Laszlo loves steak in a way that grosses me out. He hums when he eats it, cries when he finishes. Meanwhile, after eating two pieces of candy on Halloween night, he never asked for it again. If people had handed out Slim Jims, we would have been trick or treating until midnight.
Unfortunately, Laszlo also loves animals. He reads books about them, makes up songs about them, sleeps with stuffed replicas of them. We took him to a pumpkin farm where they had a small petting zoo and he spent 15 minutes sitting between two goats, refusing to leave. “These are my guys,” he told us.
Last week, as his greasy hands were shoving pieces of short rib into his mouth, he asked, “Where steak come from?”
I froze. Cassandra did not. “From cows!” she yelled, oddly gleeful about seeing what would happen next.
“No,” he said calmly. “Where steak come from?”
“Like where did we buy it?” I interrupted. “Or where did it come from before the supermarket?”
“Before,” he said.
“Cows! Steak comes from cows!” Cassandra said.
“No,” Laszlo said. He took a moment to process what she was saying. Then he went right back to eating the short ribs. I think he assumed steak is something cows produce, like factory workers make cars.
I did not think this question would come when he was so young. I also thought it might start with “chicken” since that contains a pretty big clue to its origin.
I’m going to have to handle this question soon. The problem is: I think eating meat is wrong, and I also eat a lot of meat. Sure, as Laszlo has proven, eating meat is a natural human instinct, but as Laszlo has also proven so is hitting people when you don’t get what you want. It doesn’t mean it’s right.
I needed advice on how to handle this. Do I present the facts neutrally and see what he thinks? Do I explain what I think is right and my own hypocrisy? Like every time I need advice, I thought about who the most wise person I know on the subject is, and then asked the person I thought would tell me what I wanted to hear.
I turned to Karen Hatfield, who, along with her husband, owns one of my favorite restaurants, Hatfields, which happens to serve a lot of meat. “You never know which kid is going to find what particularly fascinating or confusing or scary,” she told me. “Our kids eat very little meat, but we don’t make where it comes from a secret. Our four-year-old has known what a chicken is for a long time and she knows she likes to eat it as well. We have not really pushed the something-had-to-die-to-make-your-dinner angle. If she doesn’t find it weird or totally get it, that’s okay with me. I don’t want them worrying about too much at this time in their lives.”
I also asked Nathan McCall, my butcher, who owns McCall’s Meat and Fish Company and just had his first kid this year. Nathan basically thought I was a yuppie idiot. He grew up on a farm and was fine with the fact that we eat animals. “Some kids around here, their first movie is going to be Food, Inc.” he said.
This is exactly how my parents explained meat to me. One day I must have asked where meatballs come from, thought the answer was a bummer, and decided to eat another meatball. It is an important step toward adulthood, where you need to find ways to justify doing whatever horrible thing you want to do.
I should have stopped there. Instead, I asked my friend Lisa Lange, who works at PETA what to do. She had a slightly different take than the chef and the butcher. “Kids can take it, and they want to know. They’re naturally drawn to animals and innately reject cruelty towards them, so to say something like, It is okay if you want to try eating veggie burgers or veggie chicken nuggets, as that helps animals.’ And, as they get a bit older, it is good to fully explain that to make a burger or to eat chicken means that an animal had to die, and like us, they don’t want to die. They love their families and feel pain and fear like we do.”
Unfortunately that sounds right, except for the veggie burgers and veggie chicken nuggets. That stuff is gross.
Until then, I’m going to enjoy the one place where I’ve ever gotten to be a perfect human being: Laszlo’s mind. Unless he asks about marijuana first.