REVIEW by Jason Bell
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Back Bay Books, September 2010
Paperback 368 pp., ISBN: 978-0316069885
As an avowed omnivore, I consumed Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals with weary skepticism. After all, most of us food enthusiasts confront the ethics of meat before too long, often because of a annoying friend who turns down a perfectly palatable hot dog. While I never seriously considered kicking the hamburger habit, I've endured enough lectures to last me a lifetime. Forgive me if I sat down to Eating Animals braced for self-righteous vegetable pandering.
But Foer surprised me. He presents Eating Animals as a cathartic and personal project, his attempt to discover for the sake of himself and his newborn son “what meat is.” In fact, he originally “assumed that [his] book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn’t.” Tellingly, Foer defends his narrative not as a case, but “as a story,” because “facts are important, but they don’t, on their own, provide meaning.” And Eating Animals does read like a story: beautifully written, idealistic, a little scary at the appropriate moments—surprise, atrocities occur on factory farms—but with a suitably warm and glowing ending. Vegetarianism is, ultimately, the “right” choice for Foer and his family, even if his grandmother never truly understands his meat-less lifestyle. Yet even this conflict hides a happy ending: “to accept the factory farm—to feed the food it produces to my family, to support it with my money—would make me less myself, less my grandmother’s grandson, less my son’s father.”
Not surprisingly, Foer’s storytelling works best for his personal narrative. As soon as he ventures into his much derided “facts,” however, his book suffers. Take, for example, Foer’s view on nutrition and animal products: “Regarding US government recommendations that tend to encourage dairy consumption in the name of preventing osteoporosis, Nestle (food educator, researcher and policy maker—not the candy company) notes that in parts of the world where milk is not a staple of the diet, people often have less osteoporosis and fewer bone fractures than Americans do. The highest rates of osteoporosis are seen in countries where people consume the most dairy foods.” That’s true, but Nestle gives alternate causes for this fact that Foer ignores. Here’s Nestle: “Perhaps people elsewhere eat less junk food . . . less protein from meat and dairy foods, and less sodium from processed foods. Or perhaps their diets help them retain calcium better.” Or perhaps those countries that consume the most dairy products also possess the most “advanced” medical infrastructures, leading to a higher osteoporosis diagnosis rate. Regardless, Foer contorts and constricts the facts, then presents his viewpoint as more valid than the government’s or the food industry’s, abusing the data in the same manner as his biggest “enemies.”
So I remain an omnivore, eating duck breast, duck confit, duck head, duck feet, duck tongue, any duck or other animal part that happens onto my plate. More accurately, I remain an omnivore without regrets, even after finishing Foer’s exceedingly well-composed guilt trip.
August 3, 2010