“Eating Animals”

November 18, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Politics, Slow Food, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

When I picked up this book, I thought it was in defense of Eating Animals.  I might be the only one – that’s what happens when you quit reading reviews and book jackets.  Note:  Why is there not a grammatically equivalent term to ‘vegetarianism’ for ‘the practice of eating an omnivorous diet’?  Omnivorism?  Omnivorousness?  Omnivorosity?

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The one thing about political books of this nature is that they tend to attract people who are already interested in the topic (and infuriate everyone else).  There are scads of books on the food industry; what’s different about this one is that the author is a famous novelist.  (I didn’t care for Everything is Illuminated, or the beginning of this book, but I grew to appreciate it and I prefer Foer’s nonfiction writing style).

Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re interested in the topic and possibly questioning the role of food in your life, so rather than review the book, I’ll give you my personal reactions to it.  I’m a vegan.  I’ve been vegetarian for half my life (17 years, 13 as a vegan).  For me it was a natural and obvious choice, and it would be unimaginable to do things any other way.  If there are brownie points to be awarded for this sort of thing, I wouldn’t get any.  I’m not sure if I would have maintained a diet that ensures constant social opprobrium for so long if I hadn’t been totally repulsed by the sight and smell of meat since I was a little kid.  It’s, ah, not exactly asking much of me.

I agreed with the gist of everything Foer had to say, although I hate reading about factory farming because it seems the conditions get significantly worse every time I check into it.  In spite of our essential harmony, the very fact of the book annoys me.  I’ll tell you why.

It takes a certain temperament to change one’s diet.  Turn down a beer because you’re a recovering alcoholic, and people applaud.  Turn down dessert because you’re a diabetic, and people care.  Turn down shellfish because you’re allergic, and people are concerned.  Turn down anything because of an ethical commitment, and it’s rude.  People frickin’ hate it.  This is hard to face because I was taught that the burden of hospitality falls on the host, not the guest, yet people will a) shun you for “rejecting” their hospitality and b) refuse to come over and accept yours.  Peer pressure over diet is incredibly, incredibly strong.  Most people will not make a permanent dietary change even if a doctor tells them their very life is at stake – ask any nurse.

So, why would anyone do it over a book?  I would bet my next month’s pay that there are at least a few people who are experimenting with vegetarianism right now after reading Foer’s book.  Most of them will be back to their old ways by this time next year (or next week: “Turkey Day”), just like the gym is always full between January 3 and Valentine’s Day.  And with each person who tries the diet and gives it up, there will be one more addition to the mythos that it’s too hard, or unhealthy, or spiritually demanding, or whatever else it is that people think.  And it will be that much more confusing for people when they deal with lifers like me.

Vegetarianism has nothing to do with health.  I think different diets are right for different constitutions, though I think the vast majority eat too much junk and too little produce.  (My family of 2.5 goes through 20 pounds of CSA/locavore produce a week).  I was sick a lot as a kid, bruised easily, and was prone to dizzy spells and mysterious ailments.  I’ve never been robust and I’m still the last person you’d pick for the softball team – it has nothing to do with diet.  Yet if someone else gets the flu, everyone is sad; if I get the flu, people ask me, “Do you think it’s diet related?”  The knee-jerk reaction is to associate health issues or food cravings with the absence of meat in the diet, rather than consult a doctor or nutritionist.

Vegetarianism also has little to do with body weight.  I’ve been veg for my entire adult life, so this diet has seen me at both my fattest (college) and thinnest (post divorce).  People will insist, though, on thinking it alone will solve their weight problems, and try it temporarily just like any other reducing plan.

Foer is right that vegetarianism has a great deal to do with public health and the environment.  That’s one of my frustrations with the book – he should have led off with the chapter on how incredibly drippingly filthy factory-farmed meat is and then the one on its ineradicable connection to epidemic disease (something that came up, incidentally, in Guns, Germs, and Steel).  Yet, like all veg books, he starts off with a chapter on his lovable pet.  Sigh.  People do not actually care enough about animals when the chips are down – don’t you get it?  Most people just don’t give a rat’s — once an animal falls into the category of “food unit.”  Even a “pro-life” person will cry over a single human fetus and shrug over the deaths of hundreds of millions of animals.  “Life” – just for humans, dogs, cats, and the occasional hamster or ferret.

My other issue is that Foer leaves out virtually any mention of the dairy industry, perhaps because he and his family still consume it.  (He doesn’t say).  He was brave and he did a lot of research and he made an inconvenient change, but he could have pushed it farther and I believe he knows it.  If you’re in a seeking state about this issue, I personally believe there is a greater impact to giving up dairy than to giving up meat, and I include health as well as environmental and animal welfare issues in that opinion.  It’s worth looking into, at least.

So, yeah.  Ultimately I think this will be another tempest in a teapot.  It will produce another round of dilettante veggies, who will annoy people by proselytizing and will then give up after a short time because they didn’t do their research.  Frankly, another major cause will be that most are still young enough their cooking skills are undeveloped, and their food is gonna kinda suck.  And it will serve to convince yet more people that “vegetarians” eat chicken and fish (the correct term is flexatarian, and there’s no shame in it) or that all vegetarians try to “convert people” or that vegetarian food is awful.

Incidentally, I married an omnivore who can dress his own game, and we cook together.  Meat hits our table about once a month, his choice (we keep separate color-coded pots, plates, and utensils).  I have one brother who quit eating meat because he’s a proud union man and he doesn’t think it’s right to expect others to work in a modern slaughterhouse.  And, both my parents became vegans about ten years ago, though they have stricter rules about food additives (like salt) and fewer rules about clothing and such.  My other, omnivore brother keeps secret Boca burgers in his freezer.  There are lots of ways to play this game; we find it’s a piece of cake.  Vegan cake, that is.

I will close with recommendations for what I regard as the best vegan cookbooks, for those who have gotten this far.  Anything by Isa Chandra Moskovitz, Robin Robertson, or Dreena Burton, especially including (in order) Vegan With a Vengeance, Vegan Planet, and Vive Le Vegan.  The Millennium Restaurant cookbooks and anything by Ron Pickarski for fancy, experienced cooks.  And write to me any time if you’re hungry for more – especially you, Mr. Foer, ’cause there’s a bit of a learning curve ahead.

Addendum:  I’ve started a new vegan cooking blog, The Viable Vegan.

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