“Eating Animals”- Children and Food

I started reading a book on Sunday night that I am pretty excited about: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I saw it recently in a bookstore and the title intrigued me enough to pick it up, but when I read the description on the inside cover, it really hooked me—

“Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood-facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child’s behalf- his causal questioning took on an urgency…”

I’ve mentioned my vegetarianism before. I’m not a veggie proselytizer, I’m not out to recruit people, and you won’t see me chaining myself to a slaughterhouse door, but my own vegetarianism is important to me. The more I hear about the factory farming process in documentaries like Food, Inc, and when I read about potential health issues from some types of meat consumption, it makes me feel more confident in my dietary choices.

I’ve also mentioned before that P is an avowed chicken lover. Of course, I’d  be happy (and probably his veggie mother would too) to have him phase meat out of his diet, but I also don’t expect him to give up something he truly, honestly loves. P has toyed with the idea of making the switch, but I don’t think it will ever happen. I’ve been told on many occasions that my veg momos don’t hold a candle to the chicken or pork momos my other friends voraciously consume, and I can see the excited glint in P’s eye when there is a nice goat curry or a packet of deer jerky around.

So that brings us to the discussion of how to raise children when and if we have some one day. I’ve already made my feelings on the subject known. I’d very much prefer to raise vegetarian kids, and once they are older (middle school/high school aged) they can decide for themselves, and I’ll happily live with their decision. P, on the other hand, though less vocal, has stated that he would prefer to raise kids that enjoyed chicken momo, etc. There isn’t a whole lot that P and I don’t agree on, but this is one.

Other friends have weighed in on the argument—“If you raise them veg, then they will probably not like meat anyway… you’ll be influencing them from the start! That’s not fair to them!” but I kind of feel the same way, if you start them off eating meat, what if they never think about life without meat? Or what if they decide later in life to be veg and they are uncomfortable with having grown up eating meat and they question me as their parent for not sticking up for them? What if they are angry that I denied them the pleasure of meat as a child? Since my own vegetarianism is so important to me, how can I morally let them eat meat when they are too young to make the decision for themselves?

That is what intrigued me so much about Foer’s book. I’m very keen to see what conclusion he comes to. It’s been quite interesting thus far, even though I’ve only just started.

One issue he raised which I had never really thought about before is food as a storytelling device. In his introduction he talks about his grandmother who survived World War II as a Jewish girl evading the Nazis by keeping on the run and eating whatever scraps of food she could find along the way. This personal history greatly affected her relationship with food. Her signature dish was chicken with carrots, and she would serve Foer and his brother this dish while telling stories over the dinner table. He says,

“Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter. These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others. Stories about food are stories about us—our history and our values. Within my family’s Jewish tradition, I came to learn that food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and it helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable…”

and later notes,

“We are not only the tellers of our stories, we are the stories themselves. If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother’s singular dish, will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have changed.”

Wow, food for thought (no pun intended).

I’ll have to let you know what I think once I finish the book.

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9 responses to ““Eating Animals”- Children and Food

  1. happinessandsimplicity

    Great post! I haven’t even thought about what I would feed any potential kids I may or may not have… I’m glad my C is a vegetarian too, and loves it, so this will probably be a natural choice for us.
    My sister is always concerned about her children not getting enough protein, but I’m convinced it’s doable without meat… especially after listening to Foer talk on the Ellen DeGeneres show.

  2. I looked him up on NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” feel free to check out the interview… http://www.onpointradio.org/2009/11/eating-animals

  3. The Western style of meat ‘consumerism’ is driven by mass production of farm animals which is unsustainable. Meat production in countries such as Nepal is still mostly run by individual butcher shops and smallholder subsistence production system. Meat is relatively much more expensive than green vegetables, and an average family is lucky if they get to meat once every week.

    On top of that, I would say meat is also tied to many religious and cultural purposes. Some of my vivid childhood memories (C always says I don’t have any childhood stories) revolve around the times of festivals like Dashain which involved the sacrifice of an animal of some sort. That meat would be used to feed guests for a week during the festival.

    When I go home from the US every year or so, I hardly remember eating meat at home. My family has almost given up meat. I can’t say if I can give up eating Momos right now. However, I can see myself eating less and less meat as time goes by (I’m already starting to love salad because of C) just like my family has done. With regards to raising children and their dietary habits, I would say it may be harder to raise them vegetarian here in the US when you are exposed to so much meat stuff everywhere. I would be happy if they are conscious about the way meat is produced here and realize what type of food they are eating. Perhaps on the brink of fatherhood I may change my dietary habits as well. We can only wait and see.

    • P raises a good point, he may be an avowed chicken lover, but he is not a daily meat eater. He eats more vegetarian than anything else on a daily basis, and meat is usually saved for when there are guests or if we go out to eat. I can feel reassured that even if my children were raised eating meat, at least in our household it would be few and far between.

      I also must agree that I would be less bothered if my children were to eat meat from a source I could identify. For example, the meat my dad hunts and prepares himself, I know that it was wild, and probably lived a good life and was killed quickly. I’d still feel uncomfortable eating it, but would feel less guilty feeding it to children.

      But I disagree with those who think that eating vegetarian in the US is difficult. I’ve met foreigners who have moved to the US with the assumption that they need to give up their vegetarianism in the US because it is too hard here. I wholeheartedly disagree. Yes, it may be more challenging to eat out at restaurants, but there is a large variety of food in the US… a plethora of vegetables, grains, fruits, etc. You can make all sorts of dishes.

      The issue that Foer raises that I find so interesting though is the cultural aspect of food. If my kids are veg and they never experience their father’s culture of sacrificing and eating a goat during Dashain, how have I reshaped their understanding of their cultural heritage? Or even though it is an Irish-American thing (instead of purely Irish), I have fond memories of helping my dad at the local Hibernian club on St. Patrick’s Day, making and selling corn beef sandwiches and dinners. They would never get the chance to try the dish (although I doubt they would ever really get to try a beef dish anyway). So that is something I hadn’t really considered before…

  4. I heard Foer on NPR, but I can’t read his book. I couldn’t watch Food, Inc, either. It made me too…uncomfortable. I’m a (sometimes) pescatarian, but my kids are meat-eaters. Still, they only eat meat about once a week, and they know WHY I don’t eat meat, and I tell them, ‘You can stop at any time!’ :) They still chow down on the meat, though. I have a sister-in-law who is a former vegetarian but who now eats meat, but only if she knows how the animal was raised (it helps that she’s a farmer in upstate NY). So, if she doesn’t know the farmer, she doesn’t eat the meat. I wish more people were like that; it would be an easier pill to swallow.

  5. I think a good compromise would be to serve them meat in very few occasions when they are young. When they grow up they will either demand meat or frown when it’s serve. Then you will have your answer.

  6. Hey, I’m taking the slightly slower pace of the summer to enjoy some of the gori blogs I haven’t had time to get into as yet (the shame …) This post is really close to my heart as my partner and I are in a very similar position – I am wholeheartedly (though non-proselytising) veg, he eats meats of all descriptions but eats largely veg at home.

    I’m totally with you in your disagreement that it’s too difficult to be veg in the West. Phooey. I actually think that part of being veg is the semi-spiritual pledge that you take: that faced with that lonely option of mushroom pasta (again) on a restaurant menu or having to say “thank you so much, but no, I’m fine, I’ll just have the veg” at some event or other, you remember the commitment to this standard that you have … I just wonder whether there isn’t a value in teaching children that some things are more important that instant self-gratification, that it is possible to stick to your own convictions even when you are in a minority?

    I also really struggle with the raise veg/choose for yourself later or raise non-veg/choose for yourself later dilemma. I do understand it from my partner’s point of view – he loves food and though he respects my choice, just as he respects those in his family that do not eat meat, he sees it as limiting your flavour-horizons, so to speak. I suppose it’s like the momo debate!

    I just don’t know how this issue can be resolved as there is no compromise!

    • I’m continually surprised when I hear people talk about having to “give up vegetarianism in the US” when they move from somewhere else. I just don’t get it. Perhaps when you move from a country like India where vegetarianism can be so easy–with restaurants, and food packaging, and cultural norms–that you can almost do it without thinking, that coming to a place where vegetarianism is more of a conscious daily choice, it makes it seem too difficult, i don’t know.

      We have tabled the veg/non-veg debate for now. I’m sure it will be more of a discussion as time goes on. But it is nice to know there are others out there having the same discussion!

  7. I think that among Indians, the issue doesn’t have to do with a lack of options. It’s just that the food isn’t spicy so they feel it doesn’t taste good. However, if they want spicy food, then their only options are either Thai or Indian both of which serve mostly non-vegetarian food. The issue is that it’s hard to find vegetarian dishes that are spicy in the U.S. So South Asians who are vegetarians are faced with a dilemma and both options require giving up food habits that they grew up with. Since the vegetarian options are usually pretty bland, I think they feel as if they have no choice but to give up their vegetarianism. They express this dilemma by saying that “it’s hard to be a vegetarian in the U.S” when they really mean that “it’s hard to be a vegetarian and yet still have spicy food here.”

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