Hot dogs. Yuck.
Oh, I know. Everything in moderation, as is my major mission in the RRG house; and certainly, not all dogs are created equal. Just as we managed to find some utterly delicious, nitrate-free, un-junked-up pepperoni in the deli case at Whole Foods this week (which was sliced up thinly and scattered sparingly on our whole-wheat pizza), there are equally artisanal, “purified” hot dogs on the market that are made without many of the nasty things that I generally equate with the things. I’m sure there are plenty of you who could tell me about a great, all-natural, all-beef or all-pork option without byproducts, fillers, nitrates, nitrites, anitbiotics, hormones, rat particles, or styrofoam packing peanuts.
But the fact remains that, frankly, I’m just not a hot dog fan, and I never have been. The whole idea is sort of unappetizing to me; and once J. started informing himself about food and really thinking about the making of the conventional hot dog, he also turned his back on them. With the exception of a very rare, carefully considered kielbasa or the Swedish potato sausages we sometimes eat at Christmastime, there is in fact very little consumption in our house of anything even resembling a hot dog. P.’s only had something of that ilk once, I think; and for L., it’s a grand total that can be counted, probably, on one hand.
Unless I can be absolutely sure there’s no actual dog in the dogs, we’re not having them; and the same goes for, well, anything we eat, which is one of the thousands of reasons we don’t eat at fast food restaurants (and never have; in the 13 years J. and I have known one another, I can recall exactly one instance in which we ate fast food together, and that was out of sheer desperation). Naively, I somehow thought that our general practice of leading by example and just not exposing the kids to these items would buy us some time, during which they’d be pure and innocent and not realize that their eating habits were so radically different from those of many of the other kids they know.
Yes, fine, those of you who are wiser and more seasoned parents are by now laughing at me and my dewy-eyed idealism. No need. I’ve experienced the ice water dousing that is reality, and it comes in the form of Pre-Kindergarten.
Three instances this week (THREE! In one week alone!) have convinced me that L. is now firmly planted in the world of the big kids, where peers hold more sway than Mom and Dad would like, and where he’s suddenly achieved the recognition that not everybody brings roasted broccoli and unsweetened banana chips in their lunchboxes. First, as if by some fated act of revenge for my constant mocking of them over the years, came the chicken nuggets.
“So-and-so had chicken nuggets in her lunch today,” he announced to me, wide-eyed.
“Did she?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” he replied, with the look I’ve come to recognize means he’s feeling out his territory before making a request he thinks I may not like.
“No,” I said. “You didn’t. But you had chicken FINGERS, right? That’s almost the same thing.” (He’d brought some of our ever-popular No Fuss chicken fingers to school that day.)
Pause. “But Mommy,” he said. “Chicken nuggets could be really yummy too, right?”
Sigh. Enter Mommy’s handy talking points about how some kids eat chicken nuggets, and some kids eat chicken fingers; and some kids eat ones that are made at home, while other kids eat ones that come from boxes or from fast-food restaurants. How our chicken fingers are a yummy choice that’s also good for your body, and Mommy and Daddy don’t think chicken nuggets are a very good healthy choice. (The whole time, by the way, I was just praying that he doesn’t repeat all of this to his friends, offending them and their parents and alienating the entire lunch table.)
“Kid Food” crisis #1 averted. Round Two was only 24 hours later, however, and came when I least expected it. I was sitting in the living room with L. after dinner and asking him what kind of special activity we should do with Daddy for Father’s Day. Where, I asked, did L. think we might go together?
“How about McDonald’s?” my beautiful, loving, undoctrinated, un-Mcbrainwashed child suggested.
I was actually speechless for a second. Seeing my face, L. continued, “McDonald’s is a kind of restaurant where you go to get treat foods, right, Mom?”
Um. Yes. Clearing of throat. “Yes,” I said. “But not really GOOD treat foods. Not treat foods like we like to eat.”
J., having heard L. utter the dreaded McWord, came in and rescued me. “L.,” he said, quite reasonably. “McDonald’s sells things like cheeseburgers and french fries. But their cheeseburgers are not the kind that taste very good or are good for your body, and Mommy and Daddy would much rather give you good cheeseburgers. If that’s something you’d like to do, we will be happy to take you to another restaurant and eat burgers with you.”
L., pacified by the prospect of a cheeseburger in any case, subsided; but I knew he was puzzled. Surely he has heard about McDonald’s from his friends (possibly the same ones who handed out the Killer Valentines), and obviously at age 4 his understanding of our general food values does not yet extend to issues like meat sourcing and the takeover of the American food system by the fast-food industry giants. Yet.
Finally, just as I was wiping the sweat from my brow and feeling grateful that we’d handled — at least for the moment — these sticky subjects of Why L. and P. Do Not Eat Like Other Folk, there came the mention of the class party. I’m fuzzy on the details, but my Pre-K informant tells me that the class is working on kindness to others in exchange for stickers on a chart; when they earn 10 stickers, they’ll get to have a party together. There was a vote taken: Pizza Party, Ice Cream Party, or Hot Dog Party.
Setting aside the general issues that could be raised about such a reward being offered in the first place, I was at least hoping that the ice cream party had won. Call me crazy, but I sort of feel like it’s the least of the evils — sugary, yes, but I’ve seen the brands the school has purchased in the past, and they’re likely to have somewhat less garbage in them than take-out pizza or (shudder) hot dogs. Plus, whereas the pizza or dogs would overtake L.’s entire lunch, with the ice cream party, I can at least send something extra-healthy for him to eat to try to balance out the dessert.
“Which party won?” I asked him, mentally crossing my fingers.
“Ice cream,” he said. “But you know what? N. voted for pizza.”
“That’s too bad that her vote lost,” I said. “But she’ll have pizza another time, don’t you think?”
“And know what, Mommy? S. voted for ice cream.”
“Oh, good,” I said. “How many people voted for ice cream?”
“Eleven. But I voted for hot dogs.”
That THUNK you just heard was the bottom dropping out of my reality. J. and I caught each others’ eyes across the kitchen; his expression was probably a good mirror of my own, given the mixture of confusion and horror on his face.
Yes, my child — my non-dog-eating child — voted for hot dogs. No, I don’t know why. Obviously I’m just thrilled that the democratic process took care of the issue for me. L., upon questioning, didn’t even seem to know why he’d voted for the dogs; he didn’t, frankly, seem concerned about the outcome either way.
J. and I have a theory, though, or rather two theories. The first is that on the rare occasions when we’ve cooked up some kielbasa or some other hot-dog-like meat, L. has called it “hot dogs,” and we have not corrected him. He may have been voting for the dogs because he was thinking of the food he’s had at home, in which case, it’s probably time for us to move towards more Truth In Advertising at mealtimes. The other theory, which I’m less crazy about (but which seems plausible) is that L. has recognized the fact that he gets to eat pizza at home; he gets to have ice cream on special occasions; but he almost NEVER gets anywhere close to a hot dog.
Did he vote that way because he was interested in having a food experience at school that he knows won’t likely be offered at home? Did he vote that way because perhaps a little friend’s choice also influenced his? Or did he, like many 4-year-olds, just act on a whim and not really think about it? I can’t be sure. And while it doesn’t really bother me, no matter what the underlying truth is — if he’s going to start to try to assert his autonomy as an eater this way, then it’s a developmental stage we’ll have to live with — it does bring to mind the larger issue.
His world, both food-related and otherwise, is rapidly becoming less and less within our influence, and more and more within the influence of the rest of society. And out there, it’s a Kids Eat Dogs World, whether we like it or not. I knew this day was coming. I just didn’t think — darn it all — that was going to come quite so soon, nor in an artificial casing.