When I was thirteen, way back in November of 1997, (side note: remember Hanson? Good times.) my family was hosting Thanksgiving. Among other things, like gratitude, the warmth and love of my family, and lots of football, this meant that there was a rather large, very dead bird on our kitchen table.
It had never bothered me before, that dinner was a dead animal. But for some reason, it suddenly struck me. Perhaps because my mother insisted on calling the turkey “the carcass.” Why would anyone do that? But for some reason, she did, and my vegetarianism was born.
Something interesting happens when you become a vegetarian–meat eaters feel threatened. You might think that this is ridiculous. Who cares what anyone else eats? Yet I’m consistently surprised. When I turn down meat, I’m typically asked, after a little while, if I’m a vegetarian. I’m then asked for how long, why, do I eat fish, do I get enough protein, am I a vegan, do I miss meat, no seriously why, and other logistical concerns. (Fifteen years, I don’t want to eat meat, no, all Americans do, don’t get between me and my cheese, seriously I don’t like meat.)
Then the questions get challenging. “But why do you think it’s ok to eat eggs?” “I bet your shoes are made with leather!” “What if the animals are treated well?” “Then why do vegetarians eat replacement meat, if they don’t like it?” To which I pretty much always have to answer, please shut up, I just want to enjoy my falafel in peace.
Obviously, this has nothing to do with social work. Right? Silly, everything does. That’s pretty much
my life this blog’s thesis statement.
Participants have a way of finding out that I don’t eat meat. It comes up. It’s not something I consider relevant, but it’s also not particularly personal, and I don’t mind sharing. At Anonymous Youth Center this point was often raised when we gave the kids snacks, and they wished for burgers or chicken nuggets. At Anonymous Agency, it’s usually at agency celebrations when I don’t partake in the spare ribs, or when we’re discussing holiday traditions. It’s interesting, because my kids are often shocked and appalled. They don’t know vegetarians. They didn’t know this was even an option. What’s wrong with you, SJ?!
Not long ago, a family session wrapped up thusly:
Mom: “You ever been to the wings place down the street?”
SJ: “I actually haven’t.”
Mom: “But it’s right there!”
SJ: “It is, but I haven’t been there.”
14 y/o: “What, you too good for chicken wings?”
SJ: “Too good for…I don’t eat meat.”
10 y/o: “You’re a veterinarian?!”
13 y/o: “She’s a vegetarian, idiot.”
10 y/o: “So no chicken?”
SJ: “No. Chicken is meat.”
Mom: “What about fish?”
SJ: “Still no.”
13 y/o” “Gimme a pound, fish is gross. Crabmeat?”
SJ: “Nothing that was alive.”
14 y/o: “Oh, so it’s like that.”
I’m still not sure what it’s like.
It starts to drive me a little crazy that people I barely know, at work or elsewhere, are so concerned with what I eat. I honestly do not care if others are vegetarians or not. I have woken up on more than one occasion, while visiting family, to find that my uncle had slaughtered a goat in the night. Hey, mutton stew comes from somewhere. It doesn’t faze me.
Until it starts to.
I have no interest in converting others to vegetarianism. I don’t think parents who don’t feed their children a purely organic diet and keep only dried fruits and fresh angel tears in the house as snacks are neglectful. When I grew up, McDonald’s was a sometimes food (you couldn’t pay me to eat it now…wait you could pay me, but I wouldn’t enjoy it) and we had soda at parties. We played sports and went through normal cycles of packing on a few pounds and then growing six inches in seemingly a week. I hope I would be similar as a parent, and resist the terror of the “obesity epidemic” type stuff that prompts some parents to think this is ok. (Free social work advice: it’s not.)
But then I have my moments with my families. If you listen to NPR, you hear about “food deserts.” It’s true, there are many more options for grocery shopping in wealthier areas than there are in the Bronx. But honestly? It’s not bad. There is a major grocery store right by my office. A third of the street is taken up by bodegas, most of which sell fruit and vegetables and accept food stamps.
Every day the kids come to us after school with chips and candy. Not a twenty five cent bag. The kind you get when all your friends are coming over and you’re trying to entertain. They then leave, plotting if they have enough money for more chips and candy. I once thought I was going to have to rescue an infant because his grandmother was feeding him Windex from a bottle. It turned out it was some unnatural blue “beverage,” so I didn’t have to make a call. More toddlers than I can count eat Doritos in the office for breakfast. And then when they start day care, they don’t want to eat the oatmeal that’s provided…it’s so strange!
While it’s not good for the kids to eat this crap and develop these habits, it’s not what you’d call a risk factor, though I know some people think it should be. (For the record, I’m not one of them.) But it’s frustrating. We hear all the reasons and explanations–people don’t have access to fresh, healthy groceries in low income areas, food stamps won’t pay for some healthy items, people aren’t educated in terms of what is good for them, working-poor parents are too stressed and busy to prepare a home-cooked meal regularly, some of these things are cultural. These are certainly factors, but at some point and in many scenarios we’re just making excuses.
Is anyone surprised to hear that broccoli is healthy? I think we’re all educated on that point. Food stamps aren’t perfect, but in New York they can be used at farmer’s markets, and they do cover many healthy choices. Water is cheaper than soda, yes? Toast or cereal are fairly straightforward, and don’t require the family sitting together at the table after hours of someone slaving away. My aunt, a public health nurse, is always fighting the idea that frying everything and eschewing diet soda is a traditional Navajo way.
I don’t want to make myself any more of the crazy white lady than I already am. I don’t want this to be another thing my families think I just don’t get. There’s no way I’m going to pretend that orange soda for a four month old is just another choice. But when we’re already asking a family to do some much, getting critical over how they feed their children, the most basic way that they provide care, is just too much. All I can do is model another way, provide some other options, remember how annoying it is when people don’t mind their own damn business about how I eat, and let my heart be warmed when my girls’ group requests celery with peanut butter over pizza.
All while remembering how much joy a blue raspberry Slush Puppy brought me as an eight year old.