Mission

Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: Eating Animals

Eating Animals
Jonathan Safran Foer
Back Bay Books
Little Brown
paperback edition, September 2010
341 pages
A copy of this book was provided to me by Hachette Book Group

Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals should be required reading for anyone who eats food.  Foer's non-fiction book, which took him three years to research, gives the reader important information about where our food comes from, and it does so without once being pious, self-righteous, or telling the reader what to do or how to eat.

Eating Animals is compelling, fascinating, disturbing and hopeful.  Whether you are a committed carnivore, a deliberate omnivore, or a vegetarian or vegan, Eating Animals will challenge your beliefs and assumptions about food.  Foer tells the story mostly from his own point of view, a Jewish grandson of a Holocaust survivor, an on-again off-again vegetarian, a husband about to become a father.  Foer begins with his own personal story, talking to the reader as one would to a friend.  It's disarming and charming; Foer just wants to decide for himself and his children--what should our family eat?  He begins his research for the book with this question in mind, and answers it for himself by becoming vegan.  But this book is never preachy, and Foer never tells the reader:  this is what you ought to do.

But after reading this book, even if the idea of animals holds no moral repugnance for you, factory-farming as it is practiced today probably will.  Foer has done very thorough research here, and he is convincing.  In the words of Frank Resse, a poultry farmer who actually practices organic, cruelty-free farming, "animals have paid the price for our desire to have everything available at all times for very little money."  Foer shows, and proves exhaustively, that factory-farming is cruel, sadistic, unsafe, and practically universal in this country.  If you eat poultry, beef, eggs, dairy products or fish, you are eating the products of factory-farming.  That means your food has been raised from "Frankenstein-like genetic stock...illness is always rampant; suffering is always the rule...death is invariably cruel."

Foer's voice is not the only voice in Eating Animals:  ranchers, poultry farmers, factory-farm managers, animal-rights activists, slaughter-house workers and others each have a voice in this book.  The reader learns about Frank Reese, a poultry farmer who is raising real turkeys, not the genetically-manipulated monstrosities whose lives are pure suffering.  We meet the owners of Niman Ranch, a company that has defied the trends of factory-farming, and focuses on raising healthy cattle in a humane way.

In the course of his research, Foer goes on a 3:00 a.m. undercover visit to a turkey factory-farm, where he sees tens of thousands of turkey chicks, some of them dead or dying, their beaks burned off, their toes cropped.  He visits a family-owned slaughtering facility, one of the last left in the country.  He visits with cattle rancher Bill Niman and his vegan wife Nicolette; Bill and Nicolette each tell their own story--why they are in the business of ranching, what they are doing to produce quality beef under humane conditions.

In the end Foer never presses his reader, never bludgeons the reader with opinion.  He offers information:  the environmental costs of factory-farming, the facts about the health risks for consumers, the moral and ethical problems presented to the consumer every day.

I would recommend this book to literally any reader.  The information presented in this book is important to us all, and the writer tells his story, and the story of our food, in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.  Foer's prose is a delight to read; his blending of reportage, memoir and novelistic technique, and his own distinctive voice, make Eating Animals an important and necessary book.

23 comments:

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Yes, this is the book that I couldn't remember the name of the other day! I'm a vegetarian (moving back to my vegan ways), and I couldn't remember which book it was that wasn't overly preachy or pushy -- but just told the basic truth of how factory farms operate and how bad that type of meat is. If people want to eat meat, they need to be careful they're not selecting the meat that is overly hormone-ridden!

Thanks for posting this review!!

Mayowa said...

Great review...you're not pushy either :)

I think I avoid books like these because I don't want to know how bad it really is...total wuss move.

bibliophiliac said...

@Coffee and a Book Chick-though I didn't state it in my review, my whole family is vegan. I wish more people knew how delicious vegan food can be, and how relatively easy this change can be!

bibliophiliac said...

@Mayaowa--thanks for the kind words...I have to confess, I didn't leap to read this book when it first came out. Now I'm actually very glad I have read it.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

The book Animal Vegetable Miracle really changed the way I see food...and what I choose for my family to eat. I find myself moving more and more toward a more green diet and away from meat altogether. I also appreciate a book that presents researched truth but doesn't try to shame or push the reader into following the author's lead. This one is going to the top of my TBR pile.

Carina said...

I've been looking at buying and reading this book for a while now. It's good to hear that it's non-pushy: that makes it even more interesting for me!

Katie said...

Ok... I have heard nothing but fabulous things about this book, including your review which was completely lovely and almost convinced me to actually read it. However... I really, really love eating meat and I'm afraid that if I read this book that I'll feel guilty every time I eat a steak!

bibliophiliac said...

@PeppermintPhD-and I will have to check out Animal, Vegetable, Miracle!
@Carina--I think I was initially a little put off my the title (blunt, isn't it) but I'm really glad I read this book.

bibliophiliac said...

@Katie--I understand what you are saying, but I don't think Foer is trying to make the reader feel guilty--and guilt isn't very productive! From my perspective, it's good to have all the information possible. I know when I saw the NYT magazine article about the devastating effects of ecoli that food had become dangerous! If I were a meat eater, I would not feel guilty about it, but I would probably want to have much more information than most consumers do about just what I was eating. One thing I found out was that beef cattle are treated more humanely, and their meat is safer to eat, than poultry. Anyway, thanks for your response!

Emily Crowe said...

Nice review of a very interesting book. I've dipped into Foer's book but not finished it, though it joins a few others than I have finished, like Michael Pollan's excellent Omnivore's Dilemma, and the recent, thought-provoking book by Hal Herzog called Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, which is about our complicated relationships with animals in general (I reviewed it on my blog, if you're curious and wish to take a look).

I'm still an omnivore, but it's reading these books that have made me far more selective about the meats and dairy that I do consume. Luckily, I live in an area where farmers are happy to raise grass fed beef and cruelty-free chickens (and restaurants are very happy to use them as food purveyors). A member of my extended family has even started raising chickens for the eggs.

I've love to know some of your sources and/or recipes for the delicious vegan food you mention. I remain mostly unimpressed by the vegan meals I've had--it's true I've never cooked it myself at home, though, I've given it countless tries dining out. Are you willing to share?

leeswammes said...

I've read a few books like this. Although it's scary, I still continue in my own (vegetarian) ways. I do think a little more about what I eat with every book I read, but there's a long way to go. :-)

I MAY read this, but as I said, have read some others like it, too. And I don't need to read them all, do I?

Bea Elliott said...

Another great book that does not preach but rather examines our food consuming practices is authored by Dr. Melanie Joy - Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

It's an eyeopening read and a great companion to Eating Animals.

I don't believe that there's a need to be pushy - Most people, after they know the facts - make the right decisions. And it's wonderful that our culture can/will evolve this way - Always changing for the good.

bibliophiliac said...

@Emily--my daughters and I have spent hours perusing cookbooks in bookstores, and there are many good ones out there. Our favorite is Veganomicon by Moskowitz and Romero. As far as eating out goes, I do very little of it, mostly for financial reasons. A friend of mine in this area has been working with local restaurants to encourage vegan menu items. If you are willing to cook and bake, you will discover that vegan food is more delicious than anything else you've eaten-really! I did a cookbook post over the summer--it's here:
http://bibliophiliac-bibliophiliac.blogspot.com/2010/07/cookbook-potpourri.html

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I love Veganomicon, too! You know what I normally do, though, because I'm lazy -- I Google the type of food that I want to make and then just include "vegan" with that. For example, "Vegan Meatloaf Recipe." Then I peruse through the different recipes until I find something that I like! I love it!

bibliophiliac said...

@leeswammes--I do think Eating Animals is worth reading on a literary basis! It is brilliantly written.

bibliophiliac said...

@Coffee and a Book Chick--yeah, we do that to! The Google method! My daughter made vegan pumpkin chocolate brownies last week using a recipe she found using Google-yum...

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Vegan pumpkin chocolate brownies?? OMG YUM!! I might have to pull that up right now...!!!!

bibliophiliac said...

@Bea Elliot--thanks for the recommendation-I will look for that book!

Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

I've been putting off reading this book, even though I'm 99% vegetarian and try to buy only free range eggs and milk products. I know I'll find it horribly, painfully depressing. Many of my friends have seen the documentary Food, Inc. which looks at factory farming, and found it very powerful. Have you seen it?

http://laughingstars.net

bibliophiliac said...

@Stephanie-you have to read this book to understand how terms like "free-range" are used by the industry to fool the consumer. I used to buy "vegetarian eggs". Now that I know more about how laying chickens are treated, I will not eat eggs. But I don't want to preach! You should read the book, though. I've heard a lot about Food, Inc, but I have never seen it.

Christina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christina said...

Thank you for reviewing this! It's been on my amazon wishlist for ages, but I've been a little nervous about it ever since seeing the NYT review:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/books/20book.html

I love Mr. Foer so much, and my own relationship with animal rights is pretty emotionally charged. So when I sit down to read this, I'll go into it with a lot of baggage. Does that make sense? Anyway, your review has given me hope that I will enjoy it, so thanks!

-Christina (from The Blue Bookcase)

bibliophiliac said...

@Christina--I think Foer is amazingly graceful and disarming in the way he negotiates this often emotionally charged topic. I love the fact that you are able to acknowledge how charged the topic is and still be willing to read Eating Animals. That's what I think is so notable about the readers of book blogs: an amazingly open-hearted and gracious group of folks!