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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

For some reason when it comes to eating or not eating meat, a common perception is the decision has to be black or white. You either do or you don't, which has left a vast middle ground, of simply eating less meat, devoid of participation and conversation.

Two nights ago Jonathan Safran Foer, author of "Eating Animals" gave a book reading, moderated discussion and book signing at the Commonwealth Club in Palo Alto. He was discussing vegetarianism as "the only ethical realm we view as black or white." Truth? We don't say I can either be completely honest or lie 100% of the time. Eco-consciousnss? We don't say I'm either going to conserve energy or waste as much as I possibly can at all times. So why do we perceive eating or not eating meat as an all or nothing endeavor?

If you eat meat, this post isn't an attempt to convert you into becoming a full time vegetarian. This post is to support Jonathan's desire to encourage us to think and talk about what kind of meat are we eating? And why do we eat meat? Where did the meat on our plates come from? How was it raised? What was it fed? Is it healthy for us? Was it slaughtered humanely or inhumanely? If you want to know why I stopped eating meat or what it's like going out to eat, shopping or cooking as a vegetarian just ask me! For now, if you want to know what Jonathan thinks, I invite you to continue reading...

A non-judgemental conversation about eating meat.

When I first heard about the book "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer I had never heard of him before. I hadn't read his other literary successes, "Everything is Illuminated" or "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." I didn't know how to compare him to other writers or what his credentials in writing were. After reading "Eating Animals" I do know that in this book, he outlines the research he undertook to study factory farming and his thoughts and feelings about why and with how much self awareness, empathy and hypocrisy do we eat animals. I found his reasoning sound, his points convincing and his point of view compelling because the book struck me as an informal fusion of common sense, investigative reporting and authenticity as many parts read as a memoir of his own experiences.

For years I had been what I call a part-time vegetarian which translates to I would eat fish or poultry for one meal every other day or so. I wanted to become vegetarian but for some inexplicable reason I kept toeing the line but wouldn't cross over it. One day I bought a copy and began reading "Eating Animals" because I had a couple hours to kill in SF. Life took over and it was a few months before I took it with me on a flight to finish reading. What I read resonated so deeply with my humanity that by the time the plane landed I was done eating meat.

Contrary to what many believe or have experienced, conversations about eating meat should not (in Jonathan's opinion) be divisive. He seeks to take discussions about eating animals, factory farming, food as culture, vegetarianism and animal cruelty and "move them in from the margins" to fill what he calls the "middle ground" between meat eaters and vegetarians.

Jonathan Safran Foer with moderator Raj Patel, Palo Alto, CA.

It was refreshing to hear someone (who is a vegetarian) recognize that some of the feelings and memories that encompass eating meat are so embedded in our psyches that to give up all meat would mean giving up things that are integral to our identities, the experiences of our cultures and our connections to our families. The ritual of a father and son cooking a Thanksgiving turkey together... His take? If you want to eat turkey on Thanksgiving because that's your tradition, then eat turkey. Just don't use eating turkey once a year on Thanksgiving as the reason you decide not to be vegetarian at other times. Because you eat some meat doesn't mean you can't eat less meat in general or go meatless one day a week or one meal a day. Don't dismiss the middle ground because of one holiday or one dish that is part of your family's history or culture. You can do both, eat meat dishes that have a sentimental value to you and give up some or all meat at other times.

Overcrowded chickens are often kept in darkness to force laying.

He also feels strongly that neither the factory farming industry, nor the USDA will willingly improve the current standards of animal welfare. And while he doesn't feel that the general public should have to assume the role of watchdog, thankfully, some of these issues can be resolved at the polls by voters. Californians passed Proposition 2 (aka the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act) in 2008 which will make it illegal (by 2015) for laying chickens to be kept in battery cages too small for them to stretch their wings, turn around, or all lie down at the same time without having to lie upon each other. It also means that veal calves and pregnant sows (pigs) will be able to stand, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs while confined instead of being held in chutes that are so narrow the animal can never turn or change positions its entire life until slaughter :( Voters passed this proposition by a generous margin of 63% of voters in favor of treating these animals more humanely even knowing it will mean higher costs at the check out stand.

Prices per pound.
3 lbs of lentils or 1 lb of beef are approximately the same price.

Jonathan pointed out that eating vegetarian has the added bonus of being more economical. I couldn't agree more. To me, the difference between ordering a vegetarian or meat meal in a restaurant is similar to the cost difference between ordering a soda instead of alcohol. When I go out in San Francisco I'm often stunned that I'm spending $1.00 for a club soda while friends are spending $15 for a martini. Because of this, I don't care to split checks equally because my dinner with a glass of water probably costs around $10-$15 while my dining companion's meals cost somewhere around $25 to $40. The same numbers hold true when it comes to grocery shopping. As Jonathan pointed out he can buy a bag of lentils the same size as himself for about $3. (LOL) OK, that's not true but you get the point. Buying (non-organiclly grown) beans, whole grains (like brown rice) and fresh and frozen vegetables are less expensive than purchasing meat.

And what about fast food? I've ordered vegetarian Big Macs with tomato slices instead of beef patties for years now. Burger King offers Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patties and Mojo Burger offers three vegetarian options: Garden and Boca burgers and a fantastic black bean patty that isn't on the menu, you have to ask for it. At In-N-Out Burger I order a "Grilled Cheese" which is a cheeseburger without the meat. When I went to Canada a few years ago I had the best soy burger patty ever at Harvey's. Here in San Jose Armadillo Willy's offers veggie burgers and The Counter creates gourmet burgers with their in-house veggie patties. They're all great vegetarian burger options!

This is the presentation I saw Jonathan give! The recording quality is top notch so if you're curious about the book this is a great 65 minute synopsis.

Jonathan describes his encouragement of vegetarianism as "quiet in an incremental way." It isn't about labeling people as good or bad because they do or don't eat meat. It's about what he calls "a baseline of human decency" where we can collectively (whether we eat meat or not) recognize that certain things (like the sanctioned and unsanctioned animal cruelty that takes place in factory farming in particular) is "just wrong." And if people believe that farm animal welfare needs to be improved and cruelty can no longer be tolerated, are we willing to "hold onto our core beliefs even when it is inconvenient or awkward to do so?"

It wouldn't be a book signing without having my book signed :)

If you enjoyed this post you'll probably enjoy these too:

• Julia Child, Veal Farms and The Food Revolution by John Robbins
• Super Simple DIY Vegetarian Tacos
Creating the Perfect Vegetarian Baked Puttanesca


  1. Wow! This kind of common sense approach to the debate is like true bipartisanship in Congress. Instead of pitting the card carrying vegans versus the hard core carnivores Jonathan offers some great middle ground suggestions that can be practiced every single day. Amen!

  2. Thanks for this post, I will have to check this book out. I have been a vegetarian for over 13 years now, and a lot of the reasons you cite in this post are excellent reasons for eating less meat, or giving it up altogether. I'd also like to point out, too, that by cutting out (or down on) meat, you tend to be exposing yourself to fewer antibiotics (often injected into factory farm animals to keep disease from spreading through so quickly in crowded conditions), as well as potentially reducing your risk of heart-attack and other heart-related diseases often associated with eating red meats. As a vegetarian, I never, ever get preachy with my meat-eating friends, but this may be a new place to point them to if they have questions about the benefits of going meatless.

    Also, the next time you visit Columbus (and get your Jeni's fix), please check out Dragonfly, or its "street-food" sibling On the Fly for some unbelievable vegan fare. And the veggie burger at Northstar is just delicious.

  3. I know Carl. Regardless of the topic, it was a pleasure to watch a potentially polarizing conversation take place in a manner that embraced everyone in the room.

    Ah, Kate. When I come back to Columbus, someday, we'll have to get together in person to have lunch at Dragonfly or On the Fly and have Jeni's for dessert!

    The discussion was very balanced. The book also is, though I would recommend it with some sensitivity to anyone who has never read about factory farming before. Some of the descriptions are, because of the nature of the discussion, graphic and can be shocking to people who are unfamiliar with some of the more cruel accepted practices and unsanctioned abuses within the industry. I had read books in the past, particularly Beyond Beef, that made me stop eating beef and pork. But this book and the information presented made me realize that continuing to eat fish (which is damaging to the environment) and poultry farms are possibly/probably more cruel than how "beef" is raised.

    For years I was focused on the horror of poorly performed slaughters. "Eating Animals" made me realize that the way the animals live (for months or years in what are not humane conditions) can, in many instances, be worse than the moment of slaughter itself :(


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