With his much-hyped new book, “Eating Animals,” Jonathan Safran Foer has managed to do something that my vegetarian husband and daughter have been unable to pull off: sworn me off meat, at least all conventionally raised meat.
I didn’t open the book expecting to be converted. Instead, I was fairly certain that the best-selling, young, media-darling author of “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” would have nothing new to contribute to this well-traveled topic other than an air of celebrity. But “Eating Animals” — which graphically describes the suffering, public health dangers and environmental devastation wreaked by industrialized agriculture and fishing practices — is surprisingly affecting and persuasive.
Where many vegetarian manifestos alienate with self-righteousness and judgmentalism, “Eating Animals” demonstrates as much compassion for humans, particularly the author’s decidedly non-vegetarian grandmother, as it does for animals.
Indeed, it is Safran Foer’s Jewish, Holocaust-survivor grandma who is the moral center of the book, the lens through which he explores the historical, cultural and psychological influences on our food decisions.
“Eating Animals” opens and closes with the grandmother, who “survived the War barefoot, scavenging other people’s inedibles: rotting potatoes, discarded scraps of meat, skins, and the bits that clung to bones and pits” — and yet refused to touch pork because “if nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
Years later, when Safran Foer is a child, Grandma weighs her grandson before and after each visit, teaches him to clip coupons, serves her signature dish of chicken and carrots, and hoards flour in her basement.
Part journalism, part meditation, part memoir — and constructed in a mix of voices and structures, including a glossary-like chapter called “Words/Meaning” — “Eating Animals” is more verbal collage than traditional argument.
And yet the disparate pieces seem, for the most part, to come together in the end — including everything from a horrifying late-night visit to a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,” in which live turkeys commingle with dead ones, to a discussion of the inordinate amount of untreated animal feces that meat production unleashes on the environment, to an attempt to understand how Americans can lavish unprecedented amounts of love and money upon their pets while at the same time demand that meat can can be priced so low only by treating farm animals as commodities.
Probing this seeming paradox, Safran Foer — who has a dog named George — even makes a Swiftian case for eating dogs, noting that since three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized annually, “dogs are practically begging to be eaten.”
Repeatedly, the book asks why, when it would be considered grotesque to torture animals for one’s sexual gratification or aesthetic pleasure, otherwise moral, animal-loving people are willing to have them tortured at the hands of factory farmers and slaughterhouse workers simply because meat is so tasty?
And why do people who worry about their carbon footprints ignore the fact that factory-farmed meat, not auto emissions, is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gases?
“I don’t think this story [about vegetarianism] has been told in the best ways,” Safran Foer says in an interview with The Jewish Week. “It’s often presented as either you’re a vegetarian or not, which is kind of like saying you’re an environmentalist or not. Instead, we’re presented with all these choices: Prius or SUV, big house or small house, recycle or not, and it’s not as if making one bad choice totally undermines your caring about the environment. Unfortunately, meat is often talked about as if it were a religion or a law ... it’s more useful to think about it as daily choices.”
“Eating Animals” — unlike a video called “If This Is Kosher...” that Safran Foer narrated a few years ago for the Web site GoVeg.com — does not focus on kashrut or Jewish food ethics. But Judaism makes frequent appearances in the book.
The author repeatedly mentions that he is Jewish and references famous Jewish vegetarian writers Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
He notes that the founder of Niman Ranch, which produces free-range pork, is a “Jewish city boy,” the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. When offered a sample of ham during a visit to a slaughterhouse, Safran Foer is afraid he’ll offend by turning it down, so lies and says “I’m kosher.” In his “Words/Meaning” chapter he includes “kosher” as a term to be defined, writing that while he grew up learning in Hebrew school that kosher meat was more humane, he now wonders if “the very concept of kosher meat” has become a “contradiction in terms.”
In conversation with The Jewish Week, Safran Foer says that while he has never kept kosher, as a vegetarian he is now “kosher by default.” (He still eats dairy and eggs, but says he tries to buy these only at Greenmarkets, from small-scale farmers.)
He and his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, who live in Brooklyn’s Park Slope with their two sons, observe Judaism “somewhat, in our own esoteric ways. We do Shabbat dinner and go to Tot Shabbat at my kid’s nursery school — he goes to a Jewish nursery school,” Safran Foer says, adding that, “My idea of being Jewish is basically learning about Judaism. That’s more important to me than practicing.”
Safran Foer, who is editing a Hagaddah to be published in 2011, says, “The thing that most excites me about Jewish identity is the connection to learning.”
So has Safran Foer’s book won over his bubbe?
The author laughs and says, “She still eats meat. She’s not going to change.”
Nonetheless Grandma has been supportive of his vegetarianism, preparing him eggplant salads and vegetarian “chicken” soup.
“To ask such a person to reinvent chicken soup is no small thing,” Safran Foer says. “I say that not as a joke. Chicken soup is something her great-great-grandparents ate, and in addition to conveying nutrients it conveys stories, culture, love.”