“But food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, and identity. For some, that irrationality leads to a kind of resignation. Food choices are likened to fashion choices or life-style preferences—they do not respond to judgments about how we should live. And I would agree that the messiness of food, the almost infinite meanings it proliferates, does make the question of eating—and eating animals especially—surprisingly fraught.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer, page 263
Disclaimer: I am a vegetarian. I have been since September 2014. And I promise not to turn this book review into a passionate case (like many others out there) for being vegetarian/vegan. If it does turn into that, I apologize.
Lately, my mind has been turning to the topic of food. I suppose it started when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Chicago Public Library’s One Book One Chicago pick) late last year. That transitioned into reading William Sitwell’s The History of Food in 100 Recipes. Both books are excellent and fascinating reads, and I recommend that you seek them out this year. In reading both books—and perusing the food sections of all bookstores I walk into—my mind drifted back to why I am a vegetarian. And, most importantly, that small voice in the back of my head that says, Maybe you should just go back to eating meat eventually. Hit that five-year mark just to say to made it, and then make yourself some fried chicken.
Then, as I was wandering among the bookshelves at the West Town branch after grabbing Percy Jackson from the hold shelf, I spotted Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I knew this was the book I needed to read. Maybe it would have answers that would help me determine whether I should stay vegetarian. I had never sought out animal rights documentaries, and never researched in-depth about why vegetarianism and/or veganism. I just let people assume what they wanted about me being vegetarian—you know, PETA, animal rights, save the environment, hippie—when all I knew was that I felt better when I wasn’t scarfing down meat nearly every day.
Eating Animals is the best comprehensive book I have come across. After his son was born, Foer began researching what meat is. Many people assumed the book was a case for vegetarianism, which I admit I also thought when I first gravitated to the bright green cover on the shelf. But it is not. This is a book that makes you more aware of where your food, specifically meat, comes from. Yes, it talks about factory farms and the treatment of animals in such facilities (I’ll spare you the details because I’m sure you know about the basics). It also talks about family farms, farmers who are doing everything they can to treat their farm animals well. Foer has essays, some anonymous, from people he talked to for the book. One is a vegetarian rancher. Another is a vegan who builds slaughterhouses. There is, of course, a short essay from a PETA advocate. Another essay from someone who sneaks into factory farms to rescue any animals. One voice that is missing is from of the bigger factory farms, such as Tyson, because they never responded to Foer’s requests. I would be surprised if they did respond.
I learned new things about eating animals. Factory farming wasn’t a thing until a Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) housewife Celia Steele started the modern poultry industry after she allegedly received an order of five hundred chicks instead of fifty and decided to experiment with keeping the birds indoors during the winter. I panicked during the section about the Spanish influenza, and how there hasn’t been a pandemic since the 1968 Hong Kong flu so we’re probably due for one. Plus, the book is broken down into easy-to-read sections. It’s not a dry read, and the pages are not dense with text. There are typographic illustrations that lead into every major section of the book, accompanied by a food fact.
When I finished reading Eating Animals, I felt confident in my decision to be vegetarian. (I’ll save the nuances to my thoughts on the matter for a separate blog post, if I ever get around to writing it.) Food is complicated for everyone for various reasons—especially when it comes to eating meat. It is important to be informed on many issues, and I believe food and where it comes from is near the top of that list of issues. Reading Eating Animals is a good place to start.