THOSE WHO ARE RESENTFUL of the "literary wunderkind" status bestowed on Jonathan Safran Foer frequently grumble that his novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, are "too precious." His new nonfiction book Eating Animals should silence critics on that count—not even Foer can make factory farming sound adorable.
Eating Animals articulates the hesitations and hypocrisies of a generation privileged enough to have a complicated relationship to food. Everyone "used to be vegetarian," myself included—"I was a vegetarian for 10 years," I'll say proudly, before digging into an order of chicken wings. The environmental impact of meat eating hasn't diminished; somewhere along the line, we all just realized how good it tastes.
No one who saw Food, Inc. will be shocked by Foer's conclusions here. What distinguishes Eating Animals from other anti-meat, anti-factory farming arguments is Foer's willingness—even as he builds a strong case for vegetarianism—to acknowledge the personal and cultural significance of meat consumption. Foer is interested in breaking down perceived barriers between vegetarians and meat eaters, many of whom share the same fundamental concerns about the environmental and ethical implications of eating meat.
MERCURY: A lot has been written about eating ethically lately—from Michael Pollan to Alicia Silverstone’s new book. What does Eating Meat add to the conversation?
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Well, Pollan’s books don’t really address meat. They do so in a very glancing way, in a recognition that it’s a big topic to talk about, but he doesn’t really take it on. His books really don’t get into it. Also, stylistically, my book is coming from a different place. It’s less traditionally journalistic, more an exploration of my own thought process, which involves thinking about where I come from, and my family story.
You describe a long history of waffling between vegetarianism and meat eating. Can you identify the point in your research where you decided to become a vegetarian once and for all?
The interesting thing about my research is that it pulled me in two directions. Factory farming is just so bad in so many ways that I've yet to encounter a coherent defense of it, but on the other hand I went to some really great farms where the animals are treated better than I treat my dog. Where they're given, at least most of the time, a very quick death. I wasn't expecting to experience a farm industry that was as pervasively bad as I did, and neither was I expecting to encounter such important exceptions. So it's not as if every arrow was pointing in the same direction in my research. At the end of the day, though, these exceptions, as great as they are, prove the rule. If it were a different time, and things were different, I could imagine writing a very different book and coming to very different conclusions.
So did you have a sense when you started writing of where you’d end up?
I thought I’d knew where I’d end up. It’d be disingenuous to say I didn’t—as I was starting the research, I thought [my book] was going to be a straightforward case for vegetarianism. Which it isn’t. It’s probably a case for vegetarianism, but it’s not altogether straightforward.
You have an interview with a vegan who designs slaughterhouses. That’s not straightforward at all.
Yeah, exactly. If you ever feel like pursuing this stuff further, or learning about a really interesting group, the group that he runs is called Farm Forward, and they’re just really, really interesting. The stuff that they do—bringing together things that would seem to be opposed but actually aren’t, and pointing out alliances where they aren’t obvious.
Veganism and vegetarianism often provoke an almost immediately defensive reaction in people that eat meat. An organization like that might start to break down some of those barriers.
It’s a problem, the way that this stuff is often talked about does make people defensive. Some if it’s inevitable—the stakes are very high. People can have very different opinions while agreeing that it matters a lot. People don’t get this aggressive and defensive about whether you drive an SUV or a Prius. People don’t get that defensive about which charities, if any, you give your money to, or even who you voted for for president. There’s something about this issue that cuts very deeply. I think that itself is telling. Acknowledging how much it means to people would suggest that we should think about it a corresponding amount. We want to be most thoughtful about the things that matter the most.
Why does it matter so much? Because it’s such a huge part of culture and family, like you talk about in the book?
That, and also, nobody wants to think of himself or be thought of as an animal torturer or an environment destroyer. I think most people, even if they don’t know the details, know the gist of factory farming. They known that if they’re shown a movie of farms it’s gonna be a horror movie. They know that if they learn facts about it, they’re gonna be depressing. When I told people I was writing a book about food, every single person assumed it was gonna be a case against meat. It’s very telling. So I think when the subject comes up and people have that background knowledge, or background instinct that there’s something bad there, it’s like a confrontation with their own values. Even given the fact that people have such different values.
So knowing all those things—knowing that a farm video is going to be a horror film—why aren’t more people vegetarians?
For a lot of different reasons. One, I think the case for vegetarianism, or the story that’s told, is often not effective. I think that’s its often presented as if it were a religion or a law, as if it were designed to make people feel defensive. As opposed to something more conversational, more acknowledging of the importance of culture, of the importance of personal history, of taste, of convenience, of cravings. Things that might not have any place in a rational argument. But reason doesn’t guide our eating habits, or at least not entirely. There’s a place where reason ends and something else takes over. I think any discussion that’s going to be productive has to take all that other stuff into account. Also I think a lot pf people, even people who are pretty well informed about other things, really don’t know the details of factory farming. I was talking to a pretty prominent environmentalist the other day, we were talking about factory farming and how it’s the number one cause of global warming, and she said, “Factory farming is really big now, isn’t it? It’s probably 20 percent, 30 percent... How big is it now, anyway?” and I said “No, it’s 99 percent. It’s everything that there is.” And this person who has designed her life around knowing what is good and bad for the environment didn’t know this most basic of all facts about the thing that is worst for the environment, globally, locally, just about any way you look at it. So if she didn’t know, if I didn’t know most of this stuff before I started researching, I think its fair to assume that people who don’t spend their time thinking about it don’t know it.
People know it’s bad, but they don’t really know how bad. They don’t know everything. That’s the hole in most people’s knowledge about food, that factory farming is really everything. People’s idea of what’s bad about meat is some video they saw where some animal is running around a slaughterhouse with its neck split open. But in fact that’s not the story of meat—that happens, but that is the exception, that doesn’t happen all the time. In a way those videos have done a service to the meat industry, because they present something that is bizarre and shocking and exceptional, as opposed to what the rule is, which is systematized misery, systematized Frankenstein genetics, systemized over-medication, systematized environmental destruction. These things that are not only accepted, but built into the business plan. Too often the bluster of “eating animals is wrong” or “look what happens in slaughterhouses” actually conceals the worse truth that’s happening on a much, much broader scale, and affects everybody at every meal.
Here in Portland there seems to be an idea that if you can participate on the ground level with slaughtering and butchering your own food, it justifies eating meat in some way.
I think it’s totally bizarre. There are a lot of things I can do myself that I shouldn’t do. In the book I say something like, “Proving that you’re capable of killing somebody doesn’t tell you whether it’s right or wrong to kill somebody.” I think part of what people are responding to, which is a very real thing, is not wanting distance or ignorance to protect you from what’s true. So there’s something very noble and good about wanting to bring oneself closer to the means by which meat gets to you. But I don’t think slaughtering an animal oneself has anything to do with the rightness or wrongness of it. I think most often it’s an exercise in one’s macho-ness. Or vanity, actually. It tends to be something that’s pointed inward, as if it were about you, and not the thing being slaughtered. Like, that’s fantastic, you’re capable of doing it, but what about the thing that you’re doing it to?
In the book you describe your own history as an on-again, off-again vegetarian, and that sort of waffling is really, really common, I think—I know I certainly relate to it. Do you have any thoughts on why diet-related inconsistency is so common?
There are a lot of different models. I know plenty of people who learn a piece of information and change their lives and never change back. For me it wasn’t like that, and I think for most people it’s not like that. First of all, it’s really not a small thing to change something fundamental about lifestyle, especially when that thing is so connected to so many other things. There’s a reason it would be much easier to switch from a charcoal BBQ to a gas BBQ on the Fourth of July, than it is to change what you put on the grill. One of them is a fact of life, the other engages all of our senses, is tied to our notion of what it means to celebrate, our notions of what it means actually to be a person, of how our parents celebrated the holiday, if we have children, how they might celebrate the holiday after us. There’s that, on top of which, meat is extremely convenient and for most people tastes really good and smells really good. I’m certainly not exempt from that. I still think it often looks good and would taste good. But a lot of things would feel good—I just don’t do them. For me, it was almost like successive approximation. And I should say it’s a process that’s still continuing. Dairy and eggs come from precisely the same process, there’s nothing about them that’s better, at all. My book really sort of ends with the discussion of meat, but the extension of the argument to other animal products is exactly the same in terms of the environment, and animals. I’ve been making that movement for a while, it’s kind on and off—it’s another [example] of successive approximation. So when someone says to me, “I find it hard,” or “I couldn’t really do it easily,” or, “I’m inconsistent,” I just say, “Me too.” It’s hard stuff! And I think that pretending that it isn’t, as unfortunately many animal rights activists and environmentalists will do, is a mistake. It’s also dishonest.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I certainly didn’t, before. I think this might be one of those things where regardless of how I consider myself, I am. I don’t consider myself a Jewish writer, but I am one. This book obviously has an activist component. But it’s not how I think of myself. I think of myself as a novelist. That’s what I want to do from here on out. This is just something that really spoke to me in a way that I felt like I couldn’t ignore.
So you’re returning to novels after this—you’re not gonna write a book about bicycles or anything like that?
Bicycles. I hadn’t thought of that….
You can have that one. That’s a gimme.
[laughs] No. No, just novels.
Are you working on anything currently?
Trying. I find it hard—having two small children doesn’t make anything easy as far as I can tell, but I’ve been trying.