An open letter …
On when your daughter won’t eat meat
Could I have a word, she asked. This was several years ago now, but still I can taste the dread that rushed to fill my mouth. My small daughter’s teacher took me quietly aside. We’re having an issue, she said, and I wanted to make sure you were aware. My heart thumped uncomfortably. The class is practising a song for assembly; you know the one, and she sang, “On top of spaghetti / All covered with cheese.” Yes, I said, humming awkwardly along, unsure where this was leading. Well, the teacher said, when it comes to the bit about meatballs, she just sits down and refuses to sing. Apparently she’s staging a protest. Right, I said, relief and laughter threatening to choke me. I’ll have a word.
My daughter has been waging a one-woman campaign since she was 5, the age at which my husband and I finally relented and let her join us in saying no to meat. So far she has helped to convert her brother, two grandmothers, and a couple of friends. When we agreed that she didn’t have to eat spaghetti bolognaise or butter chicken any more, I assumed she would, like me, be happy enough to consume the odd fillet of fish, not too bothered if the potatoes had cooked alongside the roast chook. But her journey to vegetarianism has been a battle every step of the way.
Once she had prevailed on meat, fish was the next to go and, in truth, I did not fight her very hard. Increasingly I, too, am uncomfortable with the flimsy distinction I make between refusing to eat a pig and yet blithely battering the snapper my husband catches. Coupled with the fact scientists cannot agree whether fish feel pain, but there is a strong possibility they do, and the overfishing of our seas, my pescatarianism is starting to feel downright irresponsible.
Then it was gelatin. While I’ve long known marshmallows and gummy lollies are made possible by extracting collagen from pork skins and cattle bones, I’ve turned a blind eye. I like their sugary texture too much. My daughter’s tooth is even sweeter than mine, and I assumed she would never give them up either. Again, though, she would prove me wrong with the courage of her convictions. Alerted to the presence of animals in her preferred treat by a teasing older brother, she did her research and made a decision. No more, she declared. And, probably because I was annoyed at her for puncturing my willful ignorance, ludicrously I ordered her in a loud and grumpy voice to, “Eat your lollies!” Finding myself a few days later, however, scrupulously checking the tubs of sour cream and yoghurt for traces of gelatin in the chilled aisle at the supermarket, I was forced to chalk up another point to her. I knew rennet lay just around the corner, and, at least on this, have, for the moment anyway, out-manoeuvred her. On YouTube she recently discovered most cheese is made from an enzyme produced in the stomach of ruminant mammals. Standing in the kitchen when she came to me with this latest outrage, I smugly showed her the packets of haloumi, cheddar and feta. Non-animal rennet, see. It’s the only kind I buy now. Just you wait, I said to my husband, veganism is next on her agenda. Sure enough, last week she came home all fired up. Did you know, she said, that every bottle of milk you buy you’re basically paying for a calf to be killed? I sighed. Look, I said, until you are old enough to take responsibility for the preparation of your own meals and your own nutrition, you will eat dairy and you will eat eggs. And to assuage her guilt I told her how I only buy organic eggs and dairy products in the hope the farmer will have adhered to a stricter animal welfare code. Count yourself lucky, I said, to live in a household with enough money to shop with a conscience. For now the upper hand is mine. But the thing is, deep down, I suspect she’s right. One day in the not too distant future I think we will look back upon our collectively carnivorous past and shudder with revulsion.
Count yourself lucky, I said, to live in a household with enough money to shop with a conscience.