April 27, 2009
By Susan Bliss, Contributing Writer
Children love farm animals. At least grown-ups think they should, considering the galaxy of toys, books and games devoted to pigs, cows, sheep, chickens and all the other domesticated creatures that live in the country. The market provides an unimaginable variety of farm-themed products to acquaint even the most citified youngster with life on the farm.
For toddlers, there is Fisher-Price's "Barnyard Bowling," complete with a mooing "cow ball"; and John Deere makes the "Feed 'N' Fun Pop-Out Barnyard" so children can "feed" a cow, pig, chicken and horse while "The Farmer in the Dell" sounds from the barn.
Farm animals star in children's books from classic "Mother Goose" nursery rhymes to Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s book Punk Farm on Tour. Amazon.com lists nearly 3,000 titles of kids' books about farm animals; I can walk into my library and find some 275 on the shelves if I want to take the time. Naturally, a kid can follow the theme on TV, at the movies, and in computer games.
Most of the animals so depicted are friendly, approachable and companionable. With all this promotion of livestock as friends, why do parents also urge their offspring to "finish your meatloaf"? It's a mixed message for kids; just as they've learned to empathize with animals, sometimes even imagine them as playmates, they make a startling discovery: the sweet creatures have alternate names that often coincide with dinner fare.
Animal names play a big part in this confusion. Scholarly discussions point to etymology as a source. The livestock words and the food words reflect class distinctions between farming peasants, who used Anglo-Saxon names for the animals they tended and the aristocratic class, who used French words for their epicurean fare. As language evolved, the Anglo-Saxon names became pig, cow, etc., in English and continued to be associated with the breeding and tending of livestock, as on farms. After the Normans conquered England in 1066, French words crept into the language of the ruling class, and morphed into such English terms as pork and beef.
Though no one can begin to read, play with, or see even a tiny fraction of today’s kid-friendly farm-animal diversions, it’s unlikely that many are specific about the process by which the friendly cows, calves, chickens and pigs they introduce are transformed into "beef," "hamburger," "veal," "nuggets," "pork," and "bacon."
I can almost remember the growing distress I felt as I learned, one by one, the relationship between my animal friends and the "meat" on my plate. It was probably sometime after our visit to New Hampshire, where my mother’s college chum lived on a dairy farm. In honor of their friendship, they named the heifer born during our stay "Shopie," my mother's college moniker. Being her namesake would make the cow special and save her from any unpleasant fate, I presumed.
The worst awakening came in my pre-teen years—for I'd been hoodwinked long into childhood—when I was shocked to learn the true origin of a favorite family dinner staple known as "tongue."
"Oh," I thought at the moment of realization. "That's why it looks like that."
My mother, a food enthusiast from Pennsylvania Dutch country, served smoked cow tongue often to her appreciative family, as well as the fermented cow sausage known as Lebanon bologna and the regional breakfast treat called scrapple, made of pig organs.
With names like bologna and scrapple, these concoctions shield their origins to the vague thinking of a willing consumer, but my denial system had to be altogether opaque to keep me ignorant of the nature of tongue. After the truth was revealed, I remained an omnivore for many years but never ate another meal of my erstwhile favorite. What if children's literature told a fuller picture of life on the farm and its consequences for the animals? Children hearing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" learn of a girl and the devoted animal that follows her to school. The creature "made the children laugh and play to see a lamb at school." When the children ask "Why does the lamb love Mary so?" the teacher answers, "Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know."
What if nursery rhymes celebrated animals not as companions but as food? This alternate version of the rhyme may be found on a children's song website (bussongs.com):
Mary had a little lamb;
Her father shot it dead.
And now it goes to school with her
Between two chunks of bread.
Suppose instead of summoning a cat and a fiddle, another favorite rhyme chanted,
Hey, diddle diddle!
The pig's on the griddle
Barbecue sauce all ready to spread;
Each guest has a dish
To load as they wish
No matter that piggy is dead.
I'm not sure what effect such a trend would have on young personalities, but clarity about animal names surely would ease the inevitable transition between childish innocence and raw adult experience.