Eating Animals Cover

Review: Eating Animals

Every other weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it’s incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.

I was excited to get my copy of “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I was excited because I know he’s a good writer, it’s on a subject that I care about, and it got more hype than a Tiger Woods scandal (ok not really). And while it was kind of masochistic of me to decide to read this over the holidays when meat is such a staple in my family, I’m very glad I did. After thinking about it for two weeks, let me see if I can put it into words why I think everyone should read this book. (And it’s not because I want you to be vegetarian. Trust me. I don’t.)

A Fiction Writer on Food

The question that was most pressing for me when I saw this book is, “Why the heck would a fiction author delve into the incredibly complicated world of food politics?” The answer was given pretty early in the book. First, turns out Mr. Foer is a smart guy. He was a philosophy major, he’s incredibly well-read, and he has a fantastic and, I think, poignant writing style. He appears to be genuinely interested in the topic. Second, he had the skills and the financial means to devote himself to nothing else but researching the meat industry for years. Very few people can do that – just travel around and poke and prod into something… Finally, and most importantly, he had a baby. And while he seemed to be content for many years eating whatever, he suddenly felt the need to explore WHAT exactly he was going to be feeding his child and WHERE it came from. Three years later, this book is the result.

What this Book is Not (Sort of).

Very early on, Mr. Foer does his best to combat the assumption about this book that it’s a strict and straightforward case for vegetarianism. He says:

“I, too, assumed that my book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn’t. A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it’s not what I’ve written here. Animal agriculture is a hugely complicated topic. No two animals, breeds of animals, farms, farmers, or eaters are the same… And eating animals is one of those topics, like abortion, where it is impossible to definitively know some of the most important details.”

SPOILER ALERT: I say sort of in parenthesis because after 260 pages he is a vegetarian. Although he does a better job than most at presenting different views to show how complicated this issue is, he’s still a vegetarian. So the book is a case for vegetarianism, but just not a straightforward one.

Foer says that it’s telling that people assume this book is going to be a case for vegetarianism, because it means that deep down, we all know that if you closely analyze agricultural methods of meat production it will lead to a vegetarian answer. I think he is reaching here. Honestly, I assumed it was fiction until I read about it. I started thinking it was about vegetarianism when someone told me it was a book about vegetarianism.

What this Book Definitely IS

This book is, without a doubt, the most effective and straightforward case I’ve ever heard against industrial factory farming. Some of the facts are nothing new if you’ve read other books on the subject. But what he does really well, I think, is make the material very real for people who may not normally be open to reading about such things.

Foer does this through story-telling, which is something he is very good at. He tells various stories throughout the book to get his point across. One chapter, for example, is about poop, or shit as he says. Just how much of it is produced by factory farms, how it’s disposed, and why you should care. And seriously, this shit matters!

Powerful Words

Throughout the book Foer uses some interesting methods to get his point across. Some that stuck with me weeks after reading the book include:

  • A rational argument for why we should start eating dogs. Think A Modest Proposal only he isn’t joking. It might be simple to cast aside his proposal as ludicrous, but it’s much harder to rationally answer it.
  • Writing a short phrase enough times to equal 21,000 characters (it takes five pages). If you’re an average American, in your lifetime you will eat one animal for each character on those pages.
  • Comparing the amount of space an average broiler chicken is raised in to the area of an open page of his book. Hint: You have to subtract.

Other People’s Views

One of my favorite parts of the book was near the end when Foer does his best to show how complicated this issue really is. There are various chapters written by real people that show the complicated nature of agriculture. There’s the chapter written by a vegetarian beef farmer. Even better – there’s a chapter written by a vegan person who is building a slaughterhouse.

In My Opinion…

I’m trying to keep this review as objective as possible even though I’m obviously very passionate about the subject of food and I don’t agree with some of Foer’s conclusions (I tend to side more with the farmers in the later chapters). I do believe though, that regardless of whether or not you are vegetarian, there are some obvious things that can be gleaned from Foer’s book. And as Foer would say, these things matter.

First, our meat supply system is broken. People’s demand for super-cheap meat (how is a pound of flesh ever cheaper than a pound of broccoli?) has created a system that supplies that super-cheap meat but with near disregard to quality. It’s an incredibly cruel system that also passes on a number of unseen costs (environmental, disease, etc.) to future generations.

Second, our food labeling system is broken. It’s basically impossible to know where 99% of the meat you eat comes from or under what conditions the animal was raised in. Even if you don’t care about animal welfare, you should care about this as a matter of public health.

Third, it’s important to eat lower on the food chain. I’m not sure that he ever really states this in the book, but this was something that I took away from it. As other food policy writers have said, it’s basically impossible to fix a lot of these problems as long as we are consuming billions of animals a year. As a society, we need to eat less meat.

Fourth, we have to figure out a way to talk about these issues without name-calling. I was talking to a good friend about this recently and they said, “Nick, you realize that you sound very self-righteous when you talk about this stuff right?” And maybe I do, but that’s not my intent. Foer occasionally comes off as a self-righteous hippie liberal in the book, but it’s not good enough to discount his argument for that reason. You can be self-righteous and still be right. So if you are interested in discussing these things (and I think everyone should be), try not to be judgmental of someone else’s choices and try not to be sooo defensive if someone questions yours.

So, if you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let me know what you thought of it. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable leaving a public comment, shoot me an email: [email protected]

If you haven’t read this book, I would very much recommend it. Even if you don’t agree with everything in it, it’ll get you thinking for sure.

18 comments on “Review: Eating Animals

  1. I have to admit that I normally skip your cookbook reviews, but this one caught my eye.

    I also am trying to cut back the amount of meat that I consume. One reason is that I find the thought of the mass produced animal factor to be disturbing and unappetizing. Another reason is because of the health benefits of filling up less on meat and more on veg.

    I always spy the 'organic' stuff at the grocer and am tempted to buy it sometimes, but the area in which I live there are few people that buy these organic meats. Therefore these meats, besides being more expensive, suffer in quality from the lack of stock rotation and selection.

    The most economical solution, at least for chicken, is to buy whole and butcher it yourself. This brings the cost down vs buying just breasts, but the convenience factor is not there.

    Another problem I am having is, I always tend to use meat as a flavor. I can't help but throw a ham hock in with a pot of collards or add chicken stock to my lentils. Perhaps I need to just find new recipes and explore more Indian and Asian cuisine.

    As always, I thoroughly enjoy your site.

    1. Thanks for the comment Rob! I'm definitely all for the whole chicken approach if you can find quality birds. That's the only way to do it.

    2. @Rob – There is nothing wrong with using meat flavor as long as you utilize the whole carcass. In the end, you are doing a better service to that bird than just buying chicken breasts at the grocery story.

      One thing you will find with Indian and Asian cuisine is that they tend to use up EVERYTHING, as even that tough piece of beef is a welcome addition to a meal that usually consists of nothing but rice and vegetables. I think in most ways their cusine still reminds us today what we need to fix our global problem.

      I say if you cook your collards with a ham hock, then good on you. There is a reason tradition called for that – I think it is frugality.

      enjoy!

  2. I also normally skip the cookbook reviews (I have too many cookbooks already!) but didn't skip this one today and I'm glad! I may want to check this book out!

    I am currently reading Omnivore's Dilemma. My diet is probably about 90% vegetarian already and I do want to eventually go all the way. But its a choice I take seriously, so I don't want to jump into it and give up because I don't have the commitment or cooking skills to sustain it. My goal right now is to eat "mostly" meatless; and on the rare occasions that I do eat meat I try to choose sustainably and humanely raised livestock. I have also cut down considerably on the amount of dairy I consume. As I become a better cook, I think it will all get easier.

    When I finally do become a full-blown vegetarian, I think the toughest part will be giving up bacon. I don't eat it very often, but darn its good when I do!

  3. The fallacious argument that a lot of people – including some very smart people – fall for is that we should stop eating meat because our industrial farming methods are evil. The fact that our industrial farming methods are evil, to me, is a reason to eat meat that doesn't come from industrial farms. Support ranchers who are doing the right thing. The more people who do this, the more economically feasible it will be to raise food animals ethically.

    Going vegetarian is refusing to be a part of the problem, but – unless you honestly think that the world is going vegetarian (in which case I suspect you are deluded) – it is also refusing to be a part of the solution.

    1. I think Stuart's comment really sums up a much overlooked component of this conversation. You have a choice, and it's not just about whether or not you eat meat or not.

      I also agree with your thoughts on the judgement that we too often pass on people. Labels of diets and of individuals does nothing but isolate us from the bigger picture (fixing our nations food system). The biggest impact we can make is with our wallets and cheap industrial meat is just one of the issues we face in our daily food shopping. Great blog!

  4. @Nick – Thank you for the review. I might even actually take up and read this book. I will of course take everything there with a grain of salt (no pun intended.)

    I started a comment here, but I have moved it over to a response on my blog – hope you don't mind. Thank you for the inspiration!

  5. Hey Nick, great review! I read this book recently and LOVED it, and now I'm on to the Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan). I too am sounding like a self-righteous vegetarian… but I think people appreciate that it's from an environmental/waste/economic standpoint, and not just a strict animal welfare argument. It's all just so compelling.

    I think you should organize a field trip to Polyface Farms (Joel Salatin's beyond-organic operation) in Shenandoah Valley. It's a local farm that seems to be producing meat the best possible way.

  6. Thanks for posting the review. I haven't read this book yet so I was really interested to hear what you thought.

    I saw Food Inc a few months ago and it dramatically shifted the way I look at food and the choices I make when purchasing food. I've made a conscious decision to buy more oraganic, "natural," and humanely raised meat and poultry. My thanksgiving turkey cost about 5x that of a grocery store one, but damn, it was one fine bird and I certainly felt better about my choice.

    I'm not ready to give up meat, but I noticed that I have about as many vegetarian options in the recipes on my blog as I do for those tagged with "pork" which is telling for me, someone who used to have meat protein at every meal.

    1. yea… I'm noticing that trend on Macheesmo also.

      I of course say that as I have a 5 spice roasted chicken in the oven… (recipe later).

  7. Yay, I was so excited to see this book review! Foer is one of my favorite authors, and I'm pleasantly surprised he has chosen to write a book on this topic. I agree with some of the other commenters in that while vegeterianism is certainly a noble and healthy lifestyle choice, sustainability and the support of local and organic farms is a much easier lifestyle to adopt for most people. I was vegetarian for about two years, but my heart wasn't really in it, and I always missed the taste of meat. Now I am an omnivore, but I do my best to only buy local and organic foods, and I honestly think I'm doing better for the environment now than when I was only choosing my food based on whether it contained meat or not, without consideration as to where the food actually came from.

    I'll be sure to pick this one up, I'm super excited to see what he has to say!

  8. In the words of Snookie: "That's why I don't eat lobster and stuff like that because they're alive when you kill them."

    Amen Snookie. Most of the meat that I eat is alive when I kill it.

  9. I am really interesting in the bit about eating dogs; as an Asian, I've taken a lot of criticism from Americans who think it's absolutely horrid to eat dog, and I always to have to remind them there's really no difference between eating a calf or a pup (only because one's cuter??!!!).

  10. @Stuart: You are correct that opposing factory farming does not necessitate opposing eating meat. You should know that Jonathan Saffron Foer acknowledges the legitimacy of your point in his book.

    The question, then, is how readily available humanely raised and environmentally benign meat and eggs are. JSF does a great job of researching these issues, and comes up with an answer that might be surprising to most of us: extremely unavailable, extremely rare, and extremely difficult to identify reliably. Most relevant labels on our food–for example, "cage-free" eggs–are, to use JSF's words, "bullshit." The bottom line is that unless you're eating at Chipotle, the chances are practically zero that your meat or eggs are the output of a morally tolerable process. I recommend reading JSF's book for the abundant evidence which substantiates that conclusion.

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