Carter has always been a big fan of fruits and vegetables. Even now that he's reached the peak of "the junk food years" (I quote that, but I might've made the phrase up), he gets excited when he finds a head of romaine in the fridge. He'll wash a few leaves and just eat them. It's wonderful, really. He's never been a picky eater.
I also grew up loving fruits and vegetables, but they were mostly from a can. Corn, peaches, pears. We'd eat fresh potatoes, maybe broccoli sometimes? Canned sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving and such. During my first month in Germany, my host family set a bulb of roasted garlic on the table, and I had no idea what it was. When my dictionary explained that "Knoblauch" was garlic, I was rather dumbstruck. I'd only ever seen it in powder-form.
While living in Germany, I was told that city kids didn't know that milk came from cows, and also, because the popular candy bar, Milka, features a purple cow, that those same kids thought cows were purple. I was not a city kid-- I spent many childhood weekends in northern Wisconsin on my grandparents' farm surrounded by fields of potatoes, alfalfa, and corn. Tractors, cows, chickens, goats. I have pictures of a tiny Angela in a pink dress with white embroidery & Mary Janes standing in the dirt in front of a tractor. Another photo of me, a year old, sitting in the barn strangle-hugging kittens. My relationship with animals is long and sordid.
To be honest, I didn't want to stop eating meat for purely ethical reasons. I'd never eaten much meat when I was living on my own, because I didn't like to touch it. I'd eat "lunch meat" (which is the most vulgar of ideas/words) or canned tuna or a frozen chicken breast (which is the most disgusting-looking of all things thawing). I wanted to stop eating meat because meat is repulsive, but it took having a child to realize why.
Childbirth is the most animal of all things. After being pregnant and having a baby and nursing that baby, I recognized that I was doing what every other mammal in the history of mammals has done. Although amazing, it was very ordinary. Every (female) mammal has warm blood and muscles and makes babies and milk. Ground beef? That's ground up animal. I am an animal. From there, I started asking all sorts of questions: Why differentiate between the animals? Why don't we eat dogs, but we eat cows? In France, they eat horses. Why is that wrong in the US?
Shortly after C was born, I went back to school full-time, and a Philosophy course changed my life. Suddenly, I was thinking ALL THE TIME about things that seemed to matter, like morals and life and how to raise my son to be a responsible, thoughtful person. I wanted to stop eating meat, and when I told people I wanted to stop eating meat, they thought I was crazy. Rather, they thought I would die because I'd starve, because what else is there to eat? (According to Vegetarian Times, only 3.2% of American adults are vegetarian.) A friend was angry because she thought I'd try to convince her not to eat meat. It was hard to know how to proceed!
And then I met Matthew, who hadn't eaten meat for years. When we moved to Madison a few years later, we went to all of these amazing restaurants with food that a suburban girl (in the 90s) never knew existed: Indian, Thai, Tibetan... and everything I tried was vegetarian. I wanted to learn to cook everything I tasted! Peanut stew! Squash curry! Malai Kofta! Plus, I discovered the meat substitute section of my grocer's freezer, which helped ease the transition a bit. So, I was finally not eating meat, and I was happy. (Although I'm not vegan, which is another blog post that I don't have time for now if I'm to ever finish this one.)
C was just a wee lad when all of this happened. So-- what to do with the wee lad? Fundamental to my idea of being a good parent is that I always let Carter be a person. My job is to inform him, maybe even coerce him a little, but it's ultimately his job to make decisions for himself. Luckily, he's a good guy and never makes harmful decisions (of course, I'd intervene at that point, because I'm a parent), but he's never been my little happy-maker. He's a person. So, for example, although I'm not particularly Christian, I read the Bible to him, explained Christianity, and asked if that's something he's into. And when it came to eating meat, though I tried to talk him out of it a little, but he was hell-bent on eating chicken nuggets and fried fish.
One day, at age 7, he came home from a friend's house and declared he would no longer eat meat. His vegetarian friend kept chickens, and it turned out that after playing with them, she explained that when he ate chicken, he was eating her pet birds. No matter how often my mom tried to coax him into eating meat, he refused. He found the whole turkey on the Thanksgiving table revolting. It warmed my heart like crazy.
Now, fast-forward 6 years. At 13 (the beginning of "the junk food years"), C was at my brother's house, and my brother decided to go through the Taco Bell drive-thru. He called the house and asked what everyone wanted, and Carter said "a taco with meat" (I wasn't there at the time, or I may have dissuaded him...). My brother asked, "What kind of meat?" To which C replied, "Meat."
Of all the meats in all the world, why has my son chosen to eat the most awful almost-worse-than-meat variety? He loves Taco Bell with a passion I didn't know a 13 year old could have. While he still happily eats anything I put in front of him that is meat-free, he would trade anything I made for a Crunchwrap Supreme, a $5 Footlong, or a Hot-N-Ready Cheese Pizza from Little Caesers. Thank god he has never asked for a bloated, blistered hotdog spinning beneath a heat lamp at the gas station. Given the opportunity, I bet he'd eat a whole box of HotPockets. Ugh.
I've tried talking sense into him. He's generally a very reasonable guy. We've watched Food, Inc. We've watched PETA videos. We've had discussions about the ethics of eating meat, gone to the farm to pet the cows, talked about pink slime... nothing. Nothing will change the boy's mind for now.
And so I compromise. I've learned to make meat-substitute Crunchwrap Supremes (and I won't pretend I don't understand where he's coming from-- they're like giant, portable nachos. AMAZING.). I make seitan most weeks and turn it into something you'd get at a drive-thru. Gyros, pulled pork, burgers. I try my damnedest to cater to his "meat" cravings in a more healthful, environmentally conscious way. And this is working out ok for us.
Really, I guess, this bothers me so much because I have 4.5 years left to make project "responsible, thoughtful guy" a success. So much can go wrong in 4.5 years! But, I've taught him how to make the fake-meat Crunchwrap Supreme himself. I've showed him that I respect his decisions. I've held him accountable for them, and I've taught him that he needs to be able to defend his choices and have reasons for doing what he does. I've known 13 year-old boys, and when I think of all of the terrible things they do to assert their independence, I guess eating meat is isn't the worst of things he could be doing.
The other day over dinner, Carter told me that when he's in college, he'll plan a menu each week, then make his grocery list. At the grocery store a few weeks ago, I asked him to go pick out a cereal, and he came back with a more expensive cereal, explaining that there was less sugar than the cheaper variety, and it was made with whole grains. He's a smart guy. He (usually) thinks things through. And I guess I have to trust that he thinks meat is the best decision for him for now (and hope that he comes back from the dark side at some point).