Daddy eats dead cows.

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 26 2009 6:46 AM

Daddy Eats Dead Cows

Can a meat-loving father raise vegetarian children?

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In asking my vegetarian friends, however, I have found that children raised as vegetarians tend to accept vegetarianism as a fact of life. I shouldn't have been surprised, really: We all think that what we ate as young children was the best food in the world; it's only with some effort that we introduce radical changes to our diet. Vegetarianism comes easily to those who have never known otherwise. "I look at it like this," my rabbi, Jon-Jay Tilsen, a vegetarian father of four vegetarian children, told me. "Various societies and cultures have their own cuisines. And if we had been French, we'd be feeding our children frog's legs—and in other places, monkey brains. In this country they eat cows, pigs, and chickens a lot—but in India they would sooner eat their brother-in-law than eat a cow. The point is that something that seems disgusting to eat is just a matter of what you were brought up with." His children, unaccustomed to eating meat, have never expressed a desire to. Their mother, Miriam, the family's lone carnivore, told me that her kids vocally disapprove of her diet. "They tell me, 'Your body is a graveyard for dead animals,' " Miriam says ruefully.

I figure that the only good reason to be a vegetarian is that it's morally right—otherwise, why bother? Brisket tastes good! Lox tastes good! But I spoke with one vegetarian mom who discourages her children from thinking of vegetarianism in terms of animal rights. Hilary Cruz-Abrams, a friend of a friend, lives in New York, where she and her husband are raising three vegetarian children "for health reasons." The eldest, a 6-year-old daughter, has asked her why the family doesn't eat meat. "And we've been very clear with her that it's not unkind, that it's not someone committing an evil act," Hilary says. "We talk about cavemen"—how they had to eat meat to survive.

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But one of the beautiful things about children, of course, is their hyperactive and keenly felt sense of justice, which easily outstrips their parents'. (Ask anyone who has watched Bambior Old Yeller with a room of children.) No matter the parents' reasons for vegetarianism, children whose consciences have been pricked are likely to find their way to animal rights; it's a better sell than "the environment" or "your health"—and for good reason. Hilary admits that her daughter's vegetarianism includes "a sensibility of 'That was a cow? I like cows. That seems unkind.' " My friend Carole, mother of two vegetarian daughters, thinks that killing animals is wrong, but she worried when her girls got a bit too drunk on the message. "It was important to us that we not teach them that vegetarianism is superior and that people who eat meat are bad," Carole told me. "But at some point when they were very young, they became militant vegetarians. When Sarah was around 3, they became quite outspoken about how meat was disgusting, and we told them to tone it down and let people eat what they want."

If my anecdotal research is right, I have more to fear from my vegetarian daughters than they have to fear from me. They'll grow into crusading PETA teens, throwing red paint on my fur-lined winter hat and torching my leather shoes. (Even their mother wears leather shoes.) I'll be left trying to explain why I still eat hot dogs at Memorial Day barbecues. And thus we arrive at the big question: If I never make it to full vegetarianism, if I remain stuck with my once- or twice-monthly meat habit, do I hide it from Rebekah and Ellie? Do I skulk off to T.G.I. Friday's with my friend Derek, wolf back a calamari appetizer and a burger, and return home feeling guilty? Will I be like one of those dads who packs the kids off to summer camp, throws on a Santana LP, and lights up a joint?

Here, I think honesty is the best policy. I will eat meat in front of them. When they are young and ask me, at Grandmom's brunch table, why they can't have that piece of lox, I will give them some version of what my friend Jay says to his son about soda: "It's not for you—it's Daddy's juice." When they are older, I thankfully will have recourse to the ethical formulation of a wise woman, their mother. "Sweetie," I will say, to whichever one of them asks, "I understand that this salmon was murdered. I rarely eat murdered animals, but as an adult I am old enough to make an exception." My daughter will doubtless be upset with me, but I suspect that her anger will be over the meat in my diet, not its absence from hers. As she bites into her grilled-cheese sandwich, she will look at me with disapproval, maybe a touch of pity. Parents can be so silly, you know.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.

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