Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Everything is Illuminated

New book will have you rethinking your diet
I was pumped to read this book after hearing what seemed like a dozen different NPR shows devote air time to discussing Jonathan Safran Foer's latest tome. The actress Natalie Portman wrote an ode to it on the Huffington Post, Colin McEnroe used it as a subject for one of his WNPR shows, and praise is heaped on the book jacket like a mountain of mashed potatoes on your Thanksgiving plate.
The premise: Foer spent much of his life as an on-again, off-again vegetarian (as many of us have). The impending birth of his son, he says, got him thinking about what exactly meat is, where it comes from, how it is produced. It's a quite natural response. When it comes time to move a baby from breast milk to food, what new parent's heart hasn't nearly stopped contemplating how to nourish a most perfect human being with entirely pure food, devoid of chemicals, additives, preservatives ... even (gasp!) poisons?

There's no doubt Foer presents a compelling argument against eating meat (notice his title's use of the word "animals") and exhaustively researched his subject — there are 60 pages of notes to back up his claims and Foer spent three years "immersed in animal agriculture," bringing his work to fruition.
The problem is the book just doesn't flow. It is divided up into chapters but with near meaningless titles, like "All or Nothing or Something Else," "Slices of Paradise/Pieces of S--t" and two chapters bookend the whole, both with the same title, "Storytelling." Obscure headers are fine, but they quite possibly only make sense to the author, because despite repeated readings, I still can't definitively understand what he's trying to say in many spots, other than "don't eat animals."
Be warned. Foer's accounts (he can only obtain second-hand statements from line workers because the inner workings of poultry, beef, dairy and pork producers are guarded more closely than Fort Knox) of factory farm slaughterhouses are horrifying. You'll find it near impossible to stomach flesh in any form after reading how brutally animals are treated, but did you really think your Thanksgiving turkey lived a full, humane life before it appeared in the supermarket frozen-foods aisle anyway?
Fine, you say, I'll only eat antibiotic-free, organic, free-range meat from small, independent farms. Well, the man Foer calls "the last poultry farmer" has got you there.
For 60 years, Frank Reese, the first and only rancher authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to call his birds "heritage," has raised turkeys and he'll tell you birds sold under the auspices of "free-range" can't fly (did you know turkeys should be able to take flight?), can't walk normally (because they're fed so much to grow so quickly) and can't reproduce.
He writes, "Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination. If it were only for efficiency, that would be one thing, but these animals literally can't reproduce naturally. Tell me what could be sustainable about that?"
Even Foer has to admit Reese is a good guy. So good, in fact, he apologizes to every batch of turkey he loads up on trucks to ship to one of the last remaining USDA-approved poultry processors that he can pay twice as much to work half as fast, to slaughter his birds in a way that is as humane as possible.
If you want to know the truth exposed by Foer's investigations, and can see past the quirkiness of his style — like five pages of the words, "Influence/Speechlessness" over and over again, followed by the pronouncement, "On average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime — one animal for every letter on the last five pages" — you'll find it in this book.
And by all means, skip the bacon and eggs for breakfast, at least for today.
Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer. Little, Brown, $25.99

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