Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The "V" Word

Several months ago when I first started blogging a friend had suggested I read Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book, Eating Animals. At the time I was buried in schoolwork and could not fathom picking up a book for pleasure (is that what one might call a book about factory farming?) but earlier this month, with news of the author's impending visit to the Emerald City I decided it was time to use one of my Barnes and Noble giftcards to see what all the hype was about. When the cashier rang up my purchase she couldn't help but share her two cents. "I loved this book! After reading it I became a vegetarian. It made Natalie Portman vegetarian too. So you might want to go enjoy your last burger before you start reading it."

My last burger. I remember my last burger. It was ten years ago, eaten at a beach bbq in Southern California. At the time I was a counselor for a summer teen tour of the West Coast and there had been a major snafu with the kosher food for the trip. For six weeks I ate cereal and granola bars and pasta and by the end I was feeling sick and tired. At the end of the trip we arrived in Los Angeles where there were more kosher food options and the cook bought enough kosher meat to bbq for the group of 100. The only complication was that I was a vegetarian. I'd sworn off red meat years prior and so it had been nearly five years since my last burger. But here I was at this bbq with no vegetarian options, and I made the choice to eat a burger. Feeling guilty at first, I decided that this would be a one time deal, so I ate a burger and as I sank my teeth in I enjoyed it. Afterward I thought, am I no longer a vegetarian? Was this akin to breaking my fast on Yom Kippur? Was it all over? That all or nothing approach to eating animals is precisely the problem with using the word "vegetarian" and one of the reasons Jonathan Safran Foer deliberately avoided using it whenever possible during his reading and conversation last night at Town Hall. The "v" word (my term) creates a dichotomy (his term) of all or nothing, black and white that points to our obsession with hypocrisy. In light of his book, of learning of the evils and perils of the unsustainable and detrimental factory farming system, eating less meat is still a legitimate response, a way to engage with the issue.

I agree with every argument in the book - it's hard not to. In fact, Safran Foer has said that during his book tour around the country he anticipated a lot of disagreement and opposition but has not found any because nothing he writes about is controversial. It is very clear that factory farming is harming our health, the animals and the environment on an unbelievably massive scale. And yet, reading Eating Animals did not make me a full blown "vegetarian." It did make me think a lot more seriously about where my food comes from, how I spend my money, what I value and how to engage in conversations about food.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Eating Animals is that it is not a manifesto. Safran Foer has no agenda for the reader, just as he did not preach to the audience last night. He does not tell people how they should eat but simply presents his personal journey in a compelling and intelligent prose, encouraging readers and eaters everywhere to consider what is on their plates and what it is worth. He doesn't talk politics or policy and admits that he doesn't know much about legislation and current issues. He is a writer not a journalist, a father concerned with what to feed his children. After years of research and reflection he reluctantly calls himself a vegetarian. And this is perhaps why so many people have been affected by the book: because it's about examining one's values and recognizing that sometimes personal compromise means losing one's self in the process. And that's not worth a 50 cent burger.

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