For many of us it’s difficult enough to describe our vegetarianism without roaring into a heartened polemic against eating animals. A poetic narrative of our acquaintance with animals, both as food and as sentient creatures, that neutralizes the cultural and sentimental fascinations with food that buoy arguments for meat consumption can be impossibly elusive. But that’s what novelist Jonathan Safran Foer gives us in an October 7 New York Times Magazine article, “Against Meat,” adapted from his upcoming book, Eating Animals.
Foer’s is a familiar story — of knowing that it’s “wrong to hurt animals,” while following fleeting and often conflicting eating philosophies that struggle at times to justify, ignore the consequences of, and scorn eating animals. From age nine he tows the line between passionate vegetarianism and a sort-of-vegetarianism of convenience until, as a new dad, he has to make a dietary choice for his kids.
The path toward that eventual commitment to vegetarianism winds around Foer’s grandmother and her singular dish, chicken and carrots. As a vegetarian, what do you do with your beloved memories when they’re inextricably bound to meat?
Some of my happiest childhood memories are of sushi “lunch dates” with my mom, and eating my dad’s turkey burgers with mustard and grilled onions at backyard celebrations, and of course my grandmother’s chicken with carrots. Those occasions simply wouldn’t have been the same without those foods — and that is important. To give up the taste of sushi, turkey or chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting — even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember my values, I need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.
And as simply as simple can be, Foer begins to tactfully, even beautifully, unravel the knotty relationship between memory — individual and collective — and meat. Here’s hoping for more of that in Eating Animals (Little, Brown), which publishes November 2.