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Essay

Shame-Broiled Steak

Understanding the plight of the unrepentant carnivore

November 27, 2005|Veronica Chater | Veronica Chater is a freelance writer based in Berkeley and a frequent contributor to Public Radio International's "This American Life."

Daniel, my 11-year-old son, recently looked up from his half-eaten chicken leg. "Meat is murder," he declared. "From this day on, I will no longer eat it."

Daniel's younger brothers, Cameron and Kyle, stopped chewing and stared at their plates. I stopped chewing. My husband John stopped chewing.

"Are you serious?" I asked.

Daniel leveled his dark blue eyes at me. "Deadly."

So it finally happened. My oldest child had declared his first moral-political cause. My initial thought was, "Why this cause?" But it made sense. We live in Berkeley. We're surrounded by vegetarians. My Wicca sister is a vegan, my Buddhist brother is a vegan and my punk rocker nephew is an anarchic vegetarian. Any one of them could have influenced him. But then, maybe it was his own idea.

Daniel has always had a strong conscience. I credit this in part to his California public school education, which is strongly focused on civil rights. I take credit for part of it. Because I grew up in a big Catholic family, my education was primarily religious. I never saw my parents vote, never marched in an antiwar parade. It took a lot of catching up for me to get with the program. So when I became a mother, I wanted my children to know everything. I forced them to watch election coverage, march against the war, recycle and reuse.

"What is your reason for going vegetarian?" I asked.

"Think about it," he said. "Animals are mammals like us. It's arrogant to think we're the only ones that have souls."

"So you think animals have souls?" John said, his fork poised between his plate and his lips.

"Yes, I do."

John nodded. We all nodded. Then, after a heavy pause, all of us, except Daniel, returned to our chicken.

Daniel watched us eat, a little put out. Clearly his wisdom wasn't having the effect on us that it should.

"You don't agree with me?"

We all looked at him. "No."

Daniel frowned at Cameron and Kyle, especially annoyed with them. His convictions should be theirs by default. What did he have to do to convince them? He had an even harder time with his friends.

"You're crazy!" pal Oliver said. "That means you can't eat ribs."

Daniel held his ground. "Eggplant and zucchini can taste good too."

Oliver balked. "Dude, that's just sick."

His friend Andrew worried about the menu for his upcoming birthday barbecue. "Does that mean I need to get Smart Dogs?"

Daniel shook his head. "Nah. I'll just eat Ruffles."

Andrew's parents conscientiously provided Smart Dogs and Daniel self-consciously ate a couple, as his creeped-out friends eyed him with suspicion while pounding pork dogs. At summer camp, as the rest of the campers munched hamburgers, Daniel nibbled on an empty bun--made barely palatable with lettuce, tomato and condiments. At school his nickname became Hippie, as in "Where's your weed, Hippie?"

I was proud of him. He was standing by his beliefs. He was becoming a man. I told him so and hugged him many times.

But life with Daniel got complicated. His principles were not mine. I did a fair amount of soul-searching. For years I've only bought meat that is organic and free-range. I've avoided beef ever since reading "Diet for a Small Planet," by Frances Moore Lappe. But is that enough? Is it morally wrong to farm meat for the purpose of consumption? I admired Daniel's gumption, but wasn't prepared to dive into the deep, cold ocean of vegetarianism.

Out of a sense of cooperation, I dug through the cupboards and got creative in the kitchen. To my unanticipated delight, I concocted several soup recipes that were tasty, and made large vats of them. I also found a use for hominy, got pretty good at tofu and discovered the many possibilities of lentils. John came up with recipes of his own and put together one or two interesting meals. But I grew bored. Everything I made seemed like glorified side dishes.

Call me barbaric, but I began to daydream about baked ham. After weeks of marinated tofu and pasta primavera, I was veggied-out. Still, when I passed the butcher shop, I resisted the urge to enter. Because there is nothing like the guilt of cooking meat under the watchful eye of a young vegetarian idealist.

I found this out when, in the early days, I decided to make a pot of chicken soup. Daniel stood beside me as I stripped the soft white meat from the bones and dropped it into the broth. Neither of us spoke. I felt caught in the act of doing something terrible, even a little embarrassed. Was he disappointed in me?

"What are you thinking?" I finally asked.

"I'm thinking I feel very, very sorry for that chicken."

His 8-year-old brother Kyle, who saw this as a chance to subvert, licked his lips and rubbed his tummy like Homer Simpson. "Mmm. Chicken."

"Cannibal!" Daniel snarled.

It was all so divisive, and there seemed no middle ground. I wanted to encourage Daniel to act on his principles, but I wanted him to do it without inconveniencing me.

"What you think of as gruesome and inhumane," I said, "I think of as the natural cycle of life."

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