Here’s what I don’t understand: why was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma all over the place but I never even heard of this one until I accidentally saw it in the cookbook section of my library? It could be because I don’t keep up with The New Yorker‘s book reviews, because they apparently loved it. But there was a period of time when I couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Michael Pollan’s voice, and yet Eating Animals didn’t even show up on my radar.
Maybe it’s because Pollan’s message is more palatable. He tells us that it’s okay to eat meat as long as we make ethical choices around how we eat it. Safran Foer offers no such comfort.
For seven years, I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian who occasionally ate fish. I began to eat poultry when I became pregnant with my daughter and found my bread-and-cheese diet insufficient to meet my nutritional needs. Several months after I gave birth, I was about to go back to a vegetarian diet when I discovered that my daughter and I both had food sensitivities that ruled out so many foods in our diet that I couldn’t bring myself to eliminate meat as well. At that time, I ate only poultry, fish, and vegetables, but when I became pregnant with my son, my cravings for red meat became overwhelming, and I began eating beef as well.
When purchasing meat, I always tried to buy from ethical, non-factory sources. I bought local grass-fed beef, local pastured pork, and local eggs from “galavanting chickens,” as the labels on the egg cartons said. I knew the farmers personally, picking up pork and beef from the farmer and his family when the meat CSA shares came in, and passing the time with the poultry farmer when she dropped off eggs every week for me to sell from my porch. I got my Thanksgiving turkeys from my egg supplier, which brought awareness to the difficulties of finding slaughterhouses for small farmers. I carried a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch card in my wallet to help me make sustainable seafood choices.
But when preferred sources weren’t available—like when the farmer’s heirloom turkeys were all preemptively slaughtered by raccoons a few weeks before Thanksgiving—rather than go without meat, I would buy from the most ethical source available, even if that source wasn’t ethical at all (i.e., was a factory farm). After we moved cross-country, I was unable to find small, local farmers to supply our meat, so I just bought it from the grocery store (Whole Foods, mostly, but a national chain grocery store nonetheless).
I was already swinging back towards a more vegetarian diet before I read Safran Foer’s book (the result of talking with an ethical-vegan friend while engaged in an eight-week meditation program which had reawakened my desire to consume foods from less violent sources), but I think Eating Animals has pushed me over the edge into—*shudder*—veganism.
Safran Foer tackles the ethics of eating animals from many different angles. He points out the environmental costs (e.g., polluted water sources) and human health costs (e.g., antibiotic resistance) of factory farming, along with the workers’ rights violations endemic in the industry, its calculated contribution to the demise of the family farm, and, of course, the extreme and widespread animal cruelty.
I admit: sometimes he almost pushed me too far on the animal cruelty side of things. There’s a point at which I’m reading yet another account of cruelty—cattle hung by their back legs and skinned while still conscious, male chicks of egg-laying hens being funneled into what is essentially a wood chipper because they are unnecessary byproducts of the egg-laying process—that I say, “Enough.” There is a point at which, instead of becoming too much to ignore, the cruelty becomes too much to pay attention to. I wanted to put the book down and go eat some bacon. And when he drew back the curtain on egg production and commercial fishing techniques, I had a moment of fear as I wondered what on earth I was going to eat.
But luckily this wasn’t the whole of the book. His starting place is with facts, but he argues that the decision of what to eat is one based in relationships, culture, and compassion. This resonates with me because it’s not denial of the facts that keeps me from eating a plant-based diet, it’s fear of alienation from the people I care about. Safran Foer spoke to the social discomforts of choosing to eat differently than the mainstream. The section on what to have for Thanksgiving dinner was particularly poignant to me, as Thanksgiving was a sticking point for me every one of my seven years of vegetarianism. Saying, “no, thanks,” to a serving of turkey was saying, “no, thanks,” to a shared experience, a tradition of culture and family that draws loved ones together. To refuse to take part is to refuse to be a part. Safran Foer offers a different take on this, suggesting that hosting a vegetarian Thanksgiving can be the opener for discussions about compassion and can actually help us to be even more aware of the purpose of the holiday. I found this comforting until I imagined telling my kids we wouldn’t be having turkey for Thanksgiving. They’re not that old (only seven and three), but that tradition is already ingrained in them. A vegetarian Thanksgiving wouldn’t be popular with them, but it wouldn’t fly at all with most of our other relatives (but then, we’ve not shared a Thanksgiving with our extended family for eons, so this probably won’t be a very big problem).
Safran Foer recognizes the discomfort of talking about one’s food choices at the same time that he asserts the importance of doing just that. In the midst of reading this book, some friends offered me spring rolls with shrimp in them. All I could think was “26 pounds of bycatch for every one pound of shrimp,” a stat that had shocked me from the book. I asked myself two questions: do I eat the shrimp? and, if not, do I tell them why I won’t? I couldn’t bring myself to eat the shrimp, but neither could I bring myself to say the reason out loud. “No thank you,” I said. “I ate before I left my house.”
The personal reflections Safran Foer offers hit much closer to home than those in most of the books on American food production that I’ve read (The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation are the titles that are most prominent in my memory). The other food book that struck me so personally was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is where I first learned that commercial turkeys are unable to reproduce without human assistance. The similarity between these two books is that they were both written by novelists, people who make a living conveying and eliciting emotion via the written word. It’s not surprising that their books had this effect on me, but it was still rather delightful anyway. I felt understood, which is always nice when standing on the brink of a socially awkward lifestyle change.
So, now that Safran Foer has practically guaranteed that my father-in-law is going to make fun of me next time we eat together and raised the thorny issue of what to do about feeding my own milk-drinking, bacon-loving children, I’m not entirely sure where to go from here. I never wanted to be vegan because the majority of my experience with vegans was with the shrill, all-or-nothing ideology of the PETA-vegans on my college campus. I did not want to associate myself with that level of fanaticism, nor did I want to make every social outing that involved food into a rant about animal cruelty. I have enough trouble with social interactions as it is. But, as Safran Foer writes about his own food journey, now that I know, I don’t think I can go back to the way I ate before without some heroic act of self-deception.
In Eating Animals, Safran Foer recognizes the strong emotions surrounding food choices and the defensiveness with which people respond when confronted with someone who chooses to eat differently than they do, but he stops short of telling us how to bridge the gap and maintain connection from our perch atop the moral high ground. With any luck, he’ll write a follow-up book that focuses on how to be an ethical vegan and still nurture one’s relationships.
In the meantime, I’ll keep eating before I leave my house.