Monday, May 17, 2010

What I'm Reading: Eating Animals (Part One)

Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer

Copyright 2009 by Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown & Company

Well, it took me a while, but I finally finished Jonathan Safran Foer's book: Eating Animals. I first heard about this book on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and my interest was piqued. Like I've said in previous posts, I'm not a vegetarian or a vegan, but I do try to make conscious food choices and focus on health as much as possible. For these reasons I felt that it was important to read this book.

Safran Foer begins the book with a personal story about his grandmother and her relationship to food. At the outset, he shows his unique writing style, focusing on storytelling in order to make impactful points. Everyone views food differently based on their experience with it -- I think we can all agree on that, and Safran Foer illustrates his own personal experience with food as a preface to the rest of the book.

As I read along, I found myself in Safran Foer's camp more and more, until I came across his first (albeit indirect) shot at omnivores such as Michael Pollan:

"The choice-obsessed modern West is probably more accommodating to individuals who choose to eat differently than any culture has ever been, but ironically, the utterly unselective omnivore -- "I'm easy; I'll eat anything" -- can appear more socially sensitive than the individual who tries to eat in a way that is good for society. Food choices are determined by many factors, but reason (even consciousness) is not generally high on the list"(page 32).

After I got over the initial shock of someone (God forbid) criticizing the almighty Pollan, I realized that it was fair to criticize the omnivore's stance in this type of constructive manner, and I applaud his bravery to do so. Another Pollan criticism came along as I read, this one discussing the concept of "table fellowship":

"...what Pollan curiously doesn't emphasize, is that attempting to be a selective omnivore is a much heavier blow to table fellowship than vegetarianism. Imagine an acquaintance invites you to dinner. You could say, "I'd love to come. And just so you know, I'm a vegetarian." You could also say, "I'd love to come. But I only eat meat that is produced by family farmers." Then what do you do? "(pg. 55).

The reality of this statement set in for me as I can totally relate. Whether you're eating at a friends' house, dining out or picking up something on the go, it is definitely difficult to bring up any conscious food concerns without offending your host or tablemates. It can come across as condescending or elitist. Unfortunately this is a reality, but I really hope things start to change! I would hope that in the next 20 years this issue fades away, as more and more of us would be eating from family farms and focusing on local, sustainable choices.

Safran Foer definitely has a way with words, and a writing style that is entertaining and easy to read. He provides unique headings, word graphics and facts at the beginning of each section, which, for me, draws a parallel to the "Gen X" writing style made famous by Douglas Coupland. In the same vein, he defines many terms, both literally, from a factory farm perspective and in a tongue in cheek fashion; this also reminds me of Coupland. It's a modern, pseudo-journalistic style of writing that cuts to the chase, entertains and educates all at once.

He allows some of the people profiled in the book to tell their own story -- and not just the stories that support what you think his views are going to be in the end (ie. pro-vegetarianism). By allowing others to debate each side, Safran Foer puts all of the views out there without preaching about them himself or contradicting himself by writing passionately about sides of the arguments he doesn't support. This is a really useful technique, although I can't guarantee he didn't edit the letters these people wrote, because they're all very well-written and seem to flow naturally within the book.

Although I have read a few books on conscious eating, I learned a lot from this book. For example, the story of the first (unintentional) factory farmer, Celia Steele, who received too many chickens by accident and ended up changing the whole industry because of what she fed the chickens and how many she bred and housed. This was in 1923!

Just when I thought Michael Pollan was safe from any more criticism, poultry farmer Frank Reese gives his opinion of Joel Salatin, a poultry farmer heavily lauded by Pollan and featured in Food Inc. Reese explains:

"Turkeys used to be raised out on fields like this by the millions in America. This kind of turkey is what everybody had on their farms for hundreds of years, and what everybody ate. And now mine are the only ones left, and I'm the only one doing it this way. Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly. Did you know that? They can't even have sex. Not the antibiotic-free, or organic, or free-range, or anything. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won't allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination. If it were only for efficiency, that would be one thing, but these animals literally can't reproduce naturally. Tell me what could be sustainable about that?"(pg. 110/111).

"Everyone's saying buy fresh, buy local. It's a sham. It's all the same kind of bird, and the suffering is in their genes....Michael Pollan wrote about Polyface Farm in The Omnivore's Dilemma like it was something great, but that farm is horrible. It's a joke. Joel Salatin is doing industrial birds. Call him up and ask him. So he puts them on pasture. It makes no difference....KFC chickens are almost always killed in thirty-nine days. They're babies. That's how rapidly they're grown. Salatin's organic free-range chicken is killed in forty-two days. 'Cause it's still the same chicken"(pg. 113).

I don't know enough about chickens to really comment on this, but it definitely made me raise an eyebrow and start thinking! I still think people should buy fresh and local foods, but Reese's testimonial hits home because it reminds us that not only in poultry but in many other foods, heritage breeds or heirloom seeds are no longer in existence. The chicken we are eating today is not the same chicken people ate years ago. This is why it is so essential to make conscious food choices. We need to stop getting worse and start getting better, in every sense of the word.

Having said that, please consider donating to my Save a Seed project!

Tune back in soon for Part 2 of my discussion on Eating Animals. I know many of you out there are also reading it right now, and I would definitely suggest more people give it a chance. It can really teach you something about your relationship to food.

Ok, I have to get out into that gorgeous sunshine now! Happy week everyone!


  1. This really makes you think. And beyond that it makes me want to pack up and move to my own little farm to grow only organic and heritage breeds of produce and meat. But *sigh* until then, more research before purchasing for me! I think I'll start by reading this book ... thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Thanks :) Yes, I have those dreams sometimes too!