About a week ago, we had rabbit for dinner. Now, to most Americans circa 2014, this is pretty weird, but I’m one of the few who is exceptionally OK with eating rabbit meat. Because I’ve learned how to raise rabbits, and slaughter them, and butcher them myself. In France, there’s basically no taboo about eating rabbit (or anything else), so finding rabbit on the table was not so surprising. However, we couldn’t talk about it.
The rabbit was cooked with potatoes and tomatoes and other veg in a thick broth, so the children assumed it was chicken. (Plus, rabbit tastes and looks an awful lot like chicken. It’s not a crazy notion.) The mother of the family let them keep this belief and made it clear to me that we were not to discuss what kind of animal was in the pot. Okay. I didn’t say anything, of course, but as an avowed rabbit eater, it did make me think.
What we don’t talk about with children often reveals our own insecurities. What we do talk about shapes how they interact with the world. One white lie about what kind of meat was in the pot isn’t a big deal in the scheme of things. But that dinner jumped out to me as a failed opportunity. A failed opportunity to normalize eating an “unusual” (to the limited palettes of Americans and Brits) meat, and a failed opportunity to talk about where our food comes from.
It seems like the typical American attitude about meat these days is “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At least that’s been my experience. The day I sold my breeding rabbits so I could travel, I had a date on my way home from the 100+ mile drive. I was supposed to wear something nice (and presumably not smell like rabbit), but in exchange I’d get a home-made dinner at this guy’s apartment. If I sound bitter, that’s because I showed up only to find out that cooking dinner was left to me and he had practically no food in the house–mostly a few shrink wrapped pieces of something I can only hope was chicken.
Cutting a slit into the watery packages and pulling out the lumps of indistinguishable stuff really disgusted me, as I was used to dealing with animal body parts you could identify and even imagine going places, running around, hopping onto your lap, for example. When I pulled open one of my butchered animals, I could tell you all about its life just by looking at its bright, healthy organs and clean, nearly fat-free musculature. A happy animal is a beautiful piece of meat, let me put it that way.
He had gone out to buy wine while I scrounged up something that would feed two people (one of whom, at least, was ravenous). When he came back, I was apoplectic about the meat, dancing on my toes in disgust about what I had to deal with. “You can’t even tell what this is! Where did this come from!” I was alarmed. Having experience butchering both rabbits and chickens in the past week, I was intimately acquainted with these animals–yet I hadn’t a clue where, on any animal’s body, I could have found meat that looked like that stuff. I didn’t really want to eat it, and I felt bad it had been brought forth into existence. Something without obvious muscle structure hasn’t had much of a life; it’s been packed tight and prevented from moving, then basically force-fed. That’s the only way to get meat that looks like that.
“Honestly, I don’t want to think about where this came from,” was his response to all my indignation. He was happy to pick up something from the grocery store, pull it out of the box, throw it in a pan, and have no further relationship with it. He thought of it as “protein,” not “former chicken,” and while he admitted to a slight twinge of conscience–he knows about factory farms–he also appreciated that separation of bird and plate.
I’m not trying to say that everyone needs to be comfortable getting their hands gut-deep into a chicken. But we should at least be able to talk about this stuff. One of the big motivations for me in learning how to slaughter animals was having more personal accountability for something I was already doing by proxy–by buying meat, I’m paying for someone else to kill it and get it to me in a nice package. By doing it myself, I not only take responsibility for the quality of life the animals had before they were killed, I learn firsthand what it’s like to be a killer.
I learned a lot of useful tips about slaughtering while I was getting the technique down, but the biggest thing I learned was that it no one should have to do that all day. Most of raising livestock should be the raising part, not the killing. Yet our level of demand for meat products means that a lot of the meat industry is assembly lines of people killing all day to make a living. These are not good lives or good jobs–for the animals or the people involved.
In France, a much higher proportion of the food comes from local producers. Even in the “hypermarchés” like Carrefour, some of the meat and produce still comes from local farmers. There is pressure for this. French people typically have a good understanding of where food comes from. Practically every house in my neighborhood has a small vegetable garden. Many have chickens as well. Even small plots have fruit trees. But the French also hold farmers and people who deal with processing food (i.e. butchers, bakers, not as much candlestick makers) in fairly high esteem. These are cultural values working against the economic incentives of factory farming.
And cultural values are transmitted through action and discussion. If you’re going to eat meat, rabbit is one of the more ecologically-sound options. Rabbits grow quickly and easily, they breed quickly and easily, and their butchering is… you guessed it… quick and easy. They can even be fed a diet partially composed in certain kitchen scraps (like chickens), require extremely little space, and can provide a source of excellent, nutrient-rich, immediately usable fertilizer through their poo. Because rabbit is not a super popular meat in the U.S., that also means that the rabbit meat you find is more likely to come from a small, local producer. So having rabbit on the table is a great start.
But then we need to talk about it.
One Thanksgiving, my mom invited some of her students to join us. Coming from California, Afghanistan, and China, they were staying around during the school break. The students from Afghanistan and China were basically nonplussed by our combination of rabbit in the stockpot and turkey in the oven, but the Californian was shocked by the rabbit. Even more shocked when she learned that I had not only killed it, but cuddled it when it was a baby. Personally, I was shocked we had a turkey there at all–I hadn’t raised it, and based on its bloated, overstuffed appearance (not to mention that it had been given away as part of a rewards program at a local grocery store) you could tell it had come from a less-than-ideal situation.
I’m used to talking to adults about these matters. Most people are already aware of some aspect of this issue, whether that’s animal cruelty or the high fat content of feedlot beef. Once you figure out a starting point the person already understands, you can start to draw the conversation into larger relationships between different systems–economic, moral, practical (etc). And you don’t need to sugarcoat things.
But children–especially young children–don’t necessarily need to have their heads filled with visions of hapless cows having their brains shot out. That doesn’t mean we need to put a veil over our dinner plates, though. I think the biggest problem with the meat producing industry is that it is so far removed from our meat eating.
If we had to kill all the meat we ate, we’d eat a lot less of it. We’d also be likely to raise a variety of animals (as people used to on family farms) so that we weren’t stuck with pork for a year. We could also reduce our municipal waste streams by using a lot of food “waste” to, in turn, feed animals with stomachs less fussy than ours. In the bargain, we’d have healthier meat. (Or you can look at local, organically-raised meat as a way to get healthier meat with the side effects of better environmental consequences. Either way it’s a win-win scenario.)
Kids can begin to comprehend a lot of these relationships perfectly well. We can start the conversation ourselves, by understanding what is at stake. We can then transmit some of these values to children through actions (like putting rabbit on the table and acting as though everything is normal, because it is) and words. The words are sometimes hard to find, but talking about equality and justice are things even young kids seem to be able to understand pretty intuitively. They get it when we say that this way, even though the rabbit’s life came to an end, it had a good life before hand. We can also make comparisons between treating animals well and treating ourselves well; when we’re eating something that had a healthy life, it’s usually healthier for us, too, and kids will understand that transitive property.
When it comes to meat (and ideas like reducing meat consumption to be more ecologically-minded), there is an easy route into the subject, which is through eating. Other topics relating to environmental concepts might be harder to explain (like “greenhouse gasses” or just the idea of “climate change” in general), but I do think it is worthwhile making an effort to give kids a mental framework for these ideas. After all, they are going to have to deal with climate change effects much more than we have. They have a right to know the basics now, and to start thinking about these ideas from an early age.