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The Chicken or the Ache?

In my hard-core college vegan days, when I toted around a copy of John Robbins’ Diet for a New America like it was from Mt. Sinai, I often wondered how I would approach the subject of meat eating with any future children I might have. The idealized plan that I came up with (while still a bachelor, of course), was that we would have a strictly vegetarian household until my future children reached the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. At that point, I would give them a copy of Robbins’ well-written argument against consumption of animal products, take them on a tour of the closest factory farm and/or meat processing facility, and then let them make their own informed adult decision about whether they wanted to consume meat from that point forward. If they choose to eat meat at that point, more power to them.

Of course, nearly twenty years later as the (flexitarian? vegewarian?) parent of two toddlers, things are not so cut and dry. Nowadays, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma has replaced John Robbins on my shelf, and we are indeed an omnivorous household. Things seemed to be going smoothly – we support our Tuv Ha’aretz CSA, shop at Whole Foods (or at least the organic aisle at Stop & Shop), and  try to follow Reb Pollan’s core dictum: “Eat Food, Not to Much, Mostly Plants.” We try to keep limit any meat we consume in the home to that produced in a sustainable, ethical manner. Emergency roadtrip Burger King stops aside, we’ve done a decent job of modeling the ideals of eco-kashrut to our kids.

Until last week, when our four and half year old asked that dreaded question over a free-range rotisserie chicken at Shabbat dinner: “Where do chickens come from?” Up until then, he probably had a vague notion that the chicken on his plate and the chicken in his story book were somehow connected, but that the chicken meat he was eating was somehow freely donated by the animal, like a lamb gives us its wool. But now, as notions of life and death worked their way further and further into his developing consciousness, our son (who is no dummy) was suspecting foul play (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).
The challenges in answering his question were many-fold. How do we justify our eating of meat, when we could be satisfying our protein intake (and yummy factor) with strictly vegetarian food? How do we ameliorate (or validate?) the death and suffering of even a well-raised, humanely slaughtered animal, which is now sitting on our plates?

I tried to explain that while some people choose not to eat meat because of their concern for the well-being of animals and because too much meat is not healthy (I didn’t’ attempt to present the geo-political or agricultural reasons), we eat some meat because it gives us more choices in terms of nutrition and flavor, and we always try to do it in a way that respects the animals that wind up on our plate. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a perfect answer. But I’m grateful that the conversation has begun, and I’m hopeful that this initial exchange will lead to a greater awareness on all of our parts for the food we consume, and our relationship to it and each other.

How about you? I want to hear your answers! Whether you’re a parent or not, a vegetarian or a carnivore, how have you/would you answer this very challenging question?

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3 Responses to “The Chicken or the Ache?”

  1. Ruby Roth Says:

    Hi Eric!

    My name is Ruby Roth, I’m the author of the brand new children’s book “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals” (North Atlantic, Random House, dist.). It is the first of its kind to address the emotional lives of animals, factory farming, endangered species, and the environment.

    I’ve found kids to be very receptive and insightful about the subject. And never once have I witnessed a child overwhelmed or upset by a discussion that bridges the gap between the animals we grow up loving and the animals that end up on plates. My experience (and the approach my book takes) is that honesty without a whole lot of sugarcoating is always the best answer. And whether you are proud of the reasons why you don’t support the meat and dairy industry or you feel guilty about your meat-eating, you can say so. It’s okay not to have a perfectly justified answer. They can handle it. All they need is some honest information in order to draw their own conclusions. Empowered with information, children choose wisely.

    Thank you for the discussion!

    Ruby

  2. Cheryl Says:

    Eric: I love this question, and it’s one that I’m struggling with right now – as the parent of a one year old who is still a vegetarian. I do eat meat – at this point – very rarely and only kosher organic, and ideally local. And I don’t know if my son will be a vegetarian in a year – or two – but I am committed to making sure that he knows that it’s important to know how the animals were raised – and ideally who raised them. Mostly I appreciate your raising this issue & I’d love to hear from others!

  3. Roberta Schiff Says:

    It always makes me sad to hear people say they used to be vegetarian and now eat meat (even if they don’t eat a lot) I deeply regret not raising my children as vegans, but I came to it later in life. One of my daughters became vegetarian and then vegan before I did. Once I allowed myself to truly take in the hideous reality of animal agriculture, I stopped consuming all animal products. From my attendance at the past two Hazon Conferences, I find a great emphasis on grass-fed, kosher, organic meat. Not only is this elitist, as only a few can afford it, it is not humane, rather somewhat less inhumane. Slaughter is slaughter.
    So many young children make the connection between the chicken on their plate and the chickens they read about or may be lucky enough to see, then their parents either gently, as you did, or firmly talk them out of it. I am sorry to hear that you have abandoned John Robbins. Michael Pollen is good for those who have everything to learn and is reaching a wide audience. I suggest you obtain a copy of “A Sacred Duty”(downloadable from jewishveg.com) and let me know what you think, robbie@mhvs.org

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