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Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals: Illuminated
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Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals: Illuminated

I originally read Foer’s Eating Animals a couple of years ago.  I was already vegetarian and likely would have refrained from reading a book like this, frequently suffering from Preaching-To-The-Choir Syndrome.  It can be chronic among the converted, as can headaches from bumping into our own halos.  But having read Everything Is Illuminated, I needed to read Animals, just to be bathed in the warm glow of Foer’s impeccably magical storytelling.  As a writer, he can relay a story in a way that is so deeply human, so heartbreakingly poignant, and so subtly hilarious, that I pre-ordered the book.

Re-reading it, (in a sense) for this review, was a pleasure and a joy, particularly as the spring rain tapped on our roof. I suddenly remembered just how astonishing this man's storytelling mingles alongside so many mimind-bogglingacts and figures.  Foer starts, as always, at the beginning. And in signature style, that beginning centers around his own childhood and the wily characters in it.  The author tells us how his grandmother had survived the War barefoot in the forests of Europe, eating what she could to survive. Being a child in her house meant a food culture that pulled no punches and included a lot of animal consumption.

“She taught us that animals that are bigger than you are very good for you, that animals that are smaller than you are good for you, fish (which aren’t animals) are fine for you, then tuna (which aren’t fish), then vegetables, fruits, cakes, cookies, and sodas.  No foods are bad for you.  Fats are healthy- all fats, always, in any quantity.  Sugars are very healthy.  The fatter a child is, the healthier it is—especially if it’s a boy.  Lunch is not one meal, but three, to be eaten at 11:00, 12:30, and 3:00.  You are always starving.”

Ironically, Foer’s grandmother once reminded him, when he questioned why she refused food that wasn’t kosher, that: “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” And that idea resonates throughout, despite it taking on new meaning as Foer grows older.

The conventional meals that appeared on Foer’s plate daily were suddenly and unexpectedly called into question for him at the tender age of nine, when a vegetarian babysitter rattled the table by shrugging, (upon being asked why she was not eating the chicken), “I don’t want to hurt anything.” The same babysitter then went on to extrapolate on what she knew about eating animals.

“What our babysitter said made sense to me, not only because it seemed true, but because it was the extension to food of everything my parents had taught me.  We don’t hurt family members.  We don’t hurt friends or strangers.  We don’t even hurt upholstered furniture.”

After waffling back and forth from vegetarianism to a Standard American Diet (or SAD) throughout his youth, Foer finally settled on a planet-based diet when he realized he was about to become a father.  And yearning to create a narrative for his son (who would be at odds with his larger culture in his family’s eating practices), he set out to write the book.

Perhaps some the most useful features of Foer’s work throughout, are the simple but impactful facts he delivers at the beginning of each chapter-- the first one’s my favorite.

  •  Americans choose to eat less than .25% of the known edible food on the planet.
  •  Modern industrial fishing lines can be as long as 75 miles—the same distance as from sea level to space.
  •  Nearly one-third of the land surface of the planet is dedicated to livestock.
  • Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.
  • Factory farms, family farms, feed conversion, food and light used to manipulate and increase productivity
  •  In the typical cage for egg-laying hens, each bird has 67 square inches of space—[smaller than a sheet of computer paper].  Nearly all cage-free birds have approximately the same amount of space.

Foer’s dive into the intellectual and moral dilemma of eating animals is poetic. Time and time again, you’ll find yourself coming back to the likes of Kafka and his own journey into vegetarianism, hinging on the edges of what he called the “sphere of moral concern” and “the core experience of the ethical”.  And speaking of Kafka, Foer’s approach to linking him with the next part of the book, doesn’t fall too far from brilliant.  He does this artfully by merely defining a few seldom-heard terms.  For example:


The conviction that humans are the pinnacle of evolution, the appropriate yardstick by which to measure the lives of other animals, and the rightful owners of everything that lives.

And then, Foer gets gutsy taking on the connection between animals and shame, leading to chapters on animal stress, confinement, and suffering.  He’s quick to point out that as much as humans are NOT animals, when you get down to it, we are, and we fundamentally struggle with that reality and our general relationship with our animal relatives. It's seemingly culminated in a war on other animals and their natural environments, which are also our own natural environments.

“When we wish to disavow a part of our nature, we call it our “animal nature…. Today, at stake in the question of eating animals is not only our basic ability to respond to sentient life, but our ability to respond to parts of our own (animal) being.  There is a war not only between us and them, but between us and us. It is a war as old as story and more unbalanced that at any point in history.

Further elaborating on this often all-too invisible war, Foer cites:

“For every ten tuna, sharks, and other large predatory fish that were in our oceans fifty to a hundred years ago, only one is left.  Many scientists predict the total collapse of all fished species in less than fifty years. Resrearch scientists at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia argue that “our interactions with fisheries resources [also known as fish] have come to resemble… wars of extermination.”

But don’t think it’s all heady.  He soon gets down to the nitty gritty.  Talk about boots on the ground—the guy literally jumps into the muck. Over the course of the book, we follow his three year journey into factory farming.  On a few occasions, we journey with Foer, his flashlight and fear, and a few activists, behind the locked and super secretive doors of factory farms in the middle of the night.

“In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors.  Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming.  And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.”

While the sections on factory farming are brutally truthful and important, perhaps the most startling, is Foer’s chapter on food borne illness.  It wasn’t until I read this book that I realized that Virologist Robert Webster has proved the avian origins of all human influenza.  You read that right.  All human flu originates in birds.  And those birds often carry thsese viruses with them and remain unaffected by them. However, the viruses themselves are elegant, brilliant, and are forever-changing into stronger and stronger strains.  They’re also learning to resist our antibiotics.

The WHO expects a flu pandemic of incredible proportions in the near future, and all because of human interactions with birds, particularly on a large scale. Webster called it the “barnyard theory,” which surmises, “The viruses in human pandemics recruit some of their genes from flu viruses in domestic birds”.  Thanks to industrial animal-processing techniques in particular, these viruses are spreading at alarming rates, and being directly transmitted into the food we eat.  While being vegetarian is a good start, your animal-eating neighbors, once infected, can spread the flu to you with a cough or a sneeze.  We should all be worried.  This might be Foer’s biggest lesson.

“The global implications of the growth of the factory farm, especially given the problems of food-borne illness, antimicrobial resistance, and the potential pandemics, are genuinely terrifying.  India’s and China’s poultry industries have grown somewhere between 5 and 13 percent annually since the 1980’s. …. On what date will we accept the loss of antibiotics as a tool to prevent human suffering?  How many days of the week will our grandchildren be ill?  Where does it end?"

He reminds us: “Species don’t make choices, individuals do.”  Ready for the uplift?  It’s in there.  Next, Foer takes us on the unlikely journeys of a vegetarian rancher, and even a vegan who builds slaughterhouses for small family farm operations (read the book—it actually makes a lot of sense).

And while Foer himself decided on being permanently plant-based as he wrote the book, he has some hope for more sustainable grass-fed cattle ranches as much safer alternatives to the current industrial systems, and hopes they can be a bridge to something better. Speaking to the plight of these unconventional animal farmers, Foer quotes small farmer Marlene Halverson:

“The ethical relationship of farmers to farm animals is unique.  The farmer must raise a living creature that is destined to an endpoint of slaughter for food, or culling and death after a lifetime of production, without becoming emotionally attached or conversely, without become cynical about the animal’s need for a decent life while the animal is alive.  The farmer must somehow raise an animal as a commercial endeavor without regarding the animal as a mere commodity.”

 So the relationship between farmer and food is a tricky one.  And the relationship between family and food can be just as tricky. As Foer begins to create a new family food culture and to tweak tradition toward the end of the book, he asks the question “What do turkeys have to do with Thanksgiving? “ And it turns out, not much.  According to historians, folks at the first Thanksgiving likely didn’t even have turkey. They also didn’t have corn, apples, potatoes, or cranberries.  Only two written reports from the historic Thanksgiving at Plymouth mention venison and wild foul.  It turns out turkey was not made part of the ritual until the nineteenth century. My favorite part of all this?

“And historians have now discovered an even earlier Thanksgiving than the 1621 Plymouth celebration that English-American historians made famous.  Half a century before Plymouth, early American settlers celebrated Thanksgving with the Timucua Indians in what is now Florida—the best evidence suggests that the settlers were Catholic rather than Protestant, and spoke Spanish rather than English.  They dined on bean soup.”

Even assuming these early settlers did eat turkey, it would have been a very different animal.  It would have been wild.  Foer explores the starkly different animals people consume for holidays today. For all intensive purposes, today’s turkeys are literally mutants.

“At the center of our Thanksgiving tables is an animal that never breathed fresh air or saw the sky until it was packed away for slaughter.  At the end of our forks is an animal that was incapable of reproducing sexually [because of how it’s been genetically engineered—it can’t fly, either and it’s legs often give out under it’s weight, as it’s been engineered to grow fatter than it’s bones can actually support].  In our bellies is an animal with antibiotics in it’s belly.”

So the answer is more ethical meat alternatives, right? Well, according to Foer, the truth is, those alternatives just can’t feed the world. He explains:“Ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality.  Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare.”  While grass fed beef is certainly supreme to Tyson, most folks who support gentler, more sustainable family farms for meat, also buy outside of that system.  Few genuinely boycott factory meat if it’s all that’s available. Here Foer poses an important question: “How effective would the Montgomery bus boycott have been if the protestors had used the bus when it became inconvenient not to?”

Finally, what I love most about Foer’s book is that it’s lyrical. It’s not  about a lecture.  This work is rooted in deep compassion—not just for animals, but for the humans who routinely consume them as a result of cultural norms.  He gets it.  But he has hope, and good reason for it, which he lays out beautifully.  Read it. You’ll want to run from room to room, quoting it out loud to whoever will listen.  I myself fought numerous urges e-mail new insights as they came leaping off of the page.  And the end, you’ll find yourself right back where you want to be, at a kitchen table with Foer and his grandmother.  But they’re not the only ones in the room any more.  Now, when Foer dines, he sits as a global table, picturing the other humans who are affected by his food choices. He eats alongside his conscience, not just his family, and he remembers, always:  “If nothing matters, then there’s nothing to save.”


*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.

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  1. BuddhasDelight
    intense. informative. wow. thank you for posting this. i have to read this book now. :)
  2. TracyK
    I loved this book two years ago when I read it. Between this book and the documentary Veducated, I knew my destiny was to be a vegan. After reading this post, I now want to reread this book.


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