I am a rather unabashed omnivore. I love my grains, fruits, veggies… but there is nothing like a good burger. A pepperoni cheesesteak. Pepperoni in general. My mom’s veal. Duck l’Orange. Chicken. Beef. Shrimp in any form. Salmon, tuna, mahi-mahi, sushi. I reject the notion that carnivorous eating habits are not-truly-human and that we are vegetarians by nature. The studies that show that meat harms our bodies? I believe the information from those studies is flawed – not because its incorrect, because I’m sure that it is – but because it does not take into account the way the world has changed in the last 75-100 years.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals, is not what one might expect from the wunderkind novelist. It is not fiction. It’d be hard to deny that it is his voice – that rings through simply because of the tone and the diction and those things we learn about in English classes – but the circumstances seem strange. Despite my agreements with the book and its mission, I couldn’t help but think “you really spent the last three years writing this instead of another novel?” The New York Times review of this book said that, in many ways, it came off as more a case for JSF’s “own exceptionalism” (sorry if that’s not the right quote) as an author more than anything else and I’m tempted to agree. That conversational tone, that ease with which he jumps narrators or ideas… it is very… well, Jonathan Safran Foer. Hell, when he came and spoke at BC (and signed my copy of this book), he sounded exactly like one might have imagined he would sound.
How do my two disparate opening paragraphs relate? Well, the book is not entirely about eating animals, which is maybe my biggest and most glaring issue with the book. See, the title throws people off. “What are you reading, Drew?” “oh, the new Jonathan Safran Foer book.” “Isn’t that about being a vegetarian?” “No, not really, it’s more about – ” “because its weird that you’re gobbling down that pepperoni and reading a book about being a vegetarian.” “It’s not about being a – ”
……so on and so forth.
What it is about is the factory farm industry. Something that has, admittedly, bugged me for quite a time. My dad’s crusade has been the whole “high fructose corn syrup” thing and after cutting that (mostly) out of my life (it is truly in just about everything, I’m sorry to say), I do believe that I live a healthier life. Healthiest? No, because I haven’t cut it out entirely because I’m a sucker for sweets and sugary things. I am still Calvin, at heart, loving my Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. But definitely healthier – no doubt about it. Because of my dad’s singleness of purpose, I began to pay more attention to what I was eating. Once I got to college, I started to have to shop for myself and then I paid even more attention. I stopped eating fast food – I haven’t read Fast Food Nation, though it is sitting on my shelf (going to be waiting a bit longer, after this book….) – and while in London, I began to really see the difference in local and organics vs the stuff freeze-wrapped in the supermarket. I started shopping at Borough Market and spending sometimes as much as a third of what I’d spent at Sainsbury’s to buy the same amount of food (roughly two weeks of dinners/breakfasts).
When I got home, I noticed that it was harder to find local or organic meats and veggies and things. Local 121, a wonderful restaurant I dined at in Providence this weekend, is the exception and not the rule. So I was intrigued by Foer’s book – I wanted to, yes, be affirmed that factory farms suck and that I need to do more and that we all need to do more because the food itself isn’t as good. Yes, the animals are tortured and that’s a really awful thing… but the food itself suffers from the mass-production process.
See, I’m a carnivore at heart.
The book is good. It is stomach-turning at times, though I’m still eating the Purdue chicken in my freezer. The end of the book is where things get… interesting. He spends the last chapter or so on the “pitch” – the one you’ve seen coming for the whole book. He makes his case for vegetarianism – he is one and so that’s a large part of it – but he also tries to deal with the other avenues. Boycotting factory farms and buying totally humane food is a pipe dream and he makes individuals who advocate that seem a little out-of-touch. He also calls out individuals like myself by saying that buying less factory meats but still buying some isn’t really helping or doing anything. It’s just, perhaps, making me feel better. The problem is… I’m not going to be a vegetarian. Yes, I’m going to continue to just quietly quench the knowledge that this piece of chicken came from a chicken that probably never saw real sunlight. Or that that slice of turkey on my sandwich came from a bird that literally cannot reproduce on its own.
But I do this not out of malice or out of laziness. I do it because, yes, I do enjoy the foods I was raised on. I do believe that hunting is simply a part of the freaking food chain. What I do is this – I try my best to make responsible choices. Is there somewhere in Boston that would provide humane chicken and beef to me? Tell me where and I’ll toss out the Purdue in my freezer right this very minute. I don’t want to create anti-microbial immunities that I don’t need so that diseases mutate faster and become more deadly. I’d rather just enjoy a good ol’ piece of lemon chicken (thanks, mom). Will I eat less meat, now? Perhaps – this weekend, I had two fully completely vegetarian meals, which isn’t something I have ever done before. But it wasn’t the book or Foer’s call to arms. He told me nothing I didn’t already know – he just didn’t succeed in converting me completely to his cause. I look forward to his next novel – because there, his quirks are pleasures and not slightly irking.