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!
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.