Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Eating Animals: Words/Meaning - the third chapter of the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

As an author, Foer likes to play. In his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, he played with time and the sharing (or not sharing) of space. In Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, he played with images - specifically, visual and cognitive perceptions of the world from unusual viewpoints (such as those of a nine year old boy struggling with incomprehensible loss). In his latest book, Eating Animals, Foer plays with language: both in the meaning and sound of words, as well as the physical presence of letters, words, and shapes printed on a page. This is present throughout the book in the chapter headings - pick up a copy and you'll see what I mean. But nowhere is it more expressed than in the third chapter of the book, "Words/Meaning."

This chapter reads as a highly editorialized series of unusual encyclopedia entries, which are indeed listed in alphabetical order. The device allows Foer to address a wide range of issues without leaving his central exploration of the food industry. At times the "definitions" reference each other; many flow brilliantly from one to the next (Bullshit -> Bycatch, for instance), though each stands on its own.

Michael Pollan, an author who has become one of the best known food journalists at least in western culture, takes his knocks in this book. This is unsurprising - many in the vegetarian / vegan community feel that Pollan has all of the information directly in front of him, and yet draws all of the wrong conclusions from it. For example, Pollan has taken the position that becoming veg is the wrong way to go about combating factory farming, and that it is in fact much better to buy meat and animal products from real family farms instead. In 'Discomfort Food', Foer makes the following fabulous point, more or less in direct response to Pollan's argument that vegetarianism is a barrier to 'table fellowship':
Imagine an acquaintance invites you to dinner. You could say, "I'd love to come. And just so you know, I'm a vegetarian." You could also say, "I'd love to come. But I only eat meat that is produced by family farmers." Then what do you do? You'll probably have to send the host a web link or list of local shops to even make the request intelligible, let alone manageable. This effort might be well-placed, but it is certainly more invasive than asking for vegetarian food.
(Is he trying to imply that pasta with marinara is easier than chicken from Joel Salatin? Pish posh.)

Foer's definition of "Free-Range" is priceless:
Applied to meat, eggs, dairy, and every now and then even fish (tuna on the range?), the free-range label is bullshit. It should provde no more peace of mind than "all natural," "fresh," or "magical."
Followed by "Fresh":
According to the USDA, "fresh" poultry has never had an internal temperature below 26 degrees or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Fresh chicken can be frozen (thus the oxymoron "fresh frozen"), and there is no time component to food freshness.
Food labeling conundrums are really Marion Nestle's ball of wax, but they're always good for a (terrified) laugh. Other definitions of interest include "KFC" "PETA," "Sentimentality,"

In this chapter, Foer briefly addresses the problems that have arisen in the kosher food industry due to the industrialization of the slaughter process. He asks this difficult question of his own Jewish community: "Has the very concept of kosher meat become a contradiction in terms?"

Living in New York City, I have made many friends and acquaintances who keep kosher. One of the things we have in common is our "restrictive" diets - we tend to understand each other on that level in a way that people who aren't so conscious of food do not. I've had many conversations in which the "two sets of pots and dishes" situation comes up, particularly among people who are dealing with roommates who do not share the same habits. And admittedly, more than once, I've brought up the idea that by going vegan those kosher friends would only need one set, ha.

While here less of a story is woven than in other chapters, it is no less compelling - in fact, given the variety and content of information presented, quite the opposite.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eating Animals: All or Nothing or Something Else - the second chapter of the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

In the second chapter of his book "Eating Animals", Foer looks at a conundrum that was first brought to my attention in middle school French class. This was of course the revelation that the French eat horses. The room full of 13 and 14 year olds was of course perfectly aghast. "Horses?! Surely you must be joking?!!!" To which our teacher, sensibly enough, responded, why is that so different than eating a cow? The best answer we could conjure up was that you can ride horses, and they're pretty. Of course we couldn't really come up with an answer, because there is no real answer.

We are talking, more broadly, about why different cultures choose different animals as OK or not OK to eat. Here in the US, for the most part, we accept cows, pigs, lambs, chickens and a few other birds, and a variety of sea life as perfectly normal food. But talk about eating goat or whale or monkey and we're kind of like, wha? And we pretty much freak out at the idea of eating horse, or, heaven forbid, dog or cat. Even just in the one country though, being the "melting pot" that it is, differences arise. Those of the Jewish culture who follow kosher dietary laws don't find pigs or shellfish to be acceptable food at all. I live in Queens, where many of my neighbors think nothing of eating goat - I know this because of the whole, skinned goats hanging up in butcher shop windows. Some people in some parts of some states are happy to eat wild animals like possums, pigeons, and snakes, or body parts such as cow tongues, chicken gizzards and necks, and pigs' feet and ears, that many so-called omnivorous city folk would lose their lunches over.

Go international, and things get much wilder. Plenty of countries do in fact eat dog. And really, why not? Because they're smart, and loyal, and know their names and do tricks? Any pig owner will tell you that this all holds true for The Other White Meat. And of course the Hindus think us downright blasphemous heathens for eating cows. Monkey brains are a delicacy in many parts of the world. Some find the meat of the orangutan to be quite tasty - so much so that poaching is a threat to the species. The birds that we choose to eat (chickens, turkeys, pheasants...) are no less intelligent or complex than the parrots and other birds we bring into our homes, name, love, and treat as family members - they just have a good amount more breast meat.

As Foer puts it,
The French, who love their dogs, sometimes eat their horses.
The Spanish, who love their horses, sometimes eat their cows.
The Indians, who love their cows, sometimes eat their dogs.
What does all of this tell us? That the decision of which animals we eat vs. which animals we love is essentially arbitrary.

Foer begins his second chapter by making an argument for eating stray dogs rather than letting them be euthanized, ground up, and fed to what we consider to be "proper" food animals. (Didn't know that's what happens? Well it is.) This is classic satire, a la "A Modest Proposal", except that it is infinitely more plausible as dogs, in many places, are eaten, whereas we've pretty much successfully killed off all of the human cultures that think it's alright to eat each other, even when it's just their way of mourning.
The inefficient use of dogs - conveniently already in areas of high human population (take note, local-food advocates) - should make any good ecologist blush.
Ha! Well if animals are here for our use, the man's got a point doesn't he? And if they're not... well you tell me.

Foer continues the chapter in comparing factory farming to war. The analogy is fairly apt, particularly when he draws it out with the example of fish. We could even use a much uglier, particular word: genocide. For the simpler term "war" indicates an enemy, someone fighting back. To an outside observer, it would indeed appear that we are doing our damnedest to simply rid the planet of, say, tuna. We go after these animals with a vicious, no-holds-barred methodology that leaves pure devastation in its wake. But they're just so darn tasty mixed up with some mayo and celery!

Many, many people want to believe that fish are somehow different, somehow special. (Or less special, maybe. For a very brief period I was one of them. Given my roots, I wanted to believe that the livelihood of so many from the place my family comes from could not have grown so tainted. Alas.) We often call these people pescatarians. Regarding this, I will quote two things.

Industrial fishing is not exactly factory farming, but it belongs in the same category and needs to be part of the same discussion - it is part of the same agricultural coup. This is most obvious for aquaculture (farms on which fish are confined to pens and "harvested") but is every bit as true for wild fishing, which shares the same spirit and intensive use of modern technology... Once the picture of industrial fishing is filled in - the 1.4 billion hooks deployed annually on longlines; the 1,200 nets, each one 30 miles in length, used by only one fleet to catch only one species; the ability of a single vessel to haul in fifty tons of sea animals in a few minutes - it becomes easier to think of contemporary fishers as factory farmers rather than fishermen.
No reader of this book would tolerate someone swinging a pickax at a dog's face. Nothing could be more obvious or less in need of explanation. Is such concern morally out of place when applied to fish, or are we silly to have such unquestioning concern about dogs? Is the suffering of a drawn-out death something that is cruel to inflict on any animal that can experience it, or just some animals?
Food for thought, har har.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Eating Animals: Storytelling - the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book.

I started working in a bookstore in 2004, and immediately realized that not only do people almost always judge books by their covers, but that it's actually possible to do so with some accuracy. My fellow booksellers and I would run through the "New Releases" or "3 for 2 Paperbacks" tables playing this game, and then reading a few pages of given selections to determine the accuracies of our presuppositions. The plain fact is that publishing houses spend a good deal of time and effort creating book covers, and much can be gleaned by paying attention to the fonts, images, and colors used, as well as nuances such as the presence (or lack thereof) of review quotes on the front cover. While certainly not a perfect system, it can be a good beginning when you are faced with the millions of books to be found in the mega-books-r-us stores that now dot stripmalls across America and are simply looking for that bibliophile's holy grail: Something Good to Read.

It is in this way that I came across "Everything is Illuminated", the first novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. If you haven't seen the movie, or especially if you have, you should read the book. It is far more extraordinary. Don't read it if you're easily offended though, because things happen in it that you can't imagine. Anyway, neither here nor there. Next came "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", a snapshot of the life of a nine year old (vegan) boy who has lost his father in one of the great tragedies of this decade. Very moving, brilliantly written, and not nearly as depressing as it sounds. You should read this one too.

If you can't tell yet, Foer pretty much immediately made it to my list of favorite authors and has not fallen from it - a long list though it may be. And now he's gone and done something that surprised me greatly: he's gone and written a book about eating animals.

It is, in fact, called "Eating Animals", and you've probably heard about it. It has gotten a lot of press lately. Why? For a few reasons I think. First, the obvious one is that an acclaimed fiction writier has now burst forth with this non-fiction work - not about his Jewish ancestry which would have seemed to be a logical progression, but about the fairly hot topic of the ethics of food. What with the likes of Time Magazine and Oprah talking about this stuff now, it's something that mainstream western culture is actually beginning to take notice of.

But for another thing, I think it's simply that a book on this kind of subject is coming from such an unexpected source overall. We expect Michael Pollan, investigative food journalist, to come out with one of his best-selling foodie diatribes every few years. We expect Peter Singer and similar thinkers to talk to us about animals as sentient beings. We expect Marion Nestle to educate us all with her wisdom of moderation and nutritional knowledge. We expect the new "miracle diet" and "magic curing foods for every disease" books - out just in time for the holiday season! What we do not expect, though, is a thoughtful and balanced examination of whether or not we should be eating what we, as a culture, are eating, from an author who has previously just been around to entertain us... which seems to be precisely what we have on our hands.

Is it a vegan book? No. Does it rail against eating meat, and try to convince its readers to become vegetarian at once? I don't believe so. What it does do, though, is attempt to get its audience to think about the food they are putting in their mouths, and why, and how.

Is it worth reading? Well I certainly hope so. I was so hot to read it that I actually shelled out for the hardcover - something I never, ever do. Normally I'll wait a year or more for the paperback, thank you. But this book just struck me as too important not to read immediately. I need to know what he is telling people: whether I agree and applaud, or whether I must start a letter-writing campaign to his NYU office the moment I'm done reading. I have a feeling that this book will be powerful, that people will read it who normally don't think about these things, specifically because while they would never read Peter Singer they will read Jonathan Safran Foer.

I haven't read much yet, but there are two short passages that I would like to share with you. In this first one, Foer tells us about the beginning and end of his initial bout of vegetarianism:
Her intention might or might not have been to convert us to vegetarianism - just because conversations about meat tend to make people feel cornered, not all vegetarians are proselytizers - but being a teenager, she lacked whatever restraint it is that so often prevents a full telling of this particular story. Without drama or rhetoric, she shared what she knew.

My brother and I looked at each other, our mouths full of hurt chickens, and had simultaneous how in the world could I have never thought of that before and why on earth didn't someone tell me? moments. I put down my fork. Frank finished the meal and is probably eating a chicken as I type these words...

My vegetarianism, so bombastic and unyielding in the beginning, lasted a few years, sputtered, and quietly died. I never thought of a response to our babysitter's code [of not hurting things], but found ways to smudge, diminish, and forget it. Generally speaking, I didn't cause hurt. Generally speaking, I strove to do the right thing. Generally speaking, my conscience was clear enough. Pass the chicken, I'm starving.
In this second passage, Foer is discussing his life before he became a father, when his dedication to vegetarianism had still not quite firmed. It strikes me as so honest, so true, so much what so many of us struggled with on our journeys to becoming vegetarian and eventually vegan. I believe it's even more universally true than that, something that will be identified with in almost everyone who reads it, who is honest with himself:
"Of course our wedding wasn't vegetarian, because we persuaded ourselves that it was only fair to offer animal protein to our guests, some of whom had traveled great distances to share our joy. And we ate fish on our honeymoon, but we were in Japan, and when in Japan... And back in our new home, we did occasionally eat burgers and chicken soup and smoked salmon and tuna steaks. But only every now and then. Only whenever we felt like it.

And that, I thought, was that. And I thought that it was just fine. I assumed we'd maintained a diet of conscientious inconsistency. Why should eating be any different from any other ethical realms of our lives? We were honest people who occasionally told lies, careful friends who sometimes acted clumsily. We were vegetarians who from time to time ate meat."
Anything, or most anything, anyway, can be justified in our minds. Justified, and then ignored. Pushed to the corners, hidden in gray places. But those actions that we cannot look in the face when brought into the light of day deserve some re-analysis, don't they? Because left to their own devices, eventually they begin to gnaw - even from those far off, peripheral perches, whether we want to acknowledge them or not. What Foer seems to find is that his first son drags his lesser, hidden actions out into the bright sunlight, holds them up to his face, and asks, "why, daddy?" Daddy, in order to have better answers, wants to have better actions to begin with.

I've only read the first chapter. I'll post updates, let you know how it goes. Please have your pens ready for letters of protest... or of praise. It's entirely possible that I may tell you that you have to read this book too. Just think - that'd be three for three.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Memoirs of a Pumpkin Seed...

If you read my other blogs, you may have gleaned that I grew up in a kind of effed up house. But one of the things that we did right was food. And especially for the holidays, we went all out.

When it came to fall, there was this one giant orange squash, The Pumpkin, that dominated all for about a month. Each year we would buy a huge ass pumpkin a few days before Halloween. I remember when I first saw how pumpkins grow, on vines, and suddenly the phrase "pumpkin patch" had meaning. I had trouble imagining how something so huge and round could have grown on such a weak wiggly little vine, and I was fascinated.

We'd get the gourd home and cut around the top, like you do. All the scooping and scraping and cleaning out of the interior of the pumpkin happened through that small orifice, so as to keep the shell intact. When I was in kindergarten I learned about toasting pumpkin seeds, so from then on we always did. I called up my mom, because kindergarten being 26 years ago and all, I don't actually remember quite what we were taught. I know that you had to clean off all of the pumpkin guts really really well right after you scooped everything out of the pumpkin, and that you spread them on a cookie sheet in a single layer to bake them. I can still distinctly remember the smell of pumpkingut. But as far as the particulars... well it turns out that ma doesn't remember either. But this recipe seems pretty much on the money. Maybe that's too long a bake time? We didn't get a pumpkin this year, so if you try it out let me know how it goes!

So anyway, once the business of gut scraping was done, my dad usually did the honors of making the pumpkin look like some scary Halloween thing. He was pretty good at it. Some years turned out better than others, of course. But he's quite the creative type, and there were definitely some masterpieces.

My mom kept whatever chunks he cut out to make the jack-o-lantern face, and then the day after Halloween she hacked the pumpkin up and froze the lot (minus whatever had gotten charred or waxed from candles or any bits that were getting funky). Then, about a month later, this is the pumpkin that became our Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. And if you want the truth, I've never liked any pumpkin pie but my mother's.

So that's my pumpkin story, the cycle of The Great Pumpkin in my childhood household. I think this year, beginning with this Thanksgiving, is when we - Jonathan and I - begin to claim these "family" holidays as our own. Holidays for the family that is me and him. And our friends of course: the built family. I'm excited about it, and hopeful. And excited and hopeful is a nice way to feel, when headed into this dark-and-dreary but chock full o' holidays season. ;)