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?”
“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.