There are a lot of things I’m not supposed to do as a parent. Letting my two-year-old daughter see photographs of slaughtered animals is pretty high on that list.
When I do, it’s not because I’m trying to turn her into a vegetarian. It’s because I want her to understand that the meat she eats doesn’t grow in a hermetically sealed Styrofoam tray. It was once flesh.
My hope is that she’ll learn to respect the meat she eats, to recognize that some animal has made the ultimate sacrifice for a meal that we’ll consume and then likely forget, to be concerned with how her food was treated when it was alive.
Getting kids to make that connection is hard. The traditional foods of childhood — hot dogs, bologna and hamburgers — bear little resemblance to the flesh from which they’re born. A hot dog looks the same whether it’s made of cow, pig, chicken, turkey or soybeans; they’re just different shades of brown.
I didn’t start by showing her the picture of the pig lying on the floor of a slaughterhouse. That came later. Nor did I force it — Look at the blood! Look at it! — on my daughter.
I began trying to get her, when she was just a year old, to make the connection by subverting the cartoony pictures of farm animals in the books that line her shelf. I would point to an animal on the page and, as another parent might try to coax out its sound or the color of its fur, ask if it was something we might eat.
Do we eat pigs? Chickens? Horses? (Well, some people do, sweetie.)
But even for an adult, it’s hard to connect a cartoon cow to the pieces of beef rib eye that lie on the dinner plate between the mashed potatoes and green beans. I wanted the connection in her mind to be concrete.
So we began walking along the 20 feet of supermarket meat counter, starting with the lobster tank and salmon fillets and ending with the pork sausage and bacon-wrapped fillet mignons. As we went I would tell her about each cut in as much detail as I could.
“The pork chops,” I would say, running my fingers along her spine, “come from a pig’s loin, right here on its back.”
I got used to receiving odd looks from people standing on both sides of the counter.
“She doesn’t need to hear that,” said one 50-year-old meat cutter, trying to veil his disgust with a jovial smile.
It’s odd that parents discuss with their kids what’s left over after digestion easily, and that conversations between parents can degenerate into discussions about poop and pee suddenly, but talking to my daughter about what she’s eating made me an instant member of a lunatic fringe.
Was I being creepy? I suppose so, but I couldn’t think of a better way to get her to understand that animal flesh was really no different from her own.
But bacon doesn’t look like a pig, New York strip doesn’t look like a cow and a whole chicken hardly looks like a chicken. Even in our rural state, my daughter hadn’t interacted with any livestock before it became her lunch.
So when I met Lois selling pork and lamb at the Saturday morning farmers’ market, I asked if I could bring my daughter up to her farm. Over several visits, she laughed at the bleating lambs and was fixated by the pigs romping in the open fields and chasing each other through the lots.
We would take home Lois’s meat and, when my daughter watched me cook it for dinner, I would explain that this might be the very same pig she had had so delighted her the week prior.
And when she glimpsed the photograph of the slaughtered pig, its throat cut, its pooled blood, its death throes causing its legs and body to blur, she didn’t seemed bothered. But it seemed to click in her young mind.
Not taking her eyes off of the photo, she asked in most serious tone a two-year-old can muster: “Is that Lois’ pig, Daddy?”