By Jonathan Safran Foer
Little Brown and Company
352 pgs, Nov. 2009
Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals is a thorough look at the ethical and environmental quandaries posed by America’s appetite for meat. His wish is to foster more mindful eating, whether we choose to forego animal-based foods or simply reduce their consumption. Foer graciously ruminated on my meat-y questions when I spoke with him by phone last week.
KT: Your book is making quite a splash; it seems like you have this huge potential to influence a lot of people who haven’t previously given this a whole lot of thought.
JSF: I hope so. I know the topic is not easy to approach. But I also know that if the conversation is had correctly, it’s a conversation Americans are not only willing to have, they want to have.
When I did “Ellen,” I looked at her audience – it’s not Berkeley granola-eaters. It’s people on a fixed income, it’s a lot of mothers, a lot of people who come there from the middle of America. And people care.
KT: The industrial meat industry is attempting to dismiss your critique of their operating methods in the same way they’ve attacked Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and all the others who’ve written exposes of factory farming. You presumably expected some backlash; has it been better or worse than you anticipated?
JSF: Infinitely better. The book’s now been reviewed, I don’t know, a hundred times or whatever it is, and there are enough people who think I’m an jerk, there are enough people who think the style is annoying. But there has not been a single argument in defense of factory farming, or against the premise of the book. Not even a whiff of it.
KT: Let me ask you, is the term “conscientious carnivore” an oxymoron?
JSF: No, and I think that points to something important, which is that these words “carnivore” and “vegetarian” do a real disservice to the conversation. They imply an on/off switch rather than a spectrum. When it’s framed as an all-or-nothing, people who don’t feel like they can do everything sometimes think they should do nothing.
KT: Which is why I so like the Meatless Monday campaign. It’s all about moderation – start your week off right. Positive change. Speaking of positive change, I’ve always had this fantasy that factory farming could become obsolete in our lifetime.
JSF: I think it’s not a fantasy. Remember it only came into being during our parents’ lifetime. And you can rest assured it’s going to disappear. The only question is, is it going to disappear voluntarily or involuntarily?
KT: Glenn Beck and PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk recently ganged up on Al Gore, calling him a hypocrite for not adopting a vegetarian diet. If you happened to find yourself seated next to the former vice president at some gala or forum, what would you say to him on this topic?
JSF: He’s a very smart guy, and I’m sure he’s thought of this stuff before. He knows quite a bit more about the environment than Ingrid Newkirk or Glenn Beck. He has a role in the world, an enormously important role. If he were to declare his vegetarianism tomorrow, it’s conceivable that he wouldn’t be able to do his role in the same way. These are the realities of the world. It shouldn’t be, but it’s considered a fringe position. Yet things are changing. 18% of college students now follow a plant-based diet.
KT: Would you be willing to share your Thanksgiving menu with us?
JSF: I would if I knew it! You can probably guess what it won’t include. But I don’t yet know what it’s going to be. There’s some pressure on me to figure it out (laughs.)
KT: You might need to figure that out before you go on Martha Stewart.
JSF: Oh, maybe I’ll even prepare something with her. Wouldn’t that be funny?