Monday, September 6, 2010

Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals": Book Review

This book helped lure my teenaged son away from meat and fowl. At his school, he and his brother heard Foer speak at his school after last Thanksgiving, during his book tour. While my older son reverted to meat soon after, my wife and I have stuck with my younger son. We finally gave up chicken and turkey as we had gradually beef and pork.

I mention this as testament not to the message Foer promotes, for that's familiar. But he convinced my family of his thesis: "We need a better way to talk about animals." (33) Like billions of consumers in cities, we ignore factory farms as "animal agriculture." This system comprises 99% of all meat which we buy as "processed." I use Foer's euphemism for the slaughtering and butchering methods that he, in a clandestine night visit to an enormous turkey "farm," compels us to witness. He relates what "rescue" means for one small bird, unforgettably.

That is, he does not sentimentalize, preach, or pander. He stays calm. "Just as nothing we do has the direct potential to cause nearly as much animal suffering as eating meat, no daily choice that we make has a greater impact on the environment." (74) He integrates facts accessibly; the graphic presentation familiar from his novels here increases his data's power. 40% more of an impact on global warming than all of transport combined is due to animal agriculture. A KFC chicken (a drugged football with feet) lives 39 days and an "organic" one but 42. For all the fish discarded when serving a helping of sushi, the true haul of that catch would fill a plate five feet in diameter. Cattle now live only 12-15 months. On the slaughter line, cows may survive for seven minutes after they're supposedly stunned and bled.

He confronts how we get what's on our plates. He challenges us to engage in dialogue with our neighbors, and with our families. He visits the touted "natural" alternative of Niman Ranch; he learns that this once-idealistic business has just been sold to a factory farm. His interspersed accounts from a PETA activist, a family-based turkey rancher, and workers involved in the raising, care, and killing of animals enrich this narrative's depth.

Foer's grandmother during the Holocaust literally risked death rather than eating pork: such an example burrows deep into ancestral contentions where food and survival contend with conscience and commitment. His Judaism and its kosher tradition also deepen this tension. He faces disengaging from thousands of years of lamb-shanked Seders, and childhood Thanksgivings and barbecues. He examines how our "table fellowship" tests the bonds of family and friendship vs. those of individual ethics and global betterment.

At times, as with his musings on Judaism and his family, its organization jumps about, as his novels do. It can be diffused or contemplative. It also stays hard-hitting and open-minded. It's challenging now and then to figure out its direction. So, this narrative may confound those wanting a more disinterested arrangement of anecdotes, factoids, reporting, and reflection. But I was surprised how fast the pages flew, despite or because of its idiosyncratic pace and unflinching attention to quirky or grisly detail.

Foer spent three years researching this book. He wrote it to explain to his newborn son why his father chose not to eat any more animals. "Will he be among the first of a generation that doesn't crave meat because he never tasted it? Or will he crave it even more?"

As with my older son--who has chosen to not eat meat when at home--my family along with many readers may agree with Foer's pronouncement: "The justifications for eating animals and for not eating them are often identical: we are not them." (63) Yet, we can not claim ignorance any longer. For, reading this, and honestly articulating the unease about our fried chicken, cheap burgers, and greasy drumsticks--and the fish that I admit I still eat, more guiltily than before--you will close this book more conscious, more humanly aware, of the choices we all make three times every day.

This is why, even as Foer remains a nuanced proponent of vegetarianism, he finds that compromise with organic this or free-range that sells short our potential to solve the dilemmas that factory farming presents as Third World demand increases the bargain-priced flesh. We eat 150 times more chicken than our families did 80 years ago. Until 50 years ago, small farms were where we got our beef and chicken. Now, rural alternatives barely exist; family farms continue to give in to the Combine, as has Niman Ranch.

"We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory--disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own." Suffering worsens; the climate warps. The money that feeds animal agriculture comes from our subsidies, our taxes, our pockets as we shell out for a Happy Meal or a filet mignon. Foer ends with the "question of eating animals" as "ultimately driven by our intuitions about what it means to reach an ideal we have named, perhaps incorrectly, 'being human.'" (264)
Posted to AmazonUS & 7-20-10; and PopMatters 9-1-10. Eating Animals website.

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