Monday November 16th, 2009

The Oy of Cooking

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown, 352 pp., $25.99

eating-animalsThese are the confrontational opening lines of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which was published in 1975, two years before Jonathan Safran Foer was born:

This book is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white humans over black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought over in recent years.

Animal Liberation was a groundbreaking book, and it remains a hotly debated one. Yet amazingly, though Foer was a philosophy major at Princeton, graduating in 1999 just as Singer’s appointment to the university was generating a great deal of controversy, Singer’s name is missing from the index of Eating Animals, Foer’s cri de coeur against factory farming. It’s true that Singer’s book was a broader argument against “speciesism” — “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” But the 63-page third chapter of Animal Liberation is titled “Down on the Factory Farm. . .” and it covers — again, 34 years ago — many of the elements that make up the most forceful and convincing part of Foer’s argument. Conditions have worsened in the inflationary way you might expect, but the basics remain the same. For Foer to not once mention Singer seems bizarre, willful, even ungrateful. What could explain the omission? In a recent interview with Salon, Foer said:

Peter Singer writes about meat very directly, but in a way that I feel doesn’t include enough of the messiness of being a person in the world and having cravings, having personal history, having family. Reason has something to do with our food decisions, but not a lot. Most food decisions are made out of emotions or psychology or impulse, and so I wanted a book that included those things.

Foer does focus on the authority of subjective experience in a way Singer doesn’t. And this represents one of the most irritating aspects of Eating Animals, which is that it reads like an argument for Foer’s exceptionalism as much as one against modern food production.


Three years ago, Michael Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a much-discussed bestseller about the ethical dimensions of food (the book’s index lists 14 pages for “Singer, Peter”). Foer expresses respect for Pollan’s work, but judges his belief that slaughter is not “necessarily inhumane” as “somewhere between a half-truth and an evasion.” The last several years have also brought the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the release of the documentary film Food, Inc. So given the spate of recent, widely discussed material on the subject of our culinary ethics, what does Foer bring to the table?

He brings himself.

When Foer was nine, a vegetarian babysitter asked him, mid-chew, “You know that chicken is chicken, right?” For Foer, this was one of those “how-in-the-world-could-I-have-never-thought-of-that-before-and-why-on-earth-didn’t-someone-tell-me? moments.” That reaction is OK — even charming — at nine, but Foer is 32 now, and his years since have not been an uninterrupted protest against meat. In fact, soon after the babysitter posed her shattering question, Foer went back to eating meat. Then, at the end of his sophomore year at Princeton, he became a philosophy major and did his “first seriously pretentious thinking,” which led him back to vegetarianism. “I thought life could, should, and must conform to the mold of reason,” he writes. “You can imagine how annoying this made me.” Yes. You could say my imagination has rarely been less taxed.

After years of on-again, off-again vegetarianism, something happened to Foer, something that, from his breathless account, you would think had never happened to another human being: He became an expectant father. This caused him to take stock in all the ways one normally might. Then, of his son’s birth, he writes, “The world itself had another chance.” Many times in Foer’s life, he just “ate what was available or tasty,” but “the kind of parenthood I always imagined practicing abhors such forgetfulness.”

“Forgetfulness” is a favorite word of Foer’s. He’s also fond of “matters,” the verb. Feeding his child “matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters) . . .” But his affection for those words pales next to his torrid love for “story.” Just a few samples:

But then we decided to have a child, and that was a different story that would necessitate a different story.

…the stories that are served with food matter.

While this book . . . is as objective as any work of journalism can be . . . I think of it as a story.

We are not only the tellers of our stories, we are the stories themselves.

You see, Jonathan Safran Foer isn’t here just to expose terrible industry practices, or to raise philosophical issues that have been in the air for generations: he is here to apply for the position of Shaman Laureate.

The book’s outer and inner design follow in the ornamented footsteps of Foer’s novels, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which polarize readers the way vegetarianism polarizes diners. (For what it’s worth, I thought Illuminated was an impressive accomplishment, but I couldn’t get through Extremely Loud.) With its flourishes and occasionally faux-naive tone, Eating Animals finds Foer awkwardly balancing the demands of polemic and the extension of his potent literary brand.

animal-liberationHe doesn’t have time to mention Singer, but he compares himself to Kafka, quotes Derrida (more than once), and mistakes graphic design for profundity. One chapter begins with the boldfaced words “Speechlessness / Influence / Speechlessness / Influence” densely repeated for five whole pages. There are times when you can almost hear Foer thinking: Yes, these arguments have been made dozens of times before, but they’ve never been made in this font.

Elsewhere, his penchant for pivoting from serious inquiries to coy stylishness rankles, as in this passage:

“What is suffering? I’m not sure what it is, but I know that suffering is the name we give to the origin of all the sighs, screams, and groans — small and large, crude and multifaceted — that concern us. The word defines our gaze even more than what we are looking at.”

That last sentence may make sense to Foer, but the rest of us are left to merely gaze.


For a philosophy major, Foer is awfully susceptible to facile argument:

The French, who love their dogs, sometimes eat their horses.

The Spanish, who love their horses, sometimes eat their cows.

The Indians, who love their cows, sometimes eat their dogs.

Thus he discovers the concept of arbitrary cultural differences. And Americans don’t love soccer! But they love baseball! It’s crazy! Arbitrary differences can be just that. Simply pointing them out is not a sufficient philosophical argument. As one factory farmer tells Foer, “history has shown that people are perfectly capable of loving animals and eating them.”

Foer does his best to stoke loving sympathy for all of God’s creatures. We’re told that “clever pigs will learn to undo the latches of their pens.” We’re made to marvel at sea horses. We learn that “fish build complex nests, form monogamous relationships, hunt cooperatively with other species, and use tools.” (He doesn’t specify what tools, but this fact seems like at least a promising start for a New Yorker cartoon.)

When Foer presses the issue, and proposes what he might imagine is a clever, Swiftian plan to eat dogs, it seems like another failure of rigorous argument. People do eat dogs, as he’s already pointed out. And on the level of thought experiment, it would be at least as interesting to ask why we breed tiny dogs — dogs with the nervous systems of hummingbirds that would survive for an average of four seconds without human protection — so that Paris Hilton et al. can have yippy accessories for their purses. Or why are there so many magazines that make a fetish of domesticated dogs at my local Barnes & Noble — Bark, Dog Fancy, Dog’s World, Dog’s Life, Modern Dog? Can anyone imagine a market for Wolf Fancy?

You don’t have to be Ted Nugent to believe that generally privileging our own species makes instinctive sense, and that while instinct shouldn’t be followed in all cases, having to be strenuously argued past it isn’t inherently a good thing. Foer asks, “If we were to one day encounter a form of life more powerful and intelligent than our own, and it regarded us as we regard fish, what would be our argument against being eaten?” This question doesn’t rock my philosophical foundations as much as it makes me thankful we haven’t encountered that form of life yet.


michael-pollanMarveling at how his newborn son instinctively breast-fed, Foer writes, “I watched him with an awe that had no precedent in my life. Without explanation or experience, he knew what to do. . . . He was eating as had the children of cave painters.” But Foer is cavalier about other things that connect us to those cave painters. As Pollan wrote in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

This isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t transcend our inheritance, only that it is our inheritance; whatever else may be gained by giving up meat, this much at least is lost. The notion of granting rights to animals may lift us up from the brutal, amoral world of eater and eaten — of predation — but along the way it will entail the sacrifice, or sublimation, of part of our identity — of our own animality. . . . Not that the sacrifice of our animality is necessarily regrettable; no one regrets our giving up raping and pillaging, also part of our inheritance. But we should at least acknowledge that the human desire to eat meat is not, as the animal rightists would have it, a trivial matter, a mere gastronomic preference.

But Foer is happy to make it sound like a trivial matter — or at least a behavior that is easily surmountable, as when he argues that vegetarians shouldn’t be called sentimentalists:

Two friends are ordering lunch. One says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” and orders it. The other says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?

In glib passages like this one, Foer makes the problem out to be not the deep tugging of ancient human appetites, but our simple inability to be as conscientious as he is.


The shortcomings of Eating Animals, its smugness and philosophical loopholes, do nothing to change the central horrors of factory farming. Foer is right to say that the journey food takes to our plate is, for most of us, “unfelt and invisible.” And the journey is certainly a gruesome, troubling one.

He writes that, “Everyone has a mental image of a farm, and to most it probably includes fields, barns, tractors, and animals, or at least one of the above. I doubt there’s anyone on earth not involved in farming whose mind would conjure what I’m now looking at,” a building that “looks more like something out of Blade Runner than Little House on the Prairie.”

Like many of the world’s problems, factory farming has been exacerbated by population explosion, entitlement, and corporate consolidation. Americans eat 150 times more chicken than we did in 1930, and back then, 20 percent of people in this country worked in agriculture; less than two percent do today.

Some of the horrors itemized by Foer won’t be news at this late date, but nearly all of them retain the power to shock: the extreme overcrowding of animals; the abominable behavior of an alarming number of desensitized slaughterhouse workers; the deforming effects of inbreeding. (“We have focused the awesome power of modern genetic knowledge to bring into being animals that suffer more.”) Perhaps the most disgusting moments (and there’s a lot of competition) are the passages about animal “waste lagoons”; the “fecal mist” breathed by those who live near hog factories; “fecal soup” (the foul liquids that chickens soak in, making them heavier and therefore more expensive); and the fact that “farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population — roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second” and there are “almost no federal guidelines regulating what happens to it.” (If you would like to be numbed to the word “shit,” read this book.)

It comes as little surprise, by the end of this litany, that the American Public Health Association “has urged a moratorium on factory farms.” But consumer demand keeps the system thriving and largely unregulated (the industry essentially polices itself, with the ability to define cruelty on its own terms, meaning that any practices it widely adopts become automatically legal).

Frank Reese, a poultry farmer who serves as one of the book’s inspirations to conscientious meat-eaters, said, “What the industry figured out — and this was the real revolution — is that you don’t need healthy animals to make a profit. Sick animals are more profitable. The animals have paid the price for our desire to have everything available at all times for very little money.” Reese is also sharp about our pumping animals, whether healthy or sick, full of antibiotics from birth to death: “Kids today are the first generation to grow up on this stuff, and we’re making a science experiment out of them. Isn’t it strange how upset people get about a few dozen baseball players taking growth hormones, when we’re doing what we’re doing to our food animals and feeding them to our children?”

Several other voices appear in the book, in passages italicized to represent an author other than Foer, some of them vegetarians who work to support healthier, more sustainable, more humane methods of farming animals. With few exceptions, these voices are refreshingly direct, earthy, and experienced compared to Foer’s.


One of the anonymous factory farmers whose testimony Foer condensed into a single monologue said:

[I]f you find someone who tells you he has a perfect way to feed billions and billions of people, well, you should take a careful look. . . . You simply can’t feed billions of people free-range eggs. And when you hear people talking about small farming as a model, I call that the Marie Antoinette syndrome: if they can’t afford bread, let them eat cake. High-yield farming has allowed everyone to eat. Think about that. . . . Do you think family farms are going to sustain a world of ten billion?

In bringing up class, he is addressing a subject that Foer studiously avoids. Miraculously, his one mention of the issue is an aside offset by dashes in the middle of a longer sentence, when he writes, “unlike some in the world, [my family has] easy access to a wide variety of other foods.”

In promoting the book, Foer has been no less willing to duck the issue. During a recent appearance on Ellen, Ellen DeGeneres (a vegan herself) said to Foer, “I think one thing is . . . people are having hard times feeding their families. So if you can go get a burger for a dollar, if you can feed your kids and if it’s affordable and if it’s readily available, they’ll say that it may not be possible, they can’t afford to eat another way.” Foer pithily responded, “You can’t afford to eat this way,” and launched into a talk about the “externalized costs” of factory farming, namely an increase in global warming and a loss of biodiversity. Important issues, those, but someone who confuses “externalized costs” with the daily cost of living for the poor can be called tin-eared, at best. Foer is far from poor, and his inability or unwillingness to minimally address the issue of class is the book’s biggest blind spot.


Early on, Foer writes, “A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it’s not what I’ve written here.”

He certainly hasn’t. When the time comes to secure the locks on his own beliefs, Foer may as well have titled the book Everything is Equivocated:

People I respect draw [the line] differently. But for me, for now — for my family now — my concerns about the reality of what meat is and has become are enough to make me give it up altogether. . . . To decide for oneself and one’s family is not to decide for the nation or the world.”

That is at least comprehensible. This less so:

For me to conclude firmly that I will not eat animals does not mean I oppose, or even have mixed feelings about, eating animals in general.

He does not have mixed feelings about eating animals in general? Much of the book would seem to contradict that. At moments like this, one yearns for Singer’s forcefulness and clarity of purpose, even if you don’t agree with his more extreme conclusions.

“The relative importance of ethical eating and table fellowship,” Foer writes, “will be different in different situations (declining my grandmother’s chicken with carrots is different from passing on microwaved buffalo wings).” Why? If something is wrong, isn’t it wrong? Something unethical doesn’t become ethical just because it’s homespun. The courage of his convictions might have required Foer to say something like, “Just because my grandmother says murder is cozy doesn’t make it right.” But he does the opposite, implying that the issue is a thorny one for him partly because his grandmother is admirable in so many ways.

Any polemicist takes the risk of putting his message at the mercy of his personality — just ask Richard Dawkins, who might be doing more for religion than for atheism at this point — and with Eating Animals Foer has donned the polemicist’s hat, even if it’s an awkward fit. The best polemics follow an internal logic and dare to ask difficult questions. They also dare to give firm answers. Next year marks the 35th anniversary of Animal Liberation. You may not agree with all of it (this meat-eater certainly doesn’t), but it remains a provocative, worthwhile read — even if you won’t hear that from Foer.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

Mentioned in this review:

Eating Animals
Animal Liberation
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Fast Food Nation
Everything Is Illuminated
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Food, Inc.