When people say “tastes like chicken,” I don’t know what they’re talking about—though I do remember glaring at bites of it during dinner table stand-offs until Mom, frustrated, sent me to bed. When I was pregnant, then when our first daughter was born and solely nursing, my friends and relatives kept asking if I was going to “make” her become a vegetarian when she moved on to food. Sometimes they were just curious. No big deal. Others, generally older family members, were worried. Also no big—maybe they still thought of vegetarians as pale, fragile extremists, though none of those descriptions apply to me, a healthy vegetarian since I was a little kid.
But I overheard some snotty asides. More than once people asked with actual disdain, implying I planned to torture the baby and damn her to sickliness by not stuffing her with steaks. “What will she eat?” They sneered, as if the only two options are either piles of beef or empty bowls.
Pediatricians and research assures us that vegetarian babies are perfectly healthy as long as they get essential nutrients from non-meat sources. And besides, hadn’t these people ever heard that you catch more flies with honey than you do with meat swimming in nasty, judgmental vinegar?
I have a long, complicated relationship with other people’s opinions about eating meat because I’ve heard a lot about it. I’ve also learned to not engage. I don’t bring up my eating habits. If someone else does I’ve got decades of experience at downplaying, changing the subject. You saw a bumper sticker that said that? Cute. Oh, that’s what PETA stands for? Wow. Uh-huh. They want us to eat them? That’s why God makes them? Pass the potatoes. How ‘bout that weather?
Now, my close friends often forget my limits at the table because I’m not a fussy eater. I can usually anticipate parties when I should eat a little ahead of time, or bring a meat-free dish to share if I’m unusually organized. When I was pregnant and couldn’t handle odors, I was especially sickened by meat smells, but that happens to lots of women.
The issue of what our baby will eat is moot now. She was a vegetarian when I was the only food source. But at ten months she started losing interest in nursing, and at thirteen months she used her two new teeth to slurp and chomp through a variety of fruits, veggies, grains and plenty of meat. She also loves tofu. (Catch her great-grandmas if they should faint from laughing over the hippie.)
I admit that spooning bites of pureed chicken with apples out of a jar, or “turkey dinner” the consistency of pudding out of a tiny (expensive!) plastic tub isn’t my moral ideal. Go ahead and judge that all you want—I’m just being honest. People started bringing it over and what should I have done? That goose, you could say, had already been cooked.
But sometimes I’d pick up a jar of this or that too. It’s easy to not think too hard about meat when you aren’t out hunting it down yourself. Which figures into my vegetarianism; I don’t think I’d be able to gut a cow, so I’m not going to eat one. The meat in the grocery store is so different from the meat worn by animals that we all can distance the packaged parts from the factory farms they often come from. Not eating it is my choice.
My daughter will make her own choices eventually, and as long as her diet is healthy we’ll support her. For now, I want her to try everything. Her hunting, fishing, jerky-lovin’ beef-tacular dad and I limit her diet only in terms of her health and safety. We are proud of her appetite: the kid loves to eat. We want to raise a kid who isn’t weird about food.
Hiding veggies in brownies, that’s weird. Kids who find out they’ve been secretly eating “the enemy” as it were, will grow suspicious, and not just of the food.
This isn’t speculation, I know firsthand. Relatives coaxed little me that McDonalds “wasn’t meat.” Though we joke now that it might have been true, they didn’t foster my trust. Hotdogs are not vegetarian either. And ham certainly isn’t candy, Grandma.
After so many well-meaning adults flat-out lied to me about whether meat was meat or not, I learned a lesson that never went away: adults lied. Adults who I loved and depended on, adults who I hardly knew, they lied to me about food. And if they lied about food, who knew what else they might lie about.
They thought they knew best for me, despite me. And some of them still feel that way about my kid. Thirty years later, there are many more vegetarian options in restaurants and heat-up grocery store foods than there were for me.
As a kid in the suburbs of Detroit, my dining out options were grilled cheese or grilled cheese with tomato. Sometimes at the Big Boy they would slip a slab of ham in there without even asking. Who knows what the fries were fried in—I didn’t, I ate them. Salads were iceberg lettuce with diced ham or bacon bits. Soups were based on meat broths and studded with pork just because. Pancakes arrived with sausages on top, a salty indentation remained.
We have come a long way, and I have flown under the radar for decades, my family giving up, me living in other places, no one noticing or caring if my meals were meatless. I don’t comment on what other people eat (unless I want some) and I fantasize about receiving the same courtesy, for myself and my spawn. Until that happens, I can genuinely thank people for their concern and then firmly change the subject.
We’ll raise our daughter to be an adventurous eater, safe in the knowledge that if she starts asking about the food on her plate I’ll be honest. I’ll be reasonable, sure, and crafty. We’re not going to have slaughterhouse talks at the high chair no matter what my grandmother’s accusatory friend thinks. But I won’t lie to her in an attempt to control her eating habits, either, because I want her to trust me when it really matters.