Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"hello, shrimp! you're dead!"

one of the highlights of receiving the new york times every weekend is the part where i finally get to the second-to-last article in the sunday magazine (which i usually save for last). this is the food segment. as i make my way towards this article, i anticipate it to be one of pete wells' "cooking with dexter" articles,
which i've written about here before.

this week's was a good one:

The streams ran high with melted snow, wild chives were breaking through the dirt and bluebirds — actual bluebirds — swooped down from bare trees. My wife and I were taking a spring walk along a Catskills road, 1-year-old Elliot strapped to my back while Dexter, who’s 4, obeyed whatever gene commands small boys to throw rocks into moving water. Down the road, the cattle were not just lowing but bellowing. Maybe it was their springtime exuberance, but something in their voices was strangely bewitching. Before I knew what I was saying, I asked, “Who wants to visit the farm?”

We’d walked on this road a few times before, but I’d always been afraid to suggest visiting the goats, sheep, pigs, chickens and cattle. The farm where they live is not a farm, at least in the traditional sense of a plot of land where food is raised. Many of them began their lives on farms like that. Then they were taken to this farm-animal sanctuary, where they are fed and tended and probably scratched between the ears by people who believe animals shaould not end up in the oven.

The founders of the sanctuary are well versed in the cruelties of meat production on a massive modern scale. I respect their views, but I was never very eager to have my children shown around the barn by somebody who might at any moment start reciting the particularly gory bits of “Fast Food Nation.”

As it happened, our visit to this barnyard retirement community was more in the Sunnybrook Farm vein. A friendly young woman offered to walk with us, even though the farm wasn’t officially open to visitors yet. She named the animals: the goat who hustled his way to the fence and begged for handouts; the huge Tom turkey, thundering around on scaly dinosaur legs with his tail obligingly fanned in perfect imitation of the pictures on the wall of every kindergarten around Thanksgiving. Our guide told us that some of the animals had been “rescued” from other farms, but Dexter, for once, didn’t immediately say, “What does that mean?”

He did want an explanation of the pigeons. In the barn housing a litter of piglets was a flock of pigeons that had colonized the rafters. These city birds were an odd sight in this mountain valley. “We think somebody up here must have been keeping them, and then let them go,” our guide said. “Now we’re looking for a humane way to get rid of them. It’s a problem, because we can’t just set them free someplace else. They can find their way back, even a hundred miles away.”

“What does that mean?”

It meant, I told him, that almost any other farm would have simply killed the pigeons and called it a day, but the people here didn’t want to do that. And then I found myself up to my hips in the very subject I’d not wanted to hear from the animal activists.

“The animals here aren’t raised for food,” I explained. “But most of the farmers you know from the farmers’ market do raise animals for food.”

“What does that mean?”

“Those farmers take good care of their pigs, and then when they’re big enough, they kill them to make meat for us.”

“But that’s sad,” Dexter said.

Sometimes he thinks just like a 4-year-old. It’s a great disappointment to me.

I have been telling Dexter where meat and fish come from since long before he knew what I was talking about. When he was 2 and still had his own private language, he called the chickens in picture books “buck bucks.” One day after I’d sautéed a chicken thigh and served it to him with pan juices, he smiled and said, “Buck buck!” as he popped a slice into his mouth. Mission accomplished, I thought. A happy, conscious carnivore.

Later I tried to reinforce the connection by having him watch as I gutted a sea bass or cut up a rabbit. He’d purse his lips and pretend to talk to the dead fish, or ask where the rabbit’s head was. He never seemed disgusted or scared, just mildly curious. I was convinced he had a farmhand’s ingrained, matter-of-fact understanding of animal protein. And then we’d watch the recent movie of “Charlotte’s Web” and I’d realize that little minds really couldn’t care less about consistency, no matter what Emerson said. He was deeply worried about what fate lay in store for Wilbur at the smokehouse.

The smokehouse! Source of so much human happiness! At breakfast this morning Dexter sang an improvised song about the excellence of bacon, the excellence of which was instilled in a smokehouse. In the movie, the structure looms over Wilbur and his friends like Norman Bates’s mansion.

“Charlotte’s Web” is a problematic movie for the parents of meat-eaters, but it’s not the only one. Before receiving any formal education, the average American child has seen talking animals in every shape, size and species. As characters, anthropomorphic animals can be adorable (thanks to human animators) and articulate (with the right human voice-over actors). What they can’t do is teach my son anything about actual animals. A New York child of the 1890s who saw carcasses hanging in butcher shops or a draft horse killed in a street accident had a clearer picture of the animal kingdom than any modern, cartoon-watching kid. If I were bent on ridding the world of meat-eating, I’d start by taking over Disney.

Our country goes to remarkable lengths to avoid telling the truth about meat. (I imagine the founders of the farm sanctuary might agree.) This may be why I seized Dexter’s question about pigeons that afternoon at the sanctuary, because it gave me a small chance to not lie to him.

The next weekend, we saw a pig farmer named Mike at the farmers’ market. As we browsed the packages of pork, Dexter pointed to one and said, “What’s that red stuff?”

Mike came right back with, “That’s a little blood, Dexter.”

Where’s this going to go? I wondered.

Dexter grinned and said, “Pig blood!” For some reason, the thought seemed wonderful to him. Then I showed him a plastic-wrapped trotter with a hoof attached and a few bristles still poking out of the skin.

“A piggy foot!” he said, even more happily.

The sensitive flower of the farm sanctuary sounded as bloodthirsty as a Viking. A few nights later, he peered into a bowl of shrimp in a Mexican cocktail sauce and brightly said: “Hello, shrimp! You’re dead!”

I’m still not sure how much Dexter understands, but I am still careful not to push him too far. Whenever we see rabbits crouching behind shrubs at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I try to refrain from suggesting that the rabbit would taste great marinated in vinegar and wrapped in bacon. (But it would.) When we eat rabbit, every four or five months, I don’t shape my fingers into bunny ears to drive the point home. He might decide at any moment not to eat another forkful of rabbit, and that would be all right with me. At least he wouldn’t be able to accuse me of telling him he was eating buck buck.

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