I never thought you and I would become intimately acquainted, because bacon. But it seems we are in fact destined to meet after all, because of a Small Person and its love of animals.
Perhaps I should have seen you coming, vegetarianism. Because I have in fact always had a wussy soft spot for animals myself. I grew up with cats and dogs, but not in that real life farm/stable girl way that breeds pragmatism and realism. In a fluffy, ‘ahhh it’s sooooo cute’ kind of a way. The dog was my best friend and confidant. (The cat hated me but that’s a different story).
Yet for some reason I had always vaguely assumed that I would be really cool about food production processes and totally matter of fact and honest with my children. In my imagination I would become suddenly and unexpectedly outdoorsy, wearing a waxed jacket, strolling around in Hunters wellies (how much????) and pointing out all the cuts of meat on a real life cow frolicking in a field. My child would LISTEN, and even smile at my wisdom, perhaps asking nice, comfortable questions.
(It continues, btw, to be one of my greatest disappointments in life that I didn’t miraculously turn into a new and better person with kids. Turns out I’m just me but with PTSD, chronic sleep deprivation, extra neurosis – and passengers).
I never, ever thought I’d actively lie about where meat came from. I mean who does that? But then I was gifted with a Fussy Eater. Something I had previously assumed didn’t exist and was just the product of poor parenting. (I was a DICKHEAD. I’m working on it).
Every meal with a Fussy Eater is an exercise in complex and detailed negotiation. We discuss the philosophical fundamentals of a ‘meal’, the true meaning of what constitutes a ‘bite’, and the semantic value of the word ‘more’. E.g:
Me: “Please can you eat some more carrots?”
Big Small Person: “I have eaten more already!”
Me: “No, I mean more on top of that more.”
BSP: “But I already did the more!”
(Repeat x 100).
The negotiation takes place over what is a average 2 hour meal time. (I really wish that was an exaggeration). Every mouthful is precious, and giving the Big Small Person any excuse to dismiss a whole (other) food group is literally unthinkable.
Let me set the scene. Sprouts very early on became ‘baby cabbages’ in our world. Cauliflower is referred to as ‘mini snow trees’. Tomato ketchup is ‘red sauce’ (you know, the stuff they put at the bottom of pizzas which absolutely no way has anything at all, ever, to do with tomatoes. No Siree, no tomatoes here). Every twee term has been deployed, every euphemism, every stealth vitamin and subliminal mineral – every bloody trick in the book. We have literally made up anthems to sing as different food items are ingested. My personal favourite remains ‘Pink Meat, like the piggies eat’ to the tune of ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys. (This is our term for gammon, and yes, pink is a motivational tool in our house, not merely a colour).
We have begged. We have bribed. We have shamelessly emotionally blackmailed by pretending individual peas are sad and lonely and just want to go down into her tummy to join their Mummy and Daddy peas. We have even given each pea a name and a voice. (You cannot begin to understand the depth of my hatred for myself, or the magnitude of the desperation which has led to such ridiculous measures. Don’t judge me until you’ve been there).
Meat, as you can see from ‘Pink Meat’ example (I defy you not to be singing this next time you eat gammon), has been something we’ve both – by mutual and silent consensus – become quieter and quieter about as the child gets older. Because she has now reached the stage where she’s perfectly capable of associating chicken with, well, chickens. And lamb with lambs – including her stuffed wooly pal ‘Lamby’ that’s been with her from birth.
So we have gradually fallen into the keeping of the Secret Of The Meat. But this secret, I fear, is not destined to remain in the bag for very much longer.
My first inkling, vegetarianism, of just how fast our tracks are hurtling towards each other, came on a leisurely weekend morning, kids playing happily, with a rare moment of Mummy and Daddy telly running innocuously in the background. It was a cooking programme, where some semi-celebrity chef was gutting a fish. And inevitably the Big Small Person froze amidst the Lego and stared.
BSP: “What’s he doing to that fish mummy?”
Pause. Mounting horror.
BSP: “Is that a REAL fish?”
Pause. Note of actual panic.
BSP: “We don’t REALLY eat animals do we Mummy?”
Tactical deployment of imploring eyes.
BSP: “That’s not kind is it Mummy? We don’t do that, do we Mummy?”
What would you do???? “No Darling, no!” I crooned/lied while desperately mashing my hand against the telly buttons. “Let’s watch some Peppa Pig shall we?” In hindsight this probably wasn’t the wisest of diversion moves. Because we definitely don’t eat pigs. Or bacon. Mmmmmm bacon…
In fact, vegetarianism, I blame kids media far more than I blame you. Because we bring children up on a diet of Shaun the Sheeps, Peter Rabbits, kindly cows and anthropomorphised chickens. And then we merrily serve them up as meals, possibly even at the same time. Ham sarnie in front of Peppa, anyone? Fish fingers under the televisual glow of Nemo? Nuggets before Chicken Licken as tonight’s bedtime story? Hardly consistent parenting!
Our children’s role models, heroes and best cuddly friends are the very animals we then expect them to gobble down at dinner time. It’s frankly a miracle any of them grow up carnivorous at all.
I do also have to take some of the blame onto my own shoulders, because I have been an active part of this process myself. I have encouraged the child’s interest in animals and animal welfare.
Like many toddlers she exhibited a natural affinity for sadism at an early age, and would try to exterminate or torture her fellow creatures by doing things like stamping on ants or pulling the cat’s tail – for the kicks (and inevitably – scratches). Like many parents – horrified by the prospect of breeding a mini psychopath – I leapt right in with lessons of empathy. Think how the ant feels. How would you like it if someone bigger than you chased you into a corner and pulled your hair? No Darling, we don’t do that to animals. Gentle hands! Kind strokes! Unless of course you are killing them for their delicious flesh.
It just doesn’t work, does it?
If I’m honest with myself, vegetarianism, I’ve been avoiding you for large parts of my life. I went out of my way, for instance, not to see that horrendous battery chicken documentary a few years ago, which has ruined cheap supermarket breasts for large numbers of meat-eating middle-class shoppers. I turned over from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his River Cottage Farm and it’s ethical meat rearing, slaughtering and consuming. I didn’t want to know. It might have made me think too hard, and that might have made me flee into your celery arms and spongy tofu bosom even sooner.
Having once been vaguely bullied by some Friesians on a stroll through their field, I even convinced myself I could probably take one of the bitches in a fight, and especially if I could afterwards munch on it’s juicy steaky bits. (After un-caking them of poo, obvs). I hardened my heart against their big brown eyes by focussing on this one instance of unwarranted aggression and by simply not looking. It was easy. Not thinking generally is, I find.
But now I’m going to have to face some home truths. And the truth is I can’t reconcile my own (admittedly fluffy) love of animals with my love of roast chicken. And bacon. (OK, so I know there are many better arguments – practical and ethical – for vegetarianism other than the bleeding-heart cute thing, but these are not the factors swaying me or – more importantly – my Small Person).
The fact is I couldn’t take a heifer in one-to-one combat, not even with a stun gun. Not even a bazooka. I just could never bring myself to squeeze the trigger. Hell, I can’t even effectively swat spider with a newspaper and I am ACTIVELY HOSTILE towards them. I genuinely wish they were all dead – I just don’t want to kill them personally. I could probably bring myself to personally kill a fish, if I was really hungry. And stranded on a desert island. And if Bear Grylls was insisting. But I’d have guilt-laced nightmares for at least a week.
So vegetarianism, at some point in the next 5 years we will meet. We’re on a collision course. Because when the Secret Of The Meat is finally out, Dadonthenetheredge and I will be forced to confront our latent shame by the almighty power of Small Person logic and morality. We will no longer be roasting Lamby on a Sunday. We will change our meat-eating ways – probably for good. You are my fate, vegetarianism, and I will embrace you when you arrive.
But first I will eat a bacon sandwich. And I will savour its crispy, salty, goodness while I still can.