I’m not sure what made me decide to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. You might assume it was a way of reaffirming my own vegetarian beliefs, but I don’t think that’s the reason. For one thing, I currently have bacon in my freezer. For another, about a month ago I ordered, paid for, and ate a pulled pork barbecue sandwich. There is no definition of “vegetarian” that applies to my dietary habits over the past month or even the past two years, since I began eating fish. While still telling myself (and others) that I’m a vegetarian, I’m at best a pescatarian. Add pork to my diet and I’m just a person with weirdly limited eating habits.
Really I think the decision to read Eating Animals had more to do with the author than anything else. Not only have I read and enjoyed other works (novels) by Foer, but while reading Everything is Illuminated I developed a little bit of a weird crush on the author. The picture on the back cover with him in his white t-shirt and glasses really did it for me, I don’t know why. So I think I read his most recent because he’s an author I admire – both for his writing style and his looks.
I suppose all this is to say that I think it is by chance that almost exactly six years after I became a full-fledged vegetarian, I’m renewing my commitment to this lifestyle, decision, belief, whatever you want to call it. That means no more bacon, no more pork, no more fish, hopefully no more lusting after the fried chicken advertised in a Daily Candy email but certainly no caving in and eating it. I have no idea what I’m going to do with the bacon in my freezer, or the salmon I will be served at a wedding next month. All I know is that after reading about the atrocities that happen in the name of American tastebuds, it’s impossible not to think about what we are doing to our bodies, animals, the earth, and our humanity.
Foer began his search for answers when he became a father. He wanted to know what to tell his child when he was asked where food came from. He also wanted to figure out what the healthiest options were for his family. He was not a vegetarian when he started his research, but he was by the time he finished. It is hard to imagine that anyone who reads this book would be able to continue being an omnivore. If the descriptions of factory farms, animal (mis)treatment, and disease aren’t enough to convince you, Foer plainly lays out the logical reasons why the typical arguments in favor of eating meat just don’t hold water. The most significant point, I think, is the idea of the species barrier, which Foer explains in the most jarring, explicit way possible (you need to read it). The species barrier addresses the question: why are some animals considered fit to be food and others aren’t? These decisions are not universal, they are cultural and/or situational. If the decision to eat chickens and not cats is arbitrary, then what leg do omnivores really have to stand on? No one can honestly argue that it is healthier to eat meat. It’s been proven that it is at least as healthy if not healthier to be vegetarian.
It is everyone’s responsibility – vegetarian, omnivore, vegan – to come up with a new game plan because the current methods are unacceptable and simply should not be tolerated. The facts make it impossible to believe that anyone can stand idly by and think that this is an issue that doesn’t apply to them. Even if you are a vegetarian, the whole situation has a sort of second-hand smoke effect to it; you can’t be a non-smoker hanging out with smokers everyday and be shocked when you get lung cancer, and you can’t be a vegetarian who is shocked when, for example, you contract the pandemic that factory farming is leading us to. No matter your eating habits, we can no longer afford to ignore this issue, to continue in our apathetic ways, believing that some greater power will fix the problems we are creating.
Which leads us to God. As this is a book by Jonathan Safran Foer, you know that religion is going to be a factor. Religious beliefs, cultural practices, traditions – all of these come in to play when deciding what to eat and when and how to eat it. Oddly, my vegetarianism came about as a result of giving up meat (along with alcohol and desserts) for Lent my junior year of college. I say oddly because as a Baptist, it’s not really “required” that you give up anything, and I never had before (that I can remember), certainly not with any success. When I gave up eating meat, I had no intention of remaining a vegetarian for longer than a few months, just like I had no intention of never drinking alcohol or eating desserts again. And yet, vegetarianism stuck. Perhaps it was because I found it strangely easy not to eat meat. Sure, every once in a while I craved my mom’s fried chicken, bacon, etc. But on the whole I felt better and knew I didn’t need to eat meat. I started getting fewer colds. I started losing some of the freshmen fifteen I had gained. I just felt better. And so for the next four years, I did not (knowingly) eat any animal products besides dairy and eggs.
That parenthetical “knowingly” is a big issue, though, because at what point do you draw your vegetarian line in the sand? Does eating a marshmallow mean you’re no longer vegetarian because it has gelatin? Do you ask whether or not your meal at a restaurant contains beef or chicken broth or if it was cooked in the same pan as meat? Do you eat the ham biscuit your boss bought you for breakfast because it would be rude not to? It’s a slippery slope to make concessions in your diet. Before you know it, you’re eating fish and storing bacon in your freezer.
I hope I haven’t been preaching too much, but at the same time I hope I have. I want people to think about what the food they eat means, not just how it tastes. The consequences of what you put on your plate are bigger than just your waistline. I know that I’ve started to reconsider what I eat and don’t eat (not just meat) since reading this book. When my nephew offered me a pepperoni and I refused it, he asked me what it meant to be a vegetarian. I answered with a simple “It means I don’t eat meat” rather than what I’m sure my sister was terrified I would say: “It means I’m trying not to take part in the killing and eating of fish like Nemo, pigs like Babe and Wilbur.” Increasingly, I’m thinking it wouldn’t hurt to talk to my nephew in a more direct way about what it means to eat meat. Or at least, it wouldn’t hurt to give my sister (and everyone I love) a copy of Eating Animals.