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.
In 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.