Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

I have always been an avid omnivore. Nothing against vegetarians, or vegans, or anyone with dietary choices different than mine. But I never thought I would even consider cutting meat from my personal menu options.

Which is why this book, which I bought blindly without reading so much as a dust jacket blurb, frightened me. It was nothing like Foer's other books, both excellent novels. No, this book sat threateningly on my shelf for weeks because it had presented me with a choice: Remain largely ignorant about the meat industry in America, or risk having to change my gastronomic lifestyle.

Foer doesn't proselytize the vegetarian cause, although it's clear throughout the book what his own personal stance and choices are. But he does discuss his findings after years of research and industry infiltration. And he comes to the conclusion in his book, as in his personal life, that eating meat -- which, in this country, almost inevitably means eating factory-farmed meat -- is not the right thing to do for a whole slew of reasons.

But is what is right for Foer necessarily right for anyone else? I do know that, having finished this book, I cannot eat meat with the same zeal, nor (if I'm honest) the same indifference, that I did a week ago. And it's not just because the cute little animals have to be killed for me to enjoy eating them. If I may quote from near the end of Eating Animals, Foer writes:

"For some, the decision to eschew factory-farmed products will be easy. For others, the decision will be a hard one. To those for whom it sounds like a hard decision (I would have counted myself in this group), the ultimate question is whether it is worth the inconvenience. We know, at least, that this decision will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history. What we don't know, though, may be just as important. How would making such a decision change us?"

Or, what to me is the obvious question: How would not making such a decision change us? Change me?

Perhaps I am weak. I see how vegetarians force their generous hosts to prepare "specialty" meals, not usually by demanding vegetarian fare, but because those serving food feel an obligation to accommodate that person's dietary choices. Or, I watch as vegetarians have to go without eating in a social setting because there is no vegetarian option. And I don't want to be in either of those positions.

In my own kitchen? No problem. Except that those with whom I live are omnivores, and I couldn't expect them to alter their dietary habits to match mine.

Basically, it's societal eating that is keeping me from turning vegetarian right now. Which makes some sense; eating is, and for humans always has been, a social activity. But for me, the question has become whether that influence is enough to prevent me from changing my dietary habits across the board in a way that now seems fit.

If I do choose to become vegetarian, am I likely to give up meat forever? No. I think that, if I could be absolutely certain about certain qualities of the animals -- essentially, are they free of all the detrimental treatments and attitudes that define factory farms and their practices -- I would eat them. But not as regularly. And certainly never again so casually.


  1. Whoa . . . sounds interesting . . . most definitely going on my reading list.

    Keep us updated if you do decide to go V. I've attempted twice. Once in 5th grade in mourning of my dog dying. I lasted a day. My mom was not supportive and took me to McDonald's. "You can get a salad!" Yeah right . . .

    Most recently was this summer. I lasted < 24 hours because I was attending a week-long training w/ no veggie option at 8hrs/day.

  2. Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat, by Howard F. Lyman, did it for me. Vegetarian for 3 years... until Deutschland happened ;)

  3. i'm taking you to ezra's for a kobe burger...you'll get over it. :) you should check out the hbo movie "temple grandin" about an autistic woman who developed more humane ways of farming cattle. "nature is cruel. but we don't have to be." sums it up very nicely.

  4. Yeah, struggling with the same thing myself. As consumers, we don't have any real choices outside what the corporate masters decide to offer us. In the case of meat, that is the carcasses of factory-farmed, genetically altered, barbarically treated animals.

    Humans evolved as omnivores (although we can clearly thrive as vegetarians), but we also evolved some sense of what they call morality. It seems like the two are becoming mutually exclusive in the age of corporate dominance.

    I may board the V train sometime, but currently I am getting by on the hypocritical stance that the wrongs I commit by eating factory farmed meat are very small compared to the wrongs committed by the meat producers themselves, and of course the other corporate devils.

    Part of the Problem

  5. What it comes down to are what can one afford and what can one accept into their own morality and their life.

    If you can't really afford to eat fresh all the time, you've gotta go with meats. They can be frozen, cooked, refrozen and kept for much longer than fresh veggies and everything, you can't really freeze veggies without destroying them, and it's hard to eat all of some type of veggie at one time before it goes bad.

    It's even harder if you jump on the organic bandwagon. It's just expensive, and sometimes you have to come to grips with what you can afford and what you can stand.

    I do my best to stay away from red meat, but sometimes there's nothing better than a steak or a burger.

  6. Lots of responses! Let's see if I cover them all.

    Andrew: I will definitely keep you posted. I can't say that I've gone V yet, but today is my third day in a row without any meat. And I've become much more aware of what veggie options restaurants offer.

    Kelly: I couldn't be vegetarian in D-land. No way. Too many things that are just too good. (Don't you like the strength of my moral stance?)

    Lex: You can try! Actually, Foer references Grandin several times. I agree that we very much need to take steps to make the raising and slaughter of animals much less cruel than it generally now is.

    Andy: Generally speaking, I think you make a valid point. But businesses want to make money, and if enough consumers demand a product (say, for example, poultry without additives), they will provide it. Your employer, believe it or not, is one example of such a company. Also, what this book opened my eyes to (I knew the issues were there, but refused to think about them) was not only the cruelty of the farms, but the individual repercussions (such as consuming the antibiotics that the animals are fed). One person might not mean a damn to the corporations, but one's dietary choices certainly will influence one's own being.

    Kim: Yes, sadly, money does play into all this. And I've had the same thoughts as you. But actually, if done right, eating veggie is much cheaper than eating omnivorous. Think about it: A lot of food goes into raising an animal. Certainly more food than is produced from the meat of that animal. That cost has to be recovered somewhere, which is why (non-exotic) fruits, vegetables, and grains are much cheaper than meat. And some do freeze well -- but I'll admit that one might have to be much more willing to plan around farmer's markets or go shopping with greater frequency to keep fresh produce about the house.

    What's important to me in all this is that it's generating discussion. Whatever people decide, I think it's best (whether we're talking food or politics) for those decisions to be informed. So thank you, every once and future commenter!

  7. For those of you wanting to know how it's going: I'm one week vegetarian. And I'm discovering I actually like a lot of things I always thought I hated.