It was a family day and to end it, he was going to teach our big girl how to cook a real meal. This was a big deal because up until now she's been the dessert queen, but never the chef. Tonight she would make dinner.
Things went wrong just as soon as I took the chicken out of the fridge. She saw the label and her eyes filled up with tears. "Foster Farms. They torture their chickens. I can't eat that."
All at once I could see, ready or not we were going to have one of life's hard moments. Just when everything was going so well.
"I know honey, it's Foster Farms and we normally don't like to eat that, but these chickens are dead now, and it would be disrespectful of us not to eat them. We can't just throw them in the garbage." I said, feeling a little like a Nazi collaborator, making the best of a bad situation. "We have to eat them."
"I can't. I can't cook them."
And so she didn't.
I prepared the chicken, feeling pulled between my girl's tender heart and the way of the world. I plucked each thigh from the package, dried it and rubbed it in a special salt and pepper mixture "Angelo's Salt." I added a little marinade and let them rest.
Her father was gruffly sympathetic. He's too much of a pragmatist, and the two of us are too old, to get weepy over this injustice. We do what we can. For the world and for our family. It's a balance.
After I prepared the chicken I followed her upstairs. She had Googled images of factory chickens and was weeping over them. Oh, 13. I still remember how strong one's sense of right and wrong can be at this age. Part of me regrets that this sense of righteousness fades as one gets older. Pragmatism takes over. One becomes better able to weigh the value of the "greater good."
And so it was time to explain the hard choices one makes in life. And while this was not the first time, it felt meaningful.
"My Angel." I said. "It is important that you understand a few things about the world. Do you know why Foster Farms continues to exist?" She looked at me with a baleful eye. And can I just say that this is the first time in my life when someone has looked at me thus, so that I truly understood the meaning of the phrase "baleful eye." And it didn't feel good. Which I suppose, is to be expected.
"So that they can torture chickens."
No. They do not exist because they torture chickens. Think about it. Why do they exist?
"Because people don't know the truth about what they do to the chickens before they kill them."
No, my angel. There are people who know what they do. Use your big brain and tell me. Why do they exist?
"Because they're cheap."
Yes. Now you understand. I can buy a Foster Farms chicken in the store for $5. Or I can go to Whole Foods and buy a free-range chicken for $11. Do you think everyone can afford an $11 chicken?
"No." Baleful eye, firmly in place. The strong sense of injustice.
It's not that people want chickens to suffer. Or that they don't care about the poor chickens. But sadly, grain-fed, free range chickens who have been raised and killed in a humane manner are a lot more expensive than factory chickens.
I don't know why this is. It makes zero sense to me. But as a society we seem willing to accept the situation. This is one of the many aspects of society that her generation will hopefully decide to address. Because mine has failed. For all the baby-boomer, touchy-feely spouting about equality and making the world a better place, we have let the factory farms not only take over, but completely shut us out of the process. It is literally easier to get into NASA than it is a factory meat-processing plant.
A glimmer of terrible understanding appears in her eye. My smart girl, she gets it.
My love. You have such a big heart and I love you for it. We have a lot of friends who can afford to pay more for grain-fed animals-who-live-free-on-the-open-range-and-die-in-a-humane-manner for dinner every night. But this food does not sustain the world. Not yet. So why don't you take that big heart of yours, along with your big brain, and think about a way to solve this problem.
And I'm pretty sure she is upstairs right now, thinking it through, and figuring it out.