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“Everything Is Illuminated” Author Jonathan Safran Foer Untangles Meat and Memory

Eating Animals front cover

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.

This is one of Supervegan’s posts for Vegan MoFo 2009.

5 Comments

  1. Comment by

    tofu_hunter

    on #

    I loved the article but was sort of annoyed he ignored the existence of veganism. After all that thoughtful consideration of animal rights, wouldn’t it make sense to carry his beliefs to their logical conclusion, or at least discuss why one might want to be vegan (and/or why he is not)? My extended thoughts on it can be read here (my tumblr).

  2. Comment by

    elainevigneault

    on #

    Except that, well, sushi means vinegared rice.

    I’ve eaten sushi virtually my entire life and I’ve never eaten raw fish once.

  3. Comment by

    eatingconsciously

    on #

    Not only does he not mention veganism, but he actually stated in an interview, “Veganism is hard.”

  4. Comment by

    Sam C

    on #

    Tofu_hunter– I wondered, too, and I read your Tumblr post. I don’t think this five-pager covers the range of Foer’s opinions and inclinations around vegetarianism, and veganism, though excluded from this particular discussion, is a diet and lifestyle Foer has evidently considered. For example, Oskar, the nine-year-old main character and a narrator in his last novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is a committed vegan who doesn’t “believe in leather.” In your blog post you suggest that veganism goes untouched here because it’s too extreme a viewpoint for the majority of NYT readers. Though I can’t think of any reason not to at least mention veganism, it does seem strategic to avoid it. Mainstream attention and power, even to the degree Foer has them, will only take a writer so far before people start thinking of him as fringe and dismiss entirely his overwhelmingly agreeable point about hurting animals. I would be surprised if the book is as quiet on the subject as the article. We’ll find out soon.

  5. Comment by

    CRobin

    on #

    I just saw this guy on Ellen. He is a Michael Pollan wanna-be. To say that eggs are the worst thing you can eat and meat should be avoided is idiotic from a nutritional standpoint. Americans are fat and unhealthy because we eat too much sugar and processed foods…not because we eat eggs and meat. Everytime I see one of these super-vegans I think the same thing, “That poor soul looks like they need a blood transfusion…and an organic chicken breast”.
    If you don’t want to eat meat because you think its cruel to animals fine (nevermind, those animals would have no life and might not exist if they weren’t farmed for human consumption) just quit telling me that I am nutritionally better off with tofu. It isn’t true.

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