Eating Animals, Or What Not to Eat on Thanksgiving


Eating Animals, the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer (of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close fame) takes a look at what it actually means to give up meat, take it out of our vocab and eliminate it from our most gluttonous popular, holiday traditions. If you've read The Jungle or Fast Food Nation, or any variety of farming-industry tell-alls, this is like a 2.0 version. Safran Foer attempts to look more closely at what it means to be human and change an entire way of thinking. Like John Mayer said, "We're never gonna beat this if belief is what we're fightin' for." Then again, apparently the book was powerful enough to turn Natalie Portman vegan. No kidding.The book is full of funny stories, anecdotes from childhood and throughout the tale you feel as if you really are on the journey with Safran Foer as he sneaks into a factory farm in the middle of the night, for example. The book is not intended to make the case for vegetarianism, though Safran Foer repeatedly admits that he is now vegetarian after all he has uncovered. Essentially the book was written by the author after he had his first son and had to reconcile his eating habits and explain to his son why they do/don't eat meat. Safran Foer has been an on again, off again vegetarian for years and wanted to finally choose one side or the other, but to also know WHY he was choosing one over the other.

Is it all Just a Case of Semantics?

Since Eating Animals does not just attempt to convert the world to vegetarianism, but rather open up the discussion about how we view meat. The author mentions the fact that somehow in society it seems more "sensitive" to say "oh, I'll eat anything" rather than to worry about how your choices affect other living beings. This is how powerful language today is over each of us and over how it affects how we view eating meat. So, is eating meat all a matter of semantics? Semantics that let us feel its okay to eat meat unabashedly (even ravenously) and without thinking about consequences, but also the same semantics that could just as easily, if the right words were found, change our story and view. Does that mean that we are eating meat just because its what we've always done? Does that justify all of that inhumane killing? Is that what Safran Foer is trying to get at?

I found that this book is a really funny, fascinating, easy read. I quickly mowed through the first couple of chapters on my way to work, but then the book starts to get really heavy. In chapter after chapter, Foer goes into chicken, fish, beef, even turkey factory farming practices in excruciating detail I found myself thinking, "Please, just make it stop. I promise I'll never touch another animal again, much less eat one." One reviewer even likened it to getting a colonoscopy, "Its important and salutary and everyone should do it. But if it were just a bit more pleasant, or done with a drop more lube, it would be a lot easier to make it a regular thing." We've all heard about the atrocities that happen daily at factory farms so I won't spend too much time on that. Yet, Safran Foer mentions over and over that all of the horrible actions he mentions happened when an auditor was on an announced inspection - whose to say what happens when the authorities aren't around. Can we honestly allow this to continue just because it's what we have always done or is easier to ignore?

Eating Meat for Our Health

Another perception is that eating meat is somehow healthier. People that eat meat are viewed as stronger, somehow masculine for eating flesh, and yet, the author repeatedly gives examples of how the meat itself is soaked in all kinds of foul, filthy liquids; how the animals themselves are often diseased and still sold for consumption; how the animals are pumped full of a wicked cocktail of drugs, the very which they must rely on because individually they are too weak to live without. Does this idea still make us think that people who eat meat are somehow stronger, tougher than those who refrain?

Belief, Shame and Guilt Aren't Enough

One major point that Safran Foer hammers home is the fact that morals alone probably aren't going to get us to switch. The last chapter itself is a soapbox testament that points the finger at each of us and asks just what would it take to get us to stop eating meat. This isn't a question anymore of humane versus inhumane, as Safran Foer explains there are a handful (literally) of farms in the US that are even attempting to raise and slaughter their animals humanely. Choosing free-range, or any other cozy term just isn't good enough anymore.

Despite all of the labels, there are serious problems with just about every factory farm. So choosing to eat meat (unless its from the five or so farms that are listed as actually ethical) means choosing to eat animals that were treated cruelly, raised on a fast-track, come from genes that can't reproduce and are so sick that they couldn't survive outside of these false farm conditions. Basically, eating meat means supporting animal cruelty, global warming, extreme levels of pollution, etc - there is no middle ground at this point. "I felt shame," Safran Foer writes, "for living in a nation of unprecedented prosperity...but in the name of affordability treats the animals it eats with cruelty so extreme it would be illegal if inflicted on a dog."

Should we take it personally when someone across the table from us chooses to eat factory farmed meat? Is choosing not to eat meat for ourselves enough, or if we're abstaining for moral (and other) reasons do we have a responsibility to say something? What about the irony of going to lengths to purchase shampoo not tested on animals but still eating animals? Safran Foer acknowledges that the choice, while ironic, is not always so obvious or easy which is why he includes interviews directly with animal rights activists and farmers, many of whom agree that the issue is not quite so black and white.

What if We Can't Give Up Meat?

With that in mind, just how do we change our eating habits? Safran Foer says that eating is part of our culture, eating is part of our history. Choosing not to eat meat means having to constantly tell your grandmother that you don't want her brisket or any of that turkey she spent hours slaving over. Safran Foer quotes Michael Pollan as saying that, being vegetarian is kind of a drag. That part of the reason people don't want to be vegetarian is because it is too restrictive, too stoic, too....boring.

To be honest, I'd have to disagree. As someone who grew up eating meat until about 14 when my family went vegetarian, I have experienced Thanksgiving, for example, under both traditions. Meat-filled Thanksgiving to me was just another holiday. Nothing special. Same food. New Year. Now, Thanksgiving is a holiday to look forward to. My dad, the cook, spends weeks pouring over cookbooks to find the right combination of tastes and flavors and then spends hours on Thanksgiving happily blending old favorites (like green bean with fried onion casserole) with new concoctions using fillo dough, sauces and a wide variety of fresh vegetables. If anything, I look forward to Thanksgiving now more than ever. I've also taken to eating a greater variety of fruits and vegetables than I ever did. I go to the farmers market weekly and know many of the regulars. Part of my culture now includes the weekly trek over to the market to see what is in season. Seeing these friends, being in that culture, seeing the sustainably produced produce and fresh flowers is one of the highlights of my week. Maybe being vegetarian isn't such a drag after all.

You can find out more about Eating Animals on its website. (The website is pretty cool and worth a look, even if you don't care about eating animals). You can also find Eating Animals now at your local library or online at Amazon.com. :Eating Animals
More on Eating Animals
Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Vegetarian Diet Could Cut Climate Change Mitigation Costs by 70%, If Enough of Us Make the Switch
I'm Vegan Gets to the Meat of the Much Maligned Lifestyle
How and Why to Eat Less Meat
Should Your Pet Be Vegetarian Too?

Tags: Animals | Cattle | Fish | Holidays | Vegan | Vegetarian