Book Review: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Annoying Argument Against Eating Meat

Double X

Eating Animals

For weeks I’ve walked around debating Jonathan Safran Foer in my head, trying to put my finger on what it is that irritates me so deeply about his new book, Eating Animals [2]. Getting to the root of this animus has been particularly tough, because Eating Animals is an unwieldy hybrid of two different narratives—one I like very much, and one I find wrongheaded and staggeringly condescending.

So let’s start by disentangling the two. The central and admirable point of Eating Animals is to critique industrial agriculture and, as a case against factory farming, this book is both timely and stirring. Although Foer’s descriptions of agricultural atrocities may be familiar, he brings literary celebrity and a bracing moral urgency to the topic, arguing that our eating habits should reflect our ethics and that if we disapprove of filthy, overcrowded chicken factories, we should never buy another Perdue broiler. I agree.

But Foer does not stop there. Eating Animals is also a meditation—sometimes whimsical, sometimes strident, often personal—on animal husbandry and carnivory more generally. Here, Foer’s ignorance and biases are matched only by his arrogance. When he began writing this tome, Foer lived in New York City and, by his own admission, had never touched a farm animal. He had also been an off-and-on vegetarian since a childhood babysitter told him she shunned meat because she didn’t “want to hurt anything.” (“Without drama, or rhetoric, she shared what she knew,” Foer explains. It’s a sentence you might read in a story of a spiritual conversion in the Himalayas.) He describes, at length, his dawning appreciation of animals after adopting a puppy off the street in Brooklyn when he was in his late 20s.

“I simply want to know—for myself and my family—what meat is,” Foer writes in an introductory chapter. Actually, what he really wants is to tell the rest of us what meat is. And it is hard to imagine anyone less qualified.

From the age I could sit in a saddle, I knew what meat was. My grandfather and great-grandfather were ranchers whose land was suited for little but running cattle. (A vegetarian could not live off the land in the Uintas. [3]) From earliest memory, I accepted that a steer was also a steak the way I accepted that water was also steam. It seemed neither mysterious nor tragic. Animals died all the time in rural Wyoming, frequently for reasons that had nothing to do with us.

Into his 70s, my grandfather rose before dawn to irrigate pastures, fix fences, bale hay, bring calves into the world, inoculate them, doctor them, buy them, sell them, brand them, castrate them, drive them to the feedlot. Every Sunday afternoon, my grandmother cooked “a good little roast” that was eaten with a reverence afforded no other food. I am aware that almost none of us have that connection to the chicken salad we order at the Cheesecake Factory or the meatloaf in our suburban kitchens, and this is a big problem. But my grandparents knew down to the penny the cost in human labor and animal suffering of every good little roast. Can Foer really say the same for his tofu?

My grandfather did not run a factory farm, but his ranch was nowhere near humane enough to meet Foer’s exacting standards. Unsurprisingly, branding (“a habit of irrational, unnecessary violence”) and castration are practices that Foer frowns on. Quoting an academic, he dismisses branding as worse than useless to prevent cattle rustling. In fact, my grandfather primarily relied on brands to identify cattle that wandered into neighboring pastures, which they did only every day. Are there less painful ways to identify a steer? Probably, and that would be worth exploring. But this is one of countless small points Foer gets ever so slightly wrong. I must also disagree with him about castration, a process I observed at a distance from an early age. Castration sounds unspeakably brutal only if you’ve never watched a trio of Hereford bulls snorting bloody mucus crash repeatedly into a barbed wire fence trying to break into the pasture containing their underage daughters whom they would like to impregnate. One memorable afternoon circa 1979 taught me everything I need to know about the benefits of cutting.

“Having little exposure to animals makes it much easier to push aside questions about how our actions might influence their treatment,” Foer writes. “The problem posed by meat has become an abstract one: there is no individual animal, no singular look of joy or suffering, no wagging tail, and no scream.” He is correct. But I would also argue that having little exposure to animals makes it much easier to issue smug, ill-informed judgments about their proper treatment. The everyday challenges posed by responsible animal husbandry—and slaughter—become abstractions.

Midway through the book, Foer visits Paradise Locker Meats, a rural Missouri slaughterhouse known for its “cleanliness, butchering expertise and sensitivity to animal welfare issues.” The affable owner, Mario, offers a tour of the plant, which Foer inspects with barely supressed disgust, noting the guts and organs, the “gloop.” “It’s not just because I’m a city boy that I find this repulsive,” Foer writes, though that is debatable. A skilled rural tradesman, Mario comes across as a man unaccustomed to being interviewed and answers highly pointed questions with meandering, unguarded stories that Foer subsequently picks apart with prosecutorial zeal. He is dissatisfied with Mario’s offhand explanation of one animal’s agitated behavior (“That’s just a pig thing”) and his vague replies to burning questions such as “Do you like pigs?” He finds Mario’s account of his gory work “nice, troubling, nonsensical.” My thoughts about Foer’s presentation of this visit: priggish, condescending, naive.

At the close of the visit, Mario offers Foer a plate of ham.

“Something deep inside me—reasonable or unreasonable, aesthetic or ethical, selfish or compassionate—simply doesn’t want the meat inside my body,” Foer writes. “For me, that meat is not something to be eaten.”

Shorthand: Ham seems really yucky right now. He turns down the meat, telling Mario that he is kosher, which he is not. Why he does not tell the truth, that he is a vegetarian, is an excellent question, one I am still pondering. Hospitality rebuffed, an awkward silence ensues.”Kind of funny to be writing about pork, then,” Mario says.

Yes. Almost as funny as an urban vegetarian writing about “what meat is.” We know what Foer took from the visit (it appears in a chapter entitled “Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit”), but it would perhaps be more illuminating to know what Mario thought. The populist conservative case against coastal liberals is that they are smug elites who think they know everything because they went to fancy colleges, eat arugula, and name-check Derrida. As a coastal liberal, I think the rap is often cynical and unfair. But Foer’s account of his field trip to the abattoir suggests how a folksy moose butcher like Sarah Palin gets on a presidential ticket.

Although Foer insists he hasn’t written a straightforward case for vegetarianism, this is slightly disingenuous. The point of Foer’s account of Mario’s slaughterhouse seems to be that even under the best conditions, slaughter will trouble the sensitive soul and turn his stomach. Apart from a few half-hearted tips of the hat to Niman Ranch [4]et al., Eating Animals makes an impassioned ecological, health, and moral argument for universal vegetarianism. Actually, it’s really a case for veganism. Natalie Portman says Foer inspired her to become a vegan [5], correctly intuiting that all of his qualms about eating meat extend to eggs and milk as well, because neither cows nor hens consent to domestication. (“Chickens can do many things, but they cannot make such sophisticated deals with humans,” writes Foer.) Though he oddly never says as much in the book, Foer has recently admitted that he is, in fact, a vegan.

“I spent the first twenty-six years of my life disliking animals. I thought of them as bothersome, dirty, unapproachably foreign, frighteningly unpredictable, and plain old unnecessary,” Foer confesses. I’ve never felt that way about animals. Perhaps because of my childhood experiences, I’ve always felt there was something powerful and right in the bond between humans and animals. The turkey and 12 laying hens that I keep in my yard wouldn’t last a day without my protection. They depend on me, I on them, and it is one of the simplest, most reciprocal relationships in my life. I am not sure whether they are fond of me, but I am certainly fond of them.

It is absolutely true that the ancient ties between people and animals have been grotesquely perverted by industrial agriculture, as the strongest portions of Foer’s book make horrifically clear. But, unlike Foer, I believe that fixing the relationship is both possible and worthwhile. To declare that humanity should opt out of this relationship altogether strikes me as less heinous but every bit as arrogant and unnatural as the factory farm. This is what I think about eating animals: A good life, a sudden death—we should all be so lucky. This is what I think about Eating Animals: a compelling manifesto swaddled in a muddled and pretentious memoir about one squeamish and idealistic young man’s distaste for eating flesh.
See also Animals and the Land at Frey Vineyards
… and Molly Frey’s Farm and Garden Blog


How many shallow comparisons can a writer get away with before we suspect she’s full of baloney?
In this case, TOO many. Jennifer Reese is writer full of self-induced fantasies of being in the know. Comparing a well researched book of the state of factory farms today vs a young girls simple and scarce so-called ‘farming’ experience hardly makes one a qualified critic but having a lifetime’s worth of inflated ego certainly fits the bill!

Me thinks you have WAAAY to much time on your hands. Get a life, better yet, get educated about a subject before you try to critic it.

Hrm. I share Jennifer’s critique that being raised to animals offers a different perspective – one that helps us to understand what might be considered cruelty by “city folk.” But this critique lost me at “…Hereford bulls snorting bloody mucus crash repeatedly into a barbed wire fence trying to break into the pasture containing their underage daughters whom they would like to impregnate…” That’s the kind of over-emotional, politically charged language (underage daughters? cows?) that this conversation needs LEAST. Not to mention the personal attacks (“one squeamish and idealistic young man”) that cheapen the critique. Not the quality of thought I usually expect from this blog.

    Bear with me on these reviews. I’m trying to bring in something different to the conversation than the standard reviews from New York Review, Washington Post, et al. I find them learned and sophisticated, but would prefer more emotion, more hands-on experience, more personal, more fire… -DS

I believe that almost everyone misses the point when they argue about what to eat. Of course, factory farming is unbalanced and, I would even say wrong, whether it is cattle or soybeans or anything else. It is the attitude of corporate farming that the earth and animals are here to be conquered that is corrupt. This attitude is very consistent for humans, especially in this country where we subsidize industrial agriculture.
The point is, in my opinion, a lack of respect for nature. Nature tells us how to operate. It is not what you eat but how you respect what you eat.
Let me quote Wendell Berry:
“The idea that we should obey nature’s laws and live harmoniously with her as good husbanders and stewards of her gifts is old. And I believe that until fairly recently our destructions of nature were more or less unwitting – the bi-products, so to speak, of our ignorance or weakness or depravity. It is our present principled and elaborately rationalized rape and plunder of the natural world that is a new thing under the sun.”
If we respect and thank nature by working with her, whether plants or animals, we can regain balance.

Dave, fair enough. I certainly won’t stop reading this blog because of a few reviews I take issue with. Of course, hopefully all of us writers (of books, book reviews and book review comments) can become more skilled through a little healthy (if not too polite) debate.

Michael, yeah. Thanks.