March 1, 2010
Trista Cornelius, Contributing writer
Lately, I've been wishing for a longer commute to work. I've been listening to the audio version of Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals. The first few chapters surprised me because they weren't about meat; they were about his grandmother, about his dog George, and about becoming a father for the first time. Early in the book, he writes, "Stories about food are stories about us, our history and values." This made me ask myself what stories I tell about what I eat.
To my surprise, even though I no longer eat animals, Foer's writing uncovered tales I'd told myself, tales I'd chosen to believe, about eating animals. In addition to revealing the stories we tell ourselves about our food, Foer weaves narratives throughout the book. He demonstrates an ability to tell a spellbinding tale whether he's writing a litany of facts, launching a philosophical debate, or luring the listener in with Socratic questioning. Halfway through the book, as I sit on the edge of my seat, he describes his clandestine visit to a turkey farm in the middle of the night.
The book begins, however, with stories about Foer's grandmother, a Jew who survived the Holocaust by fleeing her home. She was barefoot for much of the journey, starving and sick for all of the journey. During a particularly harrowing time, a farmer mercifully offers her some meat, probably something in short supply in his own household, and definitely a dangerous act of generosity. The grandmother tells Foer that she didnít accept the meat. "Why not?" he asks. It was pork. Imagining her long-suffered hunger, Foer asks why she didn't eat pork just this once to save her life. The grandmother tells Foer that if she ate the pork, which is forbidden by Jewish dietary law, she would have had nothing to stand for, and without that, what was the point of living?
Compared to the grandmother's devout discipline, the stories we tell ourselves about eating meat and about meat production, stories that shield us from the reality of factory farming, become a very thin veil. Similar to Michael Pollan, Foer is sure that if more consumers knew the reality of factory farming (from pigs and cows to chicken meat and eggs), they would insist on change. However, even as Foer strips away the stories we tell to make eating animals acceptable (one long-held notion that animals want to be farmed, for example), he knows few really see what is on their plate. In fact, we work very hard to keep ourselves from the truth. Foer makes the analogy that it is possible to make a noise to wake someone sleeping, but no noise will wake someone pretending to be asleep.
After listening to some chapters about factory farms, about the logic behind their construction, about how they run, about how they redefine "efficiency," I started to feel like I was listening to a book of science fiction. It's not that I was pretending to be asleep, but I was sort of putting my hands over my ears and "la-la-laaaaing." I thought this factory farm information seemed too fantastical to be real. As if reading my mind, Foer concluded by telling the story of Henry Ford and his visit to the first industrialized slaughterhouse in Chicago around 1920. The first industrialized slaughterhouse is what inspired Ford's assembly line car production methods. Ford saw that putting a car together was like taking apart a pig except in reverse. Any other story I wanted to believe about meat production, any other story that made it seem not so bad, was wiped away. The system works because the animals and the people working in the slaughterhouses are seen as part of a machine, not as living beings. It's not humane or ethical or safe or healthy, in spite of whatever words or images make up the labeling and marketing.
I've never been very good at debate. When someone says that concern for animal well-being is sentimental, unrealistic, childish, I'm usually at a loss for words. I admire Foer's logical arguments, the way he systematically dismantles reactions like these, that caring for animals is a petty concern against the important business of feeding people. He defines cruelty and points it out for what it is. He undermines the "logic" of industrialized farming and assembly line slaughter, sort of shaming us for ever thinking it made sense. I say "us," even though I know most of you reading this do not eat animals, and even though I do not eat animals, because somehow, when faced with facts about the horrendous amount of meat consumed and animals killed (and animals wasted) in the U.S., my own decision not to eat animals is of little solace. I find myself wanting to order boxes of this book and give it to everyone I know. Some of this book is hard to hear, but you'll also love the stories of George's mysterious dog intelligence, stories of the grandmother known as the "greatest chef who ever lived," and stories about a new dad determined to make the world better than what it is right now. I think he's well on his way.