worth pondering, and a lot of them don’t have answers that can be tucked neatly into a folder or filed in a box.  One of the best things about being a parent is the opportunity to revisit all those big, sprawling, gray-area questions, the ones that most of us adults have long ago selected a stock answer for.  Hanging out with a couple of four-year-olds is a festival of “whys,” all approached with curiosity and gusto. It can drive you nuts, if you happen to be trying to edit a scientific paper, bake a lasagna, and get everyone into their snow gear all at the same time.  On the other hand, if you have time to respond to ‘What makes a rainbow?” or “How is the fire in the wood stove different from the fire in the sun?” it can give your brain a refreshing bout of aerobics.
I realized that I wasn’t worried about whether my kids ultimately decided to eat meat or not – I really wasn’t.  I could let myself off the hook of my own self-suspicions. It didn’t matter exactly what their questions were—or whether they had anything to do with grilled pork -- it just mattered that they were asking them. What I wanted, what I’d always really wanted, was neither compliance nor rebellion, but thought and awareness.  I wanted my kids to dig their hands into the soil, the mud, and the truth of the world.  What I wanted was exactly what I was now getting -- with a little added barbecue sauce.

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