Storytelling: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

November 20, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 16 4 min read

I became a vegetarian when I was 14 years old for a variety of reasons, not all of them necessarily admirable or based on ethics. I was concerned for animal welfare but vegetarianism was also an easier way of hiding my brief and painful eating disorder from my parents and friends, a way to assert my 14-year-old self into a particular brand of neo-hippie fashion, and a way to manufacture an identity at a time when I wanted to stand out and be heard. Also, somewhere deep down inside me, beneath the ornament and artifice, I truly felt that eating animals was wrong.

I returned to meat when I was in college, partially because vegetarianism had suddenly gone out of fashion, replaced with higher protein diets that emphasized the importance of meat, and partially as a means of overcoming my obsession with monitoring and controlling the amount of food I ate. I am more important than a chicken or a cow, I told myself and slowly but surely weaned myself back to enjoying the pleasure of food I had once forsaken. Relearning to eat meat, for me, was an exercise in self empowerment- not self empowerment the way that many books and TV shows in America advertise or market it as a product, but empowerment in the truest sense. This was about survival. If Darwin was right and only the fittest are meant to survive on this planet, then I was going to be the fittest. I relished the feeling of eating meat, of enjoying my place in the food chain (high up there). It was a good decision. I grew healthier and stronger, and I vowed to never look back. On Yom Kippur, whem my entire family was fasting, I refused. I didn’t want to fixate and focus on my eating, even in the name of God or self reflection. In my mind, this kind of reflection, of consideration for my body’s wants and needs, was sentimental and weak, a reflection of a struggle between and among myself, my belief system and the world at large, and I had emerged the victor.

coverIn Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer asks us to do just this kind of reflection. Many reviews of Eating Animals focus on the more practical concerns and issues that Foer raises about factory farming-how our farm animals are overcrowded, over medicated and sick and the implications of this for us, the people eating the animals. For Foer, these issues are important in that they reinforce the urgency with which we must recognize the horrors of factory farming, while showing us that there is nothing natural about the process of eating meat today at all.

While Foer’s patient and inventive way of chronicling the way eating factory-farmed meat impacts us is educational, there is nothing necessarily new about this knowledge that you couldn’t find in any number of mainstream books and magazines advocating a vegetarian lifestyle. It is also not his main argument. To Foer, our ideal method for reevaluating the way we view the food we eat is through the lens of compassion. At the start of his book, Foer insists that “A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing but that is not what I have written here.” and he is right. Eating Animals is, in many ways, a book about reflection and that means asking questions, rather than always providing answers.

The question that ultimately propels this book is whether or not in today’s world, eating meat is necessary and natural, and why we, as powerful and compassionate creatures, aware of suffering, continue to allow it. Foer acknowledges that there are many potential answers to this question, not all of which include vegetarianism. He admires the few (too few in fact) family farms, that still exist in the US, and leaves himself open to the possibility that a more humane manner of raising meat is possible. For someone who presents such a thorough and devastating account of the worst of human food production, Foer is an optimist. He believes that individual choices matter and that we have the power to make these choices daily. The decision to eat or not eat factory farmed meat (which is 99% of the meat available in supermarkets in the US today) is a moral one. He says, “It might sound naïve to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a burger is a profoundly important decision. Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.”

It is precisely these kind of sentiments that make Eating Animals polarizing, and, in some ways controversial. The world is full of too many problems, some readers and critics say, and animals are not important enough to be first on the agenda for moral thought and reflection. But Foer is not asserting that we should abandon all other causes in the interest of adopting a lifestyle which includes humane treatment for animals, merely that we extend that kind of thought to them.

It is a reasonable argument, and it’s a wonder that many take personal offense to the suggestion that the way we are eating is wrong. In contrast to theorists like Peter Singer, who make the accusatory arguement that the way we treat animals is a form of “speciesism,” Foer provides, for readers who choose to contemplate these issues, a remarkably gentle assault of information. He agrees that the food we eat, including meat, is more than just sustenance, a concept he explores by explaining the way his Grandmother, a woman who survived Nazi Europe, obsesses about food. “Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love.”

Eating Animals is a sensitive and brave book and as such will always be met by certain criticisms reserved for things which are sensitive and brave. People will argue that the text is interesting, but naive and idealistic, which is true I think, only if you believe that most people are not sensitive and brave. Foer, however, is optimistic, urging the importance of stories themselves, but also, and more importantly, the retelling of stories, the tremendous power and privilege of being human, of reflecting on the past and being willing to change and make ourselves better people in the future.

Not everyone will share this type of introspection. Many of us haven’t spent periods of our life thinking about the food we eat, where it comes from and why we eat it and for those people, the effectiveness on this text will hinge on how effectively Foer is able to demonstrate the importance of thinking about the meat industry at all. For me, Eating Animals was an opportunity to re investigate two of my earliest convictions – the decision to stop eating meat and the decision to start again. Whatever I decide to do next will be entirely the same, and also an entirely different story.

is a writer living in Washington, DC, She received a BA in Philosophy and English Literature from Brandeis University and received her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her thesis was a collection of short stories and essays, entitled, Love and Hunger. She currently teaches writing at George Washington University and American University.


  1. I think you are wrong on that, D. It is a premise most people are vehemently in disagreement with, and the investigative work Foer did, getting into those factories was very dangerous, and nobody, except, perhaps, PETA, bothers to do investigative journalism like that anymore. I believe those things are what makes the writing of this book brave. Although, some of that bravery is muted by the fact that Foer does not take a hard line stand in favour of vegetarianism, but I think that is because he knows that there are too many people in complete blind denial about the suffering of the animals we eat.

  2. I guess I’m having a hard time believing being a vegetarian in park slope in 2009 is in any way comparable to blacks risking their life and limbs to protest segregation in the 50s deep south. In fact, that seems pretty insulting to me.

    Being vegetarian is fine, but it is not brave. You are not risking anything except some snide comments from your friends now and then, but lord knows you’ll be making as many back at them.

  3. Thanks for your comments, D.

    To clarify, I don’t think that Foer’s book is brave because I agree with it or because I think there is something intrinsically brave about being a vegetarian. To me, Foer’s book is brave because it is highlighting an issue that many people don’t care about or else tend to minimize. Foer is not afraid to face that kind of criticism and I find that kind of commitment to his ideals brave,

    Foer’s quote regarding protesting segregation highlights the way in which every generation tends to be a bit myopic. His argument is that what was seen as a radical act then is now perceived as an ultimate act of justice. He contends that refusing to support factory farming is now perceived as radical, but is actually the right and moral thing to do.

  4. It seems to me that Foer’s book is brave precisely because it has to contend with attitudes like D’s.

  5. Arielle,

    Thanks for your response. I have a lot I’d argue with you, but I might as well save it for my own review (one where I will certainly get negative comments on the internet for and perhaps that will make me brave, eh cooper?). But I would like to address this:

    “It might sound naïve to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a burger is a profoundly important decision. Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.”

    The above, to me, is totally representative of the smug and intellectually shallow thinking Foer displays in the book. What happened was not people sitting in different seats in a restaurant. What happened was masses of oppressed people risked life and limb to break laws they thought were unjust. It would not have sounded fantastic at all to tell someone in the 1950s, “Oh, can you believe that massive civil unrest might change our laws about race?”

    There is no risk of life or limb to buy a Boca burger. There are no laws being broken. There is simply no comparison. One might as well say “It would have sounded crazy in 1930 to say that a few Americans visiting a beach in Europe would end WWII.”

    Foer is not trying to make an intellectual point there (I hope at least), he is only making an emotional one. A dishonest emotional point I would argue, which again seems representative of the book as I read it.

  6. D.,

    I think we are actually agreeing on Foer’s intent. We just disagree on whether it is a good move or not. As I state in my review, I believe that Foer is ultimately making an emotional argument, one which will alienate some readers, and one which I am personally open to, since I feel like I have an emotional stake at investigating these issues.

    This doesn’t mean I agree with everything Foer advocates; it means I considered this book to be an important and thought provoking read. I don’t consider the personal experience to be antithetical to intellectual honesty- in fact, the whole point of Foer’s inclusion of the personal is to demonstrate the way in which our own experience filters our moral choices.

    I chose that specific quote from Eating Animals because I felt it was polarizing and would probably alienate some readers. I think that’s a deliberate choice on Foer’s part- he is trying to ignite some kind of reaction. I still think that Foer’s main point, in making this analogy, is not to equate animal rights with civil rights, but to compare the tendency of people to think that individual choices don’t matter. During the 1950s there were many people who believed that Civil Rights would never happen…in fact, there are people today who say we still have a heck of a lot to accomplish. I don’t think these are equal issues, but I do think it is an apt analogy. Some people today think that food choices won’t ever be enough to overturn factory farming just as some people in the 1950s did not think that civil disobedience would be enough to end segregation. In hindsight, it is easy to say, “Of course- civil rights naturally happened!” At that time, I don’t think the impact was necessarily clear.

    As far as snobbery goes- I simply did not feel that Foer’s argument has class connotations. Yes, certain types of vegetarian food are more expensive, but lots of vegetarian meals are incredibly cheap and just as healthy. The reason people aren’t running out to eat rice and beans in the US and many other places is cultural. Much of the world enjoys a vegetarian diet. Foer’s claims are not unique to young bourgeoisie hipsters living in New York. Philosophers have been debating the ethical implications of eating meat- how we raise animals, how we kill them, etc….for centuries, all over the world. I think bringing up these issues is valid and important.

  7. Much of the world “enjoys” a vegetarian diet because they cannot afford meat. Meat consumption has been rising dramatically across the globe as meat has become cheaper and more available globally. To say it is merely cultural differences does not seem accurate to me. There is a factory farmer who brings up this point in the book. I think if you want a brave confrontation with the issues of factory farming, which are many and serious, you absolutely must confront the class issues. You can say that it is possible to eat rice and beans and be healthy, but food is not merely energy and that is not what people want to eat and that is why the rich hipster vegetarians spend lots of money on expensive vegan products and meat substitutes.

    Foer’s arguments really do result in a world where the rich can enjoy the pleasures of meat and animal product consumption through family-farm products while the poor are denied yet another pleasure.

    I think this is fine if you want to make that argument, I like bold arguments. But I believe you must actually make it, not simply avoid the entire issue of class.

  8. Hi again, D.

    Forgive me, but I actually grew up eating rice and beans. My mother is from Cuba and I always saw rice and beans as comfort food. It is cultural.

    Your argument is actually supporting mine. Vegetarian food is cheaper than meat. The fact that meat is considered superior to vegetarian cuisine is entirely cultural. There are people in the world who would never eat pork or beef or other types of meat because it goes against their religious beliefs- and you know what? These cultures have great cuisines too.

    Culture can change. More people the world over could be fed if we all adopted a vegetarian diet. Additionally, Foer doesn’t agree that anyone should have the right to the “pleasures” of meat, when that pleasure comes at the expense of ethically raised animals.

    If you don’t want to change your diet because you don’t deem this issue important enough to merit attention, that’s fine. but it’s not necessarily a class issue as you make it out to be. It’s a cultural issue and a matter of taste.

  9. D.

    Seems to me like you’re just being belligerent here. Arielle is simply recounting her experiences as a vegetarian, while examining Foer’s take on the issues pertinent to eating (and enjoying) meat. Actually, given your wholesale rejection of a particular lifestyle, you remind me of those holier-than-thou Park-Slope vegetarians you seem to despise. We can critique other people’s personal choices all we want, but at the end of the day, these kinds of personal choices rarely effect us. What we have here is a thoughtful consideration of a particular kind of lifestyle, no more, no less. Your real beef (pun intended) is with Foer, not the reviewer, so I’d suggest you find a way to contact him.

  10. Bravery, like many things, depends on context. I can not understand how being a vegetarian in Park Slope (or advocating vegetarianism from there) can be called brave. I mean, what is he risking? Is he going to receive death threats by some shady cattle owner’s organization?
    The really irritating thing about Safran Foer is his lack of humility, his profound self-righteousness. Two things that are quite common these days and have nothing to do with being brave.

  11. Beatrix

    My opening comment was probably too harsh, so I apologize for that. For whatever it is worth I do not reject the lifestyle of vegetarianism, whatever that would mean. I have plenty of respect for vegetarians. What I don’t have respect for is unfounded self-righteousness, poor logic and dishonest arguments. It annoys me whether it is Jonathan Safran Foer in this book or your average meat-eater who comes into this debate just to brag about how great fried chicken tastes. I’m rejecting the arguments, not the lifestyle.

  12. This D person, I am thinking has some interest in the meat industry.

    His arguments about false logic are themselves inaccurate and nonsensical.

    The comparison to previous social revolutions is a valid on in that there are also millions of lives on the line here and people are breaking laws and dedicating their lives to perform investigations and work undercover for years. Its easy to speak against animals when they do not have a voice. It’s up to humanity to give them one.

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