A few months ago my wife went away for a couple nights on a work trip. When mom goes away a couple of things always happen. First, the ratio of screen time to total hours awake approaches one. Second, we all eat like kings and queens. For the kids that might mean loading up the grocery cart with Cheez-It Party Mix AND Ice Cream AND ‘Frozen’ cereal. For me, it usually means grabbing some kind of meat. Maybe a roasted chicken. On our most recent trip to the grocery store while mom was away, it was a full rack of smoked ribs.
What makes my choice of food stuffs interesting is that I’m nominally a vegetarian. Or at least, that was a monicker I had grown accustomed to in describing what kinds of foods I typically do or do not eat. But, as evidenced by the full rack of ribs sitting in my grocery cart on that Thursday afternoon, I’m not a purist. Sometimes I eat meat. Usually not, but on occasion. Which is to say my dietary choices are probably better characterized as vegetarian leaning.
My wife and two children are real vegetarians. They aren’t vegetarian leaning. My kids have never eaten chicken, beef or pork. They have had fish, on occasion, since we are really more like pescatarians in our house, but not meat. So normally I do not bring meat home. Instead I eat it discreetly. In a restaurant with a very understanding friend. Or alone in a car after exchanging pleasantries with the cashier at McDonald’s, having forgotten to tell him that I prefer my biscuit sandwich without the bacon. Well, as I always say, waste not, want not.
The times when my wife is away are the only times I generally bring meat back home. And until this most recent trip, my kids had never been the wiser. I’d slip a roaster into the cart, stick it in the fridge when we got home, and indulge only after they’d gone to bed, or were watching one of their many shows for the day. But the thing about kids is, they grow up, and they notice a great many more things.
As we pulled up to the checkout line on that particular afternoon my daughter looked at the container of ribs in our cart and then up at me and asked, “dad, is that real meat?”
Now I may deflect or distract at times, but I generally try, as a rule, not to outright lie to my kids about things, even complicated grown up things like how you can call yourself a vegetarian and still spend 15 dollars on a full rack of ribs.
“Yes, it is.”
“Are you going to eat it?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Does mommy know?”
And here was the real source of concern in her voice. She wasn’t so much concerned about my fidelity to my purported vegetarianism, but my fidelity to my family, and to my wife. For her, those ribs might as well have been an attractive thirty year old woman that I’d plunked down in the cart beside her and her brother. Does mommy know?
This discussion continued on the ride home. I explained that I usually didn’t eat meat, but sometimes I did. Your mother and I have slightly different opinions about this, and that is ok. People don’t have to agree on everything, even married people.
“Are you going to tell her?” she asked.
“Well, she knows I eat meat sometimes. I don’t tell her every single time, but she knows I do it.”
“But are you going to tell her this time? Can we call her?”
I suppose marriages have been torn apart by less. So that evening when we Facetimed mom to tell her about our day, I admitted, in deference to my daughter, not only to the purchase of an obscene amount of processed food, but specifically to buying ribs. I’d already given her a heads up through text so she could go right past the shaking her head part and just laugh at me. My daughter was quite relieved when she saw that mommy did not break down crying upon hearing of my transgression. And no doubt that day she added the following little rule about life to the ever growing list in her head: Sometimes dads eat meat. Even when they are supposed to be vegetarians.
My first brush with vegetarianism came in college, or perhaps just after, when my best friend started to practice the meatless ways under pressure from his wife. It was not a sudden conversion, but a gradual eroding of traditional omnivore values. I tried it for a week. I tried it again, for a month. Eventually it stuck, mostly. When my wife and I got together I had already been a vegetarian for over a year, and being a vegetarian herself since early in college here was yet another place where our values magically seemed to overlap. No need to fuss with boyfriends who needed steak or chicken – I could be sustained on a diet of faux baloney and chik’n patties.
Still, however similar our views of meat might have appeared at the surface, at the core loomed a great irreconcilable difference: I actually loved the taste of meat, and she, for the most part, was disgusted by it. It was only a matter of time before I was drawn back in. The first major slip came while attending a party at Penn State where a friend and fellow graduate student in my wife’s department convinced me to eat some chicken wings. It wasn’t my first such dalliance, but it was the first time I’d done it in front of my wife. After that, the fear of shame was no longer enough; the center would not hold.
For several years I lived like an omnivore who’d just come out of the closet. Wings, quail, all the meat I could heap onto my plate at the local chinese buffet. I didn’t need to eat meat all the time – I had learned that there are many good dishes that don’t include it – but I did eat it whenever I damn well pleased.
Then sometime during the year before my daughter was born I picked up a book that my wife had suggested to me. Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. I’d read all the horror stories before. I was well aware of much of what happened to animals to get the meat into the food I would occasionally eat. But this book was somehow different. The author, who had only written novels to this point, was also a soon-to-be-father, and like myself, had dabbled with vegetarianism at different periods in his life. And for some reason the arguments resonated with me in a way they hadn’t quite before. He wasn’t preaching (or at least, not as much as others often did) – he was wrestling with a complicated issue. I was born again before I’d finished the book. Or really, born again again.
Some people go vegetarian to help save the earth, others to be more healthy, and the loudest vegetarians tend to be the ones who do it for the animals. Although not usually very outspoken about my quasi-vegetarianism, my primary motivation tends to be for animals. Health is a good enough reason I suppose, but dietary science is, especially when you weave politics into it, barely a science in my mind – or at least a really challenging science. The answers to questions like, “what should I eat?”, “how much of it should I eat?”, constantly changing. If you choose not to eat beef today because of the health risks of red meat to your heart, you may be swayed to put it back in your diet by tomorrow’s headlines that red meat helps grow new neurons (it doesn’t, I’m just making that up). The earth is a good reason too – perhaps the best reason – but as our society’s inability to really come to grips with climate change suggests, few of us (myself included) are motivated to make drastic changes in our lives in response to the abstract, though very real, threat of sea level rises and increasingly dramatic weather patterns. But even those who cast aside the earth or their own health have a hard time ignoring the haunting squeals of pigs before slaughter, or the claustrophobia inducing images of chickens, packed into cages like clowns in a car.
So while I don’t have the opinion that killing animals is always wrong, I do think our current food supply system is, for lack of a better phrase, completely fucked up. The animals and the factory workers alike, not to mention the environment, are abused all in the name of 99 cent chicken nuggets. And somewhere deep down inside we all know this – so I don’t need to turn this into a pamphlet on the moral peril of our food, and especially of our meat and dairy, industries. But neither do I then need to give much more explanation about why I would like to be, in a world without competing forces like an insatiable hunger for buffalo wings, a vegetarian, and yes, even a vegan.
Long before she’d become a vegetarian, my wife already had a Snow White like appreciation of nature and the creatures around her. In high school she wrote an unprompted letter to PETA, thanking them for their work in helping to protect animals. When I was sixteen I was cramming soft taco supremes into my mouth by the half dozen, then washing them down with a Chalupa. Even when I was eventually convinced to give up meat, many years later, I did it reluctantly.
How is it that my wife remains so resolute in her convictions to not eat any meat, and I am constantly backsliding, unable to walk out of the supermarket when mom is away without some succulently roasted protein? Part of the problem is that I just lack the self control that my wife has when it comes to food – a fact apparent to anyone who has seen us together. For I’m more likely than her to eat M&Ms, ice cream, Chex-mix and, well, any food with high enough sugar, salt or fat content. But that, I think, is only part of it. I also tend to see a lot of moral ambiguity in life. I don’t see the choice to not eat meat as some absolute line drawn in the sand. I see it as a point on a continuum of choices. To me our choices, all our choices, are matters of degree – to eat less meat, to exercise a bit more, to be a little more patient with our kids. I tend to think most of us are trying to do the best we can. And I tend to think that there is only so much we can do, as quite finite beings facing problems that at least appear almost infinite in their complexity.
To a died-in-the-wool vegetarian, I must seem a hypocrite. To a died-in-the-wool vegan, those same vegetarians look a bit hypocritical themselves. And yet to someone who has chosen to separate themselves from our global economy and all the ills (as well as benefits) that come along with it, sewing their own clothing and gathering their own food in the wild, those vegans might as well be lobbyists for Monsanto.
And this isn’t to say that there’s no point in trying to make things better. The more we can do, the better. It’s better to eat less meat, at least the meat produced by the hell hole that is our moden food industry. That said, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The decision to not eat meat, or to trade in one’s car for a bicycle, will not save the world. And my decision to buy a rack of ribs on one of the few weekends when my wife is out of town will not ruin it.
How, though, to explain all this to my five year old daughter? We don’t eat meat. But sometimes daddy does. He hates all the suffering that animals endure on their way to getting eaten, but to be honest, he only hates it so much. Sometimes he hates it a little less than he loves the taste of meat. If he’s had a few beers he hates very little and loves very much. For her, it must all seem so arbitrary.
Or maybe not as much as we think. Recently my daughter and my wife were talking about my dietary indiscretions. My daughter told my wife that “It’s bad and good to eat meat. It’s bad because you have to kill the animals. But it’s good, because if some animals didn’t get eaten then there would be too many animals on the earth.”
Yes! Exactly! Daddy is just doing his part in keeping the populations of cows, chickens, pigs and occasionally sheep, from overrunning the earth. I’m doing my part so that people like my wife, who never liked meat in the first place, can go on eating tofu AND be spared having to share a house with a pack of wild pigs.
Hey you true vegetarians out there – you are welcome. And you vegans? Doubly so.