Foods That Make Kids Cry

A couple of nights ago, I made my eldest daughter cry. But not because of a pending time-out, a too-harsh rebuke, homework overload, or an imminent grounding. No, I made my daughter cry by feeding her dinner because, you see, I'm a passable home cook, but a very bad person, and the animal I cooked used to be Cute.

A couple of nights ago, I made my eldest daughter cry. But not because of a pending time-out, a too-harsh rebuke, homework overload, or an imminent grounding.  No, I made my daughter cry by feeding her dinner because, you see, I’m a passable home cook, but a very bad person, and the animal I cooked used to be Cute. Before you impugn the meal itself, I’ll readily admit that I’ve cooked any number of things worthy of tears over the years, including enough Chernobyl-ized toast, Super Ball eggs, and flaccid, soggy pasta to fill whole compost bins; even, on rare and precious occasions, a few rock-star successes.  But Miss M doesn’t cry over burnt toast, she’s only ever wept for joy over truly faultless sushi (a sentiment of which I’m immeasurably proud), and this meal was neither. It was, in point of fact, quite a bit better than average, and that is where the problem started: Had the food been less tasty, the child would not have eaten it; and, not having eaten it, she would subsequently not have had to mourn its provenance.
My sin, the root of my bad-ness, and the reason my first-born child wept over her dinner is this: I cooked a young goat, presumably a cute one, for dinner (technically, I only cooked a couple of its shanks, but that’s a country mile wide of Miss M’s mark). I have since been informed, in no uncertain terms, that Cute Animals are not to be served as food in the presence of Miss M. This got me wondering, as both parent and cook: What qualifies certain animals as Cute – and, by extension, saves the very coursing of their blood – and not others?
With the the endearing certitude of a child, M patiently explained to me that which was already manifest to her: Goats, apparently, are Cute; so are sheep, and rabbits. Oh, and ducks, although not chickens. (She used to love – love – the smoked duck breast from Willie Bird, asking for it by name at the market, although she now flatly denies it.) Fish and seafood of all sorts – excepting mammals, of course – are of insufficient Cuteness to be spared the butcher’s wrath, and may be eaten without apology; so, too – and herein lies a puzzle within a puzzle – the humble cow, its super-sized doe eyes and gentle demeanor evidently inadequate to offset the appeal of a properly grilled steak.
Where, and why, do we draw these lines? My wife and I spent many years as vegetarians (of the lacto-ovo subspecies, to be precise), but have long since abandoned that particular ship in favor of what is – in our view at any rate, as I’m sure the animals would demur – a more holistic view of the food chain. For her part, my wife will now eat seafood, but not, to a close approximation, land animals; more specifically, she will eat what she is willing to kill with her own hands, which I take to be as reasonable a test as any of personal conviction. I, on the other hand, will eat just about anything, so long as I’m reasonably comfortable with how it lived, and died, before it made its way to my plate; I’m even OK with such PETA-verboten no-no’s as fois gras, veal, and all manner of cute animal, if I believe that that animal was treated humanely prior to its demise.
What about the rest of us? What triggers our moral self to rank the life of an animal over our prerogative to eat? Leather shoes and belts are OK; fur coats are not. Steak from the bovine Auschwitz of a modern CAFO is OK; veal, however raised, generally is not. Chickens are fine, but simians of any sort, clearly, are not. Cows and pigs are fine, but horses and dogs are not – at least if you’re a typical American, but not if you live in various parts of Asia. Kangaroo? That depends on the hemisphere in which you reside. According to one friend of ours, invertebrates are OK, but animals with more advanced nervous systems are not (I actually find that argument more intellectually coherent than most). And I’m sure we all know vegetarians who eat fish (don’t even get me started on contradictory etymology). Do I have to be hungry to kill an animal for food, or is it enough that it merely tastes good? Does a land animal deserve more respect than a sea creature, a turtle than a lobster, a young cow than an old cow? Why is it that the vast majority of us is quite happy to dine on flesh, and yet recoils at the thought of watching – much less participating in – the inevitable death that our dinner required? What is it about perceived Cuteness that differentiates goats and sheep from cows and pigs in the mind of my child?
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not on any sort of crusade, either for or against eating meat; while I have some strongly held personal opinions about the ethics of eating animals, I have very few satisfactory answers to most of these questions, and even fewer that I believe should be imposed on others. I am also genuinely curious about what my daughter thinks, and indeed about what drives most of us towards or away from the butcher’s case. My gut tells me that there is a lot more to be said about this, and that it’s worth talking about, but for now, I’ll leave it at this: Because I cannot bear to see my child cry (unless, of course, she has it coming, and sometimes not even then), I will not feed her any more Cute Animals. But I still want to know why.


6 thoughts on “Foods That Make Kids Cry

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  3. Oh, and as a related sad yet kind of funny story… When I was a high school freshman long ago, the students asked one of our teachers how his Easter break had gone. He told us that it went well for the most part, except for one horrible mistake he made… He had promised his pre-teen daughters that they could have bunnies as pets, and so they went to a nearby farm, where the girls picked their new pets out.
    The farmer nodded, said he’d go get the bunnies ready for the family, and walked off. A short while later, just as our teacher was starting to wonder what the delay was, the guy came back with a bag. Turns out that our teacher had thought a rabbit farm is where people raise them to sell as pets, when in reality it’s where they’re raised to be hand-selected for slaughter. Oops.
    (Snarky side note to tale: and of course, that was the only teacher I had that was “promoted” into various increasingly important administrative positions after I graduated…)

  4. I think it has to do with how many of the physical traits near-universal to mammal babies the creature has, since those trigger nurturing urges in most people (though different people react to different species).
    In adults, at least, it probably also has a lot to do with whether the animal (young or not) can form an intense bond with human beings and show its emotions/affection in a way that makes sense to us personally. My guess is that those two qualities are what we keep thinking of as “intelligence”, since it would explain why few Americans think pigs qualify but virtually all feel that dogs or cats do.

  5. Dear Dad,
    Although seasoned in years, trust that if I saw the same critter alive, prior to the kill, I won’t eat it! Why it is like eating Bambi.
    Yet if I don’t see it, then yes I will enjoy elf and venison, beef, ppoultry and pork. Yes, I have friends who hunt, others who farm, and have enjoyed many meals with both, just don’t introduce me to the critter before serving it or I too may cry!
    Thus praise yourself that you have raised a child with a heart for those who have suffered, even if they are a source of food.

  6. I love lamb. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to cook lamb in my house. Why? Because my kids won’t eat it. It’s not because it tastes bad (because seriously, how can lamb taste bad?). No, it’s because, just like your daughter, my kids think lambs are cute. I’ve tried to tell them that eating lamb is akin to eating a young sheep that is more in its teenage years (I think…), but no dice. They won’t even try it a little. Same with veal. And I’m pretty sure that goat, while incredibly tasty, would not make for a dish they could eat. Thank goodness chickens are not in the “cute family”….

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