Vegetarianism, the Meat Man, and Life Lessons With My Daughter

My four-year-old daughter Irene and I love "the meat man" at Seward Co-op in Minneapolis. It doesn't matter that the meat and seafood counter is run by manager Chris Dick and several other smart and skilled folks (we know Mike best); to the little miss and me, anyone standing behind that counter is “the meat man.” As member/owners at Seward, our family does our weekly grocery shopping there. A consistent highlight of these adventures is the time we spend looking at -- and talking about -- the various meat products on display. 

Is it strange for us to be so fascinated by the meat man? I don't know. But aside from a few accidental slices of sausage pizza at her preschool, Irene has never eaten meat -- and I haven’t eaten any meat products for about 15 years. For me, the reasons have evolved over the years -- from health, to preachy smugness, to habit. If you ask me today why I don’t eat meat I'll just tell you that it's not for me. If you ask my daughter the same question, she'll frown and say it's because “there’s blood in there” with a tone that makes it clear you've just asked the dumbest question ever. (She also won’t eat carrots that are “too orange.”)

When I first began bringing the little miss grocery shopping -- brand new, covered in fuzzy gorilla hair, and strapped to my chest -- I narrated the wonders of produce and regaled her with tales of the various uses for eggs, but we always skipped the meat. Although I never really miss eating meat, I do get wistful thinking about all the fun ways to cook with it. The meat counter held interest, but it felt odd, with a new baby bjorned to my chest, to ask the meat men questions about products I'd never actually consider purchasing.

It wasn’t until my daughter was able to zombie-walk around the co-op that our regular visits to the meat counter began. Have you ever noticed that the meat is at eye level for a little toddler? Maybe this is unintentional, but maybe (just maybe) it turns out that toddlers are the household decision makers when it comes to grass-fed beef (I'm just saying...). This stuff was truly exotic to a one-year-old who had never even seen a hot dog or a hamburger.

Initially, our visits consisted of Irene pointing and me teaching her the names of the meats. Eventually, my daughter needed more information. The first time I tried to explain the difference between sirloin and flank steak, Mike the meat man came through with a visual aid, his "cuts of beef" chart showing the whole cow. My daughter's fascination deepened from week to week, as did my enjoyment.

Three years later, our visits with the meat man have gotten shorter and less frequent. The little miss still hasn't tasted bacon, but she already knows more about how it's made than I did after 12 years of eating it. Our trips to Seward's meat counter these days mostly consist of checking for new foods and then running off to find crackers shaped like bunnies. (Although we did have some excitement this summer discussing the wonders and horror of haggis. Even the meat man didn’t have any good things to say about that!)

When it's up to her -- in those semi-autonomous teen years -- I wonder if Irene will choose to be a vegetarian. In terms of her food -- and everything else -- I want my daughter's choices to be as well informed as possible. Our meat counter investigations aren't about scaring Irene away from meat, really. They're about finding Mike "the meat man," and asking “what’s that?” My daughter's willingness to ask the question will take her far.

Levi Weinhagen is a comedy writer, performer, and theater producer who makes nutritious lunches and dinners for his wife and daughter to varying degrees of success. He is the co-founder of the Minneapolis based all-ages theater company Comedy Suitcase.