At the Pepper.ph meet-up, the other writers would tentatively glance across the table at me, the odd one out. Amidst people who were happily chowing down on pizzas loaded with prosciutto and chorizo, the question I was put on the hot-seat for was, “Sooooo, why are you vegetarian?”
Well, there’s this book.
Written by the same literary talent behind Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (and my personal favorite, Everything is Illuminated), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals explores vegetarianism, and the way we look at it. Foer doesn’t force you to stay off meat; he simply aims to help you make an informed decision about what you put inside your mouth. The book presents vegetarianism as an issue teeming with gray areas, all of which remind us that food undeniably shapes who we are and the world we live in.
After years of being on and off a vegetarian diet, Foer and his wife (award-winning author Nicole Krauss) were forced to confront the issue of “eating animals” after the birth of their first child. For how could he explain his decision to eat meat to his son, despite the alarming statistics that make that decision seem wrong?
While we passionately debate about concerns such as war and global warming, a lot of us subconsciously avoid confronting the issue that’s right on our plates. We don’t like thinking about how an animal was slaughtered for our eating pleasure (let’s not even think about how foie gras is made, shall we?). Foer also points out that we humans, along with the animals, pay the price for what we eat. Not only is eating a lot of meat bad for your health (because of the unnecessary antibiotics injected into all the animals), the industry is also extremely unsustainable. Tons of toxic wastes from factory farms are dumped into bodies of freshwater every day. Factory farms emit 18% of the gases responsible for global warming, a percentage that’s significantly larger than what vehicular emissions contribute. It also takes 7 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out that there’s something wrong with how the meat industry allocates their resources.
Foer proves that merely watching a graphic video of a piglet being slaughtered won’t make you suddenly stop eating meat. Changing your eating habits doesn’t just boil down to a matter of conscience or cost. It’s also about culture. It’s about how far we’re willing to go, in order to sustain the patterns of eating that we’ve become used to. Seemingly small decisions, like what to eat for breakfast or what to buy in the supermarket, can say so much about who we are as a species. Food is so intricately tied to crucial things that make the world go round, and Foer’s emphasis on these makes his approach so original and thought-provoking.
For instance, Foer wonders why we are so unsettled by cultures that eat dog meat, when most of us eat other animals on a daily basis. Poultry is chicken, pork is pig, and beef is cow. An animal is an animal, whether it’s a pet or not. Yet, we continue to categorize them: pampering our pets while devouring a steak, without thinking twice about where it’s from. And while eating meat is natural for omnivores, practices in the meat industry today can be hardly called such, as you’ll find in the book. What’s natural is hunting for our own meat, and ultimately, knowing where it’s from. Now that meat is pre-killed and pre-packaged, we simply “forget” about where our food comes from, and push thoughts of the carnage it entails away from our minds.
Eating Animals states that since we humans are rational beings, those among us who choose to eat meat should have a logical reason for doing so. “Because it’s good” doesn’t count, but that doesn’t stop most people from citing it as their reason.
For me, “Because it’s good” didn’t cut it, and it was the same for Foer, whose genre-bending tendencies remain evident in his first non-fiction novel. He alternates between the hard facts from both sides (those who strongly advocate vegetarianism, and those who work in the factory farms), and details from his own lifelong struggle with the implications of eating animals.
I’ve never asked any of my friends to go vegetarian, and neither did I write this article to convince anyone to do so. I do constantly think about whether I’m doing enough for the planet by segregating my trash, not leaving my engine running, and reusing plastic bags. I also constantly think about why I prize my dog above any other animal that may be just as wonderful as he is. And these things are what make it so easy for me to pass on any dish that contains meat. Simply put, a vegetarian diet is my contribution to the reversal of the undeniable damage we’ve done to this planet. Your way could be different, and it would still count as much.
Vegetarianism remains to be big commitment for me, especially since I initially picked up Eating Animals only because it was by my favorite author. It’s a challenging lifestyle that’s further constrained by the limited options I have at the local market, or even at a joint that’s as basic as McDonald’s, as well as by the budget I have as a student. However, two years of vegetarianism have taught me not just to stand by my choices, but also to respect the decisions that others make for themselves.
If you decide to try vegetarianism after reading Eating Animals, you would be in good company. After reading Foer’s book, Anne Hathaway was convinced to go completely meat-free, and Natalie Portman went from being a ‘twenty-year vegetarian to [becoming] a vegan activist’. If you still won’t give up meat after reading it, that’s fine too. Here at Pepper.ph, we won’t rob you of the pleasure of biting into a juicy burger. Trust me, I remember that feeling fondly every time I bite into a faux-burger. It’s more than okay to admit you can’t give up meat, and being able to eat anything is nothing to be ashamed of.
All in all, Eating Animals is worthy of a place on anyone’s bookshelf, precisely because it changes how we see food, and because it challenges our existing views of both sides of the issue of vegetarianism. It encourages us to take a closer look at what we put in our grocery carts, what we cook for our families, what we order at a restaurant, and what we put on our plate.