Win 1 of 5 copies — Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals is not for the faint of heart. His recent article in the New York Times (excerpted from the first chapter) includes stories of his grand-mother, a holocaust survivor, which he uses to define himself as well as frame his book. The Jew and The Carrot’s Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus wrote a nice post about it, including:

“But I what I found most moving was the way he connected his own ethical commitment to vegetarianism to his grandmother’s commitment to kashrut, even under the most extreme circumstances. She gets the last word in the dialogue he recalls,

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I
didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him,
he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of
meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”


“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

Foer spends the length of the book trying to explain why eating animals matters, and searching for a way we can save ourselves. The book is exceptionally effective in illuminating the horrendous practices of the industrial fish and meat industries. In some cases, he relies on other people’s research (especially government sources), and then effectively channels this into relatable paradigms. For example, Foer takes on the fish industry, explaining the extensive loss of sea life (in some cases 80 – 90% of the total haul) that accompanies each intended catch, also known as ‘bycatch’. He writes, “Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be be five feet across.”

In another section, Foer goes undercover to see poultry farms for himself, and witnesses first hand the cruel conditions, deliberate breeding of weak (even ill animals), and lack of sanitary practices. He weaves in narratives from interviews with animal activists, farmers, businessmen, processors, and even PETA. Like many before him, he was unable to get into a cattle slaughterhouse, but he attempts to construct the experience in graphic detail based on third party accounts and research. At one point, Foer visits a pig processing plant and observes the operation closely. In the end, they invite him to sample the fruits
of their labor, a plate of ham. Foer writes,

“I don’t want to eat it. I wouldn’t want to eat anything right now, my appetite having been lost to the sites and smells of the slaughterhouse. And I specifically don’t want to eat the contents of that plate, which were, not long ago, the contents of a pig in the waiting pen. Maybe there is nothing wrong with eating it. But something deep inside me — reasonable or unreasonable, ascetic or ethical, selfish or compassionate — simply doesn’t want the meat inside my body. For me, meat is not something to be eaten.

And yet, something else deep inside me does want to eat it. I want very much to show Mario my appreciation for his generousity. And I want to be able to tell him that his hard work produces delicious food. I want to say, ‘Wow, that’s wonderful’ and have another piece. I want to break bread with him. Nothing — not a conversation, not a handshake, or even a hug — establishes friendship as forcefully as eating together.

‘I’m kosher’, I say

‘Kosher?’ Mario echoes as a question.

‘I am.’ I chuckle. ‘Jewish. And kosher.’

‘Kind of funny to be writing about pork then.’

‘Kind of funny’, I echo.

But it isn’t.”

Foer is as flawed and torn as any of his readers. Reading this and other candid passages about his own personal ethics is refreshing, and the larger implications are profound. Foer strives throughout to personally reframe the stories in an effort to make us conscious of his painfully obvious conclusion. ”When we eat factory-farmed meat, we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own.” It’s a compelling argument, and extends to our environment, health, and humanity.

Foer goes further to inquire if there are any circumstances that would make it acceptable to eat meat. For himself, the answer is a firm no. But he also acknowledges that people do eat meat, and that there are farmers and business people who are sincerely trying to satisfy these demands while creating a more humane, effective process. So much so that he, a practicing vegan, has actually gone so far as to fund a slaughterhouse for one farmer friend, whose food he will not eat but endeavors he views as worthwhile.

There are not many references to kosher meat practices in this book, nor to the Jewish philosophies on eating or not eating meat. Foer seems to imply that most meat (99%), kosher or otherwise, is industrial and therefore subject to the same problems outlined earlier. Coincidentally, on the same day that I finished reading my review copy, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster posted a piece about a new grass fed, organic, kosher meat service. Kol foods seems to have many of the qualities of the non-industrial meat farmers Foer interviewed in his book. They also seem to struggle with the same dilemnas, including the demise of local kosher slaughterhouses. I spoke to the owner, Devora Kimmelman-Block about the book and asked for her perspective on the business of eating animals.

“In order to make an effect on the kosher meat business, they have to see that there is a strong consumer interest in sustainable, ethical meat. The only way to illustrate that interest is for folks to have consistant access to non-industrial meat – not just for special occasions, but for whenever they cook it.

Everyone has to come to their own conclusions (about their comfort level with eating meat); it’s a very personal issue. However, it’s key to be open minded about solutions to the issues with industrial meat (including the environment, the consumer’s health, the people who live and work in communities housing industrial meat companies, animal welfare, and even taste). It’s important that folks have multiple options to combat those issues. Being a vegetarian or vegan is not the only solution, although it is important to consume meat sparingly.

From a Jewish perspective, if we eat meat, we must be conscious of the act, know where it is coming from and make it special. The Rabbis had to encourage people to eat meat on the holidays because they lived in a society in which eating meat was rare luxury. It isn’t special if you eat it at every meal. Take a breath, say a blessing before eating. It’s important not to swallow your ethics.”

Foer does not swallow anything in this book. He takes his readers on a journey that is alternatively funny, angry, bloody, thoughtful, sympathetic, judgemental, confrontational, conciliiatory, and wholly unexpected. The tone and the tale often seem uneven and erratic. In his works of fiction, this dissonance enhanced an incredibly compelling story. In this work of self described journalism, it seems less effective, and I often longed for a more consistent narrative. Moreover, this highly ambitious book attempts to be a memoir, an investigative news piece, and a philosophical inquiry – a broad brush for any one volume. It does not neatly fit into any one category, and perhaps this is its greatest strength and weakness.  All told, it is well worth the read. Regardless of your current views and practices, you will learn much and undoubtedly re-think your own role as an eating animal.

Want to read the book? Enter our contest for a free copy by leaving a comment below about your thoughts on eating animals. Last day to leave a comment is 11/7 – the winner will be contacted the following day.


Note (10/31/09): Here is a link to a very interesting, recent OpEd piece in the NYT by Nicolette Hahn Niman.  She and her husband Bill Niman were interviewed by Foer, who had positive feedback about their contributions (with some reservations).  

Note (11/02/09): I got the green light to give away 5 copies.  So please comment away.  Last day of the contest is 11/7.

Note (11/04/09): Thanks to Hannah Lee and Jeff Shapiro for this video link on Foer.

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31 Responses to “Win 1 of 5 copies — Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer”

  1. Valerie Yasner Says:

    My thoughts on eating meat:

    If this is one of the major things that can do to radically reduce our carbon footprint….and since the industrialized meat industry ( kosher and non kosher) at present is fraught with “issues” and because avoiding saturated fat and cholesterol is so much better for my health then, for me not eating meat is a total no brainer.

  2. Preston Neal Says:

    I am, like many others, guilty of a hypocrisy when it comes to eating meat. Though I do not eat red meat, I cannot ignore the reality that chicken and fish are a more expedient source of the protein that my body needs than vegan options, and so I eat them. I am hypocritical because I do believe that we are what we eat, and although I mostly eat kosher chicken, it is often the industrial kosher chicken that Foer describes as “tortured flesh” (the only kind that is available in my local supermarkets).

    On those occasions when I choose to make a protein-rich vegan meal, complete with quinoa, kale, lentils, etc (which thankfully have become more often since last year’s Hazon food conference), I do feel much better about myself, physically as well as morally. But I am inconsistent. It is a lot of work for me to make those meals, and sometimes I am just too tired or lazy or want to do something else.

    When it comes down to it, I feel that sometimes – usually, for me – the day-to-day reality of a 21st-century life can provide an excuse for not living fully and consciously in accordance with our values.

  3. Michael Croland Says:

    I’m so glad that Foer is getting the message out there. I’m vegan because I oppose the cruel ways in which animals in this country are raised for meat, eggs, and dairy. Factory-farmed animals are confined to tiny spaces where they can hardly move, have their body-parts mutilated without any painkillers, are separated from their mothers shortly after birth, and are denied everything that is natural and important to them. The best response to the inhumane conditions prevalent on factory farms and in slaughterhouses is to boycott meat altogether.

  4. gordon Says:

    Here is a good video on the about meat:

  5. Amy Says:

    For quite some time, I was a vegeterian because beans are cheap & they last a long time. I think that I now eat meat – because I can. Which is not a good answer. I need to think about my eating beyong kashruth…

  6. Christine Says:

    I’m a vegetarian who recently tried veganism but wasn’t able to stick with it for more than four months. I’ve lately been considering giving veganism another try and I can’t wait to read Foer’s new book.

  7. ray Says:

    I grew up in the Far East where eating meat is the natural order of food consumption. I have tried but failed several times to go meatless in my diet. Perhaps this would be the book to finally convince me to go meat-free once and for all.

  8. carla glass Says:

    I have been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for 30 years along with my husband. One day during his premed years, he came home smelling from formaldehyde after a day of carving up animals. We never ate red meat or poultry again. My children 16, 14 and 8 are vegetarians since birth. We have taught them to respect all creatures. They were not put here by G-D for us to slaughter. I believe if you instill in the children a sense of purpose, and also teach them that animals also have their own purpose, they will contunue to avoid meat even as adults.

  9. Sasha M. Says:

    I need to eat meat. It’s such a mainstay in my life, in the culture — one cultural pride is a slow-roasted suckling pig all crispy and heart-attack-y. I try not to think about what life my food once had.

    Does that make me insensitive? In this comment thread alone — okay, even Safran Foer makes me feel guilty somewhat. But I like meat, and the few times I’ve thought of abstaining from it, I was hindered by the price of vegetables–they’re always more expensive.

  10. Michael Croland Says:

    Sasha, I find that vegetables (especially locally grown ones from a farmers market) tend to be much cheaper than the price of meat. If you buy out-of-season asparagus imported from Peru the cost will add up, but otherwise being vegetarian can be cheap. Buying grains and legumes in bulk also helps lower the price, and if you can do it in a group (see The Jew & The Carrot’s recent post about that), that can cut costs even more.

    Just yesterday, Girlie Girl Army posted some very helpful, practical tips from holistic health counselor Jackie Topol about eating healthy, vegetarian food on a tight budget:

    As for your example of slow-roasting a suckling pig … I think you have the wrong crowd!

  11. Bernard Brown Says:

    I’m torn on the efficacy of advocating for vegetarianism or veganism. On the one hand, given the moral concerns presented by Foer (and Peter Singer too if you want a cooler, more-analytical argument) it becomes difficult to justify any act of killing for the simple benefit of our taste buds. On the other hand, could those who work to combat the harm caused by our meat culture (I say this as someone who runs this kind of environmental campaign – and even Foer, produce a greater net reduction in animal product consumption (and reduction in cruelty, environmental destruction, and so on) by accepting people going mid-way like our suckling pig friend (couldn’t have used chopped liver as an example?) and engaging with them in a way that won’t turn them off to the entire argument?

  12. Julie Steinberg Says:

    Thanks for your feedback all. Here is a link to a very interesting, recent OpEd piece in the NYT by Nicolette Hahn Niman. She and her husband Bill Niman were interviewed by Foer, who had positive feedback about their contributions (with some reservations). Worth reading.

  13. A Says:

    My family is vegetarian, and has always been so- it was my parent’s solution to keeping a kosher house. Since moving to Israel I have been considering eating meat, just because it’s so much easier to keep kosher here. But information like this reminds me of why I still want to be a vegetarian, so thank you!

  14. Becca Says:

    I became vegetarian about three years ago, and not by choice–one Pesach, out of the blue, my stomach began to reject anything I ate that once had a face.
    Despite this inconvenience, I would never go back to eating meat even if I had the choice. Becoming vegetarian made me really think about what I was putting into my body. It was a ripple effect from there: first I established a deep loyalty to soy milk; followed by an avoidance of products with added sugar; and most recently I became a patron of local agriculture, frequenting farmer’s markets and joining CSA’s. What started as an inability to eat animal meat became an ability to be more conscious of what I eat and where it comes from.

  15. Hannah Lee Says:

    I’ve been vegetarian since 1976 and a vegan-wannabee for several years, but I’ve yet to succeed in convincing anyone to give up meat completely. My husband is generally satisfied with my cooking but once in a while he’ll talk about missing meat. My daughter started college and Hillel offers only meat meals for Shabbat and the chagim (in fact, so much so, that she developed a craving for cheese; alas kosher cheese is hard to find near campus). My younger daughter has started to eat the s’machot kiddushim at shul– the fancy ones offer meat, of course– but I’ve tried not to get upset by it. It may be that a craving for meat is innate, and those of us who succeed in “going over to the other side” (where meat is no longer tantalizing) and not suffer from any gustatory deprivations are in the real minority!

  16. Sarah Says:

    I love his journey and the way he shares it. It seems to me that food will always be a complex answer – we want it to be clear, but the terrain is shifting (the move to local, vegetarian vs. local meat) and depends deeply on what your motivation is (lessen your carbon footprint, save trees, save fields, save people, take care of your heart, your neighbors..). We’re vegetarians because it maximizes the things that are important to us. It is imperfect, as are most life choices that involve having that choice not be your only driver. But we do it because we believe it makes a difference.

  17. Laura Says:

    It’s not clear to me that meat is kosher simply because the animal is slaughtered and prepared in accordance with those rules. How can an individual consume “kosher” meat knowing the animal existed birth to death in an industrial setting with all that entails? Furthermore, how can the animal be considered slaughtered in a kosher manner when the person whose job it is to do the dirty work in the slaughter house is denied basic human rights and exploited by her or his employer? The choice (and it is a choice, not a necessity) to eat meat, kosher or treyf, needs to be a mindful one made in the context of some moral/ethical framework.

  18. ML Says:

    I always have a bit of a problem with the “kosher” label, especially when the food itself is mass-slaughtered and porduced… in these cases, I think free-range, organic meat that has been treated respectfully with real thought to the wellbeing of the animal than to simply eat meat that has a hechsher slapped onto it.
    I am not a vegetarian (I have too many other food restrictions…), but I can’t wait to read this book.

  19. Sara Says:

    I’m frequently torn between thinking “God wouldn’t have made it taste so good if he didn’t want us to eat it,” and the reality that there are so many rational, ecological and economical reasons to go vegetarian. I haven’t made a decision (nor peace) with the struggle, but I can’t wait to read more from Safron Foer.

    To Laura’s comment, I just attended a lecture by Rabbi Morris Allen who is helping lead the Magen (Heksher) Tzedek movement. The idea of there being ethics involved in our eating may not be brand new, but is the kind of thing I can get behind, particularly given how unsavory factory farming is.

  20. Geneviève Says:

    I am very impressed by Foer’s attempt to write on this topic. I’ve enjoyed his fiction and I’m very excited about the opportunity to read this non-fiction account. I also see the benefit of promoting better, non-industrial, and humane versions of meat processing for consumption even if you are not going to partake. The world will continue to eat meat, but we need to make kind decisions concerning the lives of living things with whom we share this planet. In our house, meat is treated more like a side dish than the main course, but it’s becoming harder and harder for me to eat meat physically. I teach hot yoga, so I think it has altered my insides. While we do our best to purchase meat ethically, I doubt I’ll still be eating much of it by next year. I’ve enjoyed the work on this subject by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver… I have faith that Foer, one of my favorite writers, has contributed to the great conversation and given it new meaning for Jewish families.

  21. Liza Says:

    I was a strict vegetarian for 15 years and a vegan for 4 of those…now, I’m a once-a-week (or less) meat eater, and I always ensure that it is organic, local, and ethically sourced (to the extent that the killing of animals could be considered to be an ethical choice, yes, I know).

    So why did I go back? Cravings and anemia, to a certain extent. But mostly, it was my uneasiness at the righteous discourse around the moral superiority of vegetarians – especially the pervasive idea that it’s somehow “cleaner” for the body, less anger-generating, more peaceful. Better for the environment? Sure, but what about GMO soy products, highly processed fake meats, apples from New Zealand, asparagus from Peru, and mangoes from Mexico? Turns out that it’s more complicated than Diet For a Small Planet made it all out back in the 70s…Michael Pollan, I’m looking at you!

    I’m particularly puzzled by the notion that people are angrier/moreviolent if they eat meat, and that there is something essentially masculine/macho about meat-eating (see The Sexual Politics of Meat, et al.). Am I the only one this strikes as completely irrational? I love how the same people who heap scorn on Western meat-eating omnivores are often the same ones who romanticize a range of indigineous peoples – most of whom wouldn’t turn down a good chunk of meat if it was offered to them… ;)

    I am vehemently against the factory farm system, big agribusiness – and am raising my child to respect life and the natural world in all of its forms. Is our (usually on Shabbat) consumption of meat – with respect – a moral dilemna? I don’t think so.

    That said, I love Safran Foer and can’t wait to read his new book!

  22. Lillian Says:

    Thank you for the heads-up about this book. It sounds like a fascinating read, and I hope I win a copy (which I will read, and then probably foist upon all my friends.)

  23. Micah Says:

    I absolutely love and support a move to re-negotiate the laws of kashrut to encompass the social goals that Judaism supports. I have always kept kosher because that is how I was raised, but it’s hard to explain my practice to other because it doesn’t -really- mean anything to me on a personal level (other than representing my faith and culture). I could absolutely get behind keeping kosher if it meant that I was eating meat produced in a sustainable and just way. If the rabbis manage to change the kashrut laws, they will be able to create a labeling system that has thus far been out of reach to USDA and others trying to produce an eco-label. I can’t wait to read Foer’s thoughts on this!

  24. Jem Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m a relatively new vegetarian. Vegetarianism kind of crept up on me. It was in beginning to keep kosher that I began leaving meat out. Most of my motivation comes from an ecological standpoint and from the idea that was placed in my head that as a Jew I should hold myself to a higher standard. I don’t think I could say that eating meat is wrong. However, I think that eating meat is not the most responsible choice I could make. It is not necessary for me to eat meat to have a healthy diet. I can eat a healthy, varied and affordable diet without including meat. Yes, it can be inconvenient but being responsible usually is.

  25. Morgan Says:

    Thoughts on eating meat… What a tall order. Personally, I don’t eat meat for environmental, health and financial reasons. Modern farming is terrifying to me. I don’t want or need to put growth hormones and antibiotics into my body through the food I choose to eat, and I am unable/unwilling to make the financial commitment to eating grass-fed, free-range, antibiotic-and-hormone-free meat. I fully support farmers who raise sustainable and ethical meat, and hope that one day they are the rule rather than the exception.

  26. Queenscook Says:

    Interesting. I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat very little meat; almost only on shabbos. I’d be interested in seeing more of what Foer has to say.

  27. Melissa Says:

    As a lacto-ovo vegetarian for over twenty years, I have heard my share of arguments in the debate over eating animals. What I do think is that we will probably never convince everyone to think the way we do, but we definitely need people to rethink how we eat, how food is produced and to make the effort to change habits in the same way we need to rethink other ways we leave a mark on this planet. Americans won’t stop driving cars, but they can stop driving gas guzzlers. People won’t go back to using candles to read Foer but they can change to CFL bulbs. Many gladly shell out $3 or more for a cup of coffee,or $5 for a fast food burger so we can certainly pay more for locally grown food–if we want to.
    The link below is to an essay by Erik Camayd-Freixas who worked as a translator for some of the 400 workers, many of whom were almost illiterate, arrested at the Rubashkins plant in Iowa. What Rubashkins and the government did could make one weep, as does the debate following the raid, over what halacha means. Though I don’t eat meat I support the idea of a Hechsher-tzedek, because my kids eat chicken once a week.

  28. Hannah Lee Says:

    Thanks to a heads-up from Jeff Shapiro:

    This from the on-line magazine, daily: Tablet:

    “In the funniest scene from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated, several Ukrainians attempt to understand what exactly is wrong with an American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer who refuses to eat any meat. Almost a decade later, Foer has finally explained himself, in Eating Animals (Little, Brown, November), a nonfiction cri de coeur against factory farming. By temperament a sentimental maximalist, and now with an actual cause to champion, Foer pulls out every stop: science, humor, horror, pathos, celebrities. Natalie Portman proclaimed last week that Foer has single-handedly transformed her into a vegan. If Foer’s dog, sweet Holocaust-surviving grandmother, and infant children have anything to say about it—and, oh, they absolutely do—you’ll think twice before devouring the flesh of another mammal, kosher or not.”

    [The video link is: http://www.hachettebookgroup.c.....ard=&

  29. Karl Schatz Says:

    Over the course of our food & farming journey, we have gone back and forth about eating meat. We knew that if we were going to eat meat, we had to take responsibility for that act. Initially that meant visiting a slaughter house and attending a halal slaughter. Now almost all the meat that we eat comes from animals that raise and slaughter ourselves, the rest comes from other local farms, where we know the farmer and know that animals are raised well, treated well, and have a respectful end to their lives. I don’t think everyone needs to raise and slaughter their own animals to eat meat conscientiously, but if you are going to eat meat, visiting the farm, witnessing the conditions the animals are living under AND slaughtered under is something just about everyone could and should do.

    One other thing I’d like to add is that on a diversified, sustainable small farm or homestead, animals, and therefore, meat, play an integral and necessary role in the biological cycle and sustainability of the farm. The manure and bedding from our goats and chickens all goes into the garden and into the vegetables. We don’t buy or bring in any fertilizer from outside the farm.

  30. miriamcoates Says:

    To me, the most intriguing aspect of Foer’s book (from what I have read of excerpts) is how he and his wife came to the decision to raise their children as vegetarians.

    Around the age of eight, when I first toyed with the idea of abstaining from meat, what disturbed me most was that despite my new zeal and strict adherence to a vegetarian diet I would never be able to retract the meat that I had consumed without truly making the choice for myself.I felt anger that I had participated in(and admittidly enjoyed) meat eating without understanding what the ramifications were.

    According to David Sears’s book The Vision of Eden, meat ideally should only be consumed by Torah scholars who possessed the ability to eat meat with such consciousness, focus, and appreciation as to elevate the sparks and souls of the animal being consumed. This distinction would exclude children.

    As adults, we have the ability and knowledge to think about our diets critically and make decisions accordingly. With children it is not so simple.

  31. Cindi Waters Says:

    I just ordered Foer’s book after having read a review of it in the local paper here. (Ft. Lauderdale) I then went to Barnes & Noble to check it out, read a bit more of it there, was convinced I wanted the book and ordered it at a slightly discounted price on their website. I don’t claim to be equal to Natalie Portman of whom it is said to have become a vegetarian simply by virtue of having read Mr. Foer’s book, but as soon as I read the book review I knew I had to do something. (I’m many decades older than Ms. Portman , more like Mr. Foer’s grandmother.) His consideration of the ethical treatment of animals made me look deeper into this subject, since I read the few bits of the book so far I have stopped eating chicken and meat, period, on ethical grounds. Now I am considering investigating where I can find humanely killed meats in the south Florida area. If I cannot do so comfortably and knowledgeably, I will continue to not eat meat, cheese, eggs, and I’m even thinking to get the “vegan” shoes, etc. they advertise, just because of the inhumane raising and slaughter of these poor animals.

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