Jonathan Safron Foer
Little Brown, 2009
When Jonathan Safran Foer’s grandmother cooked chicken, he and his brothers would regularly interrupt the meal to say, “You are the greatest chef who ever lived”. Never mind that this “greatest chef” had only one recipe with two ingredients, or that she informed her grandchildren that dark food is better than light food, that bigger animals are better for you, and that no food was bad for you. According to Foer, “her culinary prowess was one of our family’s primal stories”. That, at least, was before Foer became a vegetarian. In the beginning, the story of chicken was sacrosanct. Then it was sickening.
As grandchildren, we eat food with a mute acceptance. We eat without question. With time and age, though, it is around these same meals that we learn that our grandparents often cook with profligacy because they cannot forget the hunger of World War II. To cook is to tell a story, and to eat is to become a part of that story. Through food we learn about ourselves. The first lessons of food is one we all know: you are what you eat. For the Greeks, diets of fish and cream make for lustrous skin; for the Russians, vodka sharpens the characters. For Foer—writer of lauded contemporary fiction, New York Jew, and newly converted vegetarian—food is what he has consumed all his life: a series of stories, deeply troubled.
Such stories are the substance of Eating Animals, Foer’s newly published book about his personal decision to become a vegetarian. Forgoing a polemic against meat in favour of the personal, Foer discusses food as a complex story in need of a new language. In the process, he fashions a genre somewhere between fact and fiction. This is not a new style, but Foer being Foer: an experimental writer first, a committed vegetarian second. This hybrid sparks at times, but ultimately the fancy of the experience feels lighter than the weight of the problems Foer describes.
To be fair, this is not the kind of story Foer is used to telling. His two previous books, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, are both works of fiction whose structure and style are experimental. Foer’s two subjects in these pieces—a Jew in search of the farmer who saved his grandmother, and a son whose father died in the attacks of September 11—are taken from broadly shared experience and rendered in highly stylized fiction. Eating Animals is a different kind of beast, one in which Foer alternately shines and fails, but in which he nevertheless raises provocative questions about animal cruelty and the efficacy of stories.
Foer’s vegetarianism began with the birth of his son and the adoption of his dog George, a funny pair who raise the questions motivating Foer’s years of research: who are we, and who do we want to be? In this account of factory farming, fishing practices, and slaughtering, Foer reveals a public that approves of cruelty to animals, condones environmental destruction, and endorses the degradation of public health. The distance between our two selves—who we are and who we want to be—is measured in cruelty.
Consider a few stories of systematic abuse. At a pig-breeding facility in North Carolina, undercover videotape shows workers bludgeoning pregnant sows with a wrench and violating a mother pig with a metal pole in ways both indescribable and inhumane. On another farm, workers extinguish their cigarettes on the pigs, strangle them, and throw them in manure pits to drown. And at Pilgrims’ Pride, one of KFC’s “Suppliers of the Year”, fully conscious chickens are stomped on and slammed into walls, their beaks twisted off and the shit literally squeezed out of them.
Slaughtering houses, however, are home to perhaps the greatest cruelty. We learn that where cows are meant to be delivered to the slaughtering line unconscious, the bolt gun often misfires, leaving them fully conscious while being skinned and dismembered for up to seven minutes. This account, taken in conjunction with a secret video released to the Washington Post, provides the most revolting and revealing moment of the book. In it, a worker recounts how it is not uncommon for heifers to be pregnant when they reach the slaughtering line—to see from the uterus of a pregnant, partially slaughtered heifer an unborn calf kicking as if trying to escape, or to be born.
Were every family to watch food-processing videos before they ate a T-bone steak or chicken nuggets, it is unlikely that their appetite would go undiminished. The facts are harrowing; the images repulsive. Factory farms are more than messy places—they are often sites of unregulated, undocumented, and inhumane cruelty. But when we eat the T-bone, we simply eat a steak, not a part of a once living animal. Our memory is abridged to include only the food on our plate.
For Foer, this is a narrative problem as much as a moral one. Like a poor translation, the act of purchasing and cooking meat erases food’s prior story. This is because eating is a fundamentally social act; and as we eat together, we rewrite the story of the food we consume. Food ritual preserves a specific version of our past—from Thanksgiving to Shabbat. The food used in these traditions is then not just food, but a symbol for the larger story: a turkey recalls a pastoral pilgrim past, and, as Foer argues, saltwater is also tears, matzo the bread of affliction. Eating and storytelling are inseparable, he says. The myth of eating is that we condone the conditions of factory farming. The distance between our farms and our plates is so great that we forget what happened on the farm to make our meal possible and remember mostly the story we are told.
Accordingly, Foer is convinced that we need not only to eat different food, but to tell different stories. “We need a better way to talk about eating animal”, he argues. Yet Eating Animals is not a polemic; it does not argue that everyone should become a vegetarian. If anything motivates the book, it is a belief in the efficacy of stories. In this sense, Foer’s book is not one of many about vegetarianism, but is self-consciously styled as a new story about food. This both raises and lowers the standard. How does Foer do in this first story of food? The results are mixed.
Foer’s book teeters with a tension between story and structure. Foer did not merely begin researching from scratch, but felt compelled to tell the story from scratch as well. In a chapter titled “Words Meaning” in large bold type, he begins with the recognition that “language is never fully trustworthy” and proceeds to provide definitions for words common to food and farming: kosher, bycatch, organic, intelligence, human, instinct. In defining “animal”, he starts with the Bible and with anthropologists. This is both beyond and below the project—it is, in the end, a distraction.
At their best, such moves lend pause, but they hardly ever provoke serious thought. The problem is that Foer can never really stop being Foer. He is a writer who built his fame on stories that were factually informed but free from the constraints of nonfiction. One could never accuse him, say, of inaccuracies in Extremely Loud because it was not meant to be accurate; rather, it is more honest for being made up. Eating Animals is a different project executed in a similar style. Foer is trying to be the new Foer in old clothes. The suit doesn’t fit.
Here, at least, Foer is not alone. Despite all of the books on the problems of food and the explosion of interest reflected in the rise of farmers markets, the availability of organic food, the banning of transfats in New York, and the success of authors such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, people continue to consume meat in ever-increasing amounts. Their stories, while well told and even better-selling, have not translated to equivalent changes in the public diet. Ultimately, food is not rational; it is cultural. We do not eat because we choose to eat, but we eat what we are told.
In that sense, Foer’s story, despite its imperfections, is important. The issues he describes—animal cruelty, the environment and public health—need new voices, not just the old and the familiar. Foer’s son may well become one of these voices. Like his grandmother before him, Foer now tells his son stories about food as he feeds him different meals. When he does, Foer frames his most compelling message: our stories are our food, and we become those stories.
At the beginning of the book, Foer’s grandmother recounts her survival through the Second World War. She describes how, from lack of food, she became increasingly sick. Sores covered her body. She found it difficult to move. She ate whatever she could find, things she’d never tell her grandchildren about. One day, according to her story, a farmer offered her a piece of meat. She wouldn’t eat it.
“You didn’t eat it?” Foer asks.
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
Ben Carmichael is reading for a Master’s in Environmental Change and Management at Oriel College, Oxford. He is a regular contributor to OnEarth , the publication of the National Resources Defense Council.