Jonathan Safran Foer

With his novels Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close (2005), Jonathan Safran Foer became a literary celebrity. Actor Liev Schreiber optioned the former novel, and shot it as his directorial debut, starring Elijah Wood; the film rights for the latter have been sold as well. He’s married to the novelist Nicole Krauss, he lives in Park Slope, and he’s probably the envy of every other writer also in their 30s living in Brooklyn and still desperately scratching out first books.

Awaiting the birth of his first child, Foer, an off-and-on-again vegetarian, determined it was time to finally make an informed decision about his family’s diet. For three years, he set out to witness firsthand how our food is raised and processed, and how it gets to our tables. In his first work of non-fiction, Eating Animals, he provides an often-gruesome guided tour of America’s factory farms. He also visits family-owned farms where the food is raised and processed as ethically and humanely as possible, describes his upbringing around his grandmother’s home cooking, and explores how food is a huge part of how we interact with the people we know and love. In a recent visit with The A.V. Club, Foer sat down to discuss the absurdity of “cage free,” how a cheap hamburger isn’t really cheap, and what never to say at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

The A.V. Club: After reading Eating Animals, readers are likely to rethink their diets. But is it fair to say that this book is less about not eating meat, and more about the truth about factory farming? 

Jonathan Safran Foer: For the most part, the heroes of the book are farmers. We could say that 99 percent of the animals raised in this country are factory farmed. I spent an awful lot more than 1 percent of the book focusing on good farms. I have made my own choice, which is vegetarianism, but it’s not the choice I’m imposing on anybody else. So, if you were to say to me, “Hey, I read your book. It really confused me. I went to the store, decided I didn’t want to buy crappy stuff, but instead went to the farmers’ market and bought meat from this farmer who showed me pictures of his farm, and he’s obviously a good guy,” I would say, “That’s awesome.” That’s what I wanted my book to do. I don’t expect people to be lining up saying, “Hey, I’m gonna stop eating this thing I’ve been eating my whole life and that my parents have been eating their whole lives.” It’s a big deal! I don’t underestimate it. I don’t think it’s something to scoff at—that people care about it, that it tastes good, I think it tastes good. 

That having been said, I think the notion of “I want to forget it as quickly as I can,” or “I’m simply not going to read it”—that, to me, well, I guess, that’s kind of lame. {Laughs.] We wouldn’t accept that attitude in other areas of life. If someone says, “I know the environment is in peril, but I just fucking love my Hummer, and I’m not going to worry about it,” we would say that person is ignorant, right? But what you eat matters much more to the environment than what you drive. What do we say about someone who doesn’t want to learn about the effects of meat on the environment? If you saw somebody on the street beating the shit out of his dog, you’d call the cops! And if you had a friend who said, “Oh, let’s just keep walking,” you’d think less of that friend. What we do to animals is as bad as that. It’s systematized, and we do it to 50 billion of them every year. Yeah, I suppose we could say, “I don’t want to look at it,” just as we could walk past the guy who is beating the crap out of his dog, but it’s not who we want to be. We’re not going to be totally consistent. I see bad stuff on the street all the time that I don’t do anything about. I do bad stuff myself all the time. The goal is not to somehow be perfect—that’s silly, that’s naïve. The goal is to just recognize there are choices in front of us, and to try to make better ones.

AVC: When vegetarians and meat-eaters interact over a meal, there can be a certain amount of tension. Why do people take their eating habits so personally?

JSF: First of all, I hope it’s obvious that I’m not saying anyone is a horrible person [for eating meat]. The reason people have such strong opinions about it is, we can’t help but think that our response to these questions has something to do with what kind of a person we are. In my book, I talk about how if at Thanksgiving, you made a big speech about why everyone should use a different kind of paper towel, nobody would really give a shit, even if you did it in an accusatory way. And yet, if you so much as broach the question of “Hey, what if we didn’t have turkey?”, and you did it in a very open-minded way, and as someone who himself eats turkey, people would start to recoil. I think it’s because whatever conclusions you reach—and I think there are lots of different respectable conclusions one can reach—everyone recognizes that this is a big deal. It matters. Our relationship to the environment matters, our relationship to animals matters, and our relationship to culture matters. Our relationship to the food our parents and grandparents fed us, our relationship to the foods we eat with our friends—it’s not as simple as just saying, “I’m going to continue what I’m doing, or I’m going to change.” You’re part of a whole web of influences, basically. I think it’s because we’re not isolated eaters that these things… It’s like trying to whisper in a cathedral, there’s so much reverberation. 

AVC: Do you think it says something about our culture that we allow things to happen beyond our direct experience, that there’s an unspoken acceptance that this kind of slaughter goes on around us every day?

JSF: It’s hard to say. You can’t know, really. You can’t prove it. Certainly a lot of people have speculated about that. Tolstoy famously said that if there weren’t slaughterhouses, there wouldn’t be battlefields. I’m not really sure that that’s true. I think there’s a kind of flipside of the coin which strikes me as more obviously true, which is that if people actively thought about these things and registered concern—thought about them regularly, and chose to do something they felt more comfortable with instead of simple palate pleasure—that would probably change the world. That would change the culture. It seems entirely possible to me that horrible things can be going on without us becoming horrible people. Genocide is going on and we all know it, but it doesn’t make us mass murderers. That having been said, if we all activated ourselves and really tried to do something about Darfur or the Congo, that would probably make us better people. At the very least, it’s hard to care about one thing without caring about other things. Caring is a kind of muscle, I guess. It’s not a coincidence that people who are into the environment tend also to be into other social-activism issues. People who are into food or public policy, it’s very rare that they stop at that one concern.

AVC: Say there’s a carton of eggs at the store and it has a drawing of happy-looking chickens roaming in an open field, and it says “Cage free. Organic.” Is that just bullshit?

JSF: For starters, let’s assume it’s true. So they’re cage free. How much does that really tell you? Furthermore, what’s a cage? Does that mean they’re not individually caged? Does that mean they’re not in what is effectively a cage for 30,000 of them at once? And how much does it really say about your quality of life to be cage free? Isn’t that about the least you could possibly say? That’s like saying, “torture free.” Corporations have recognized that people care about these things, and they are trying to cash in on that care. There’s just no way around it: It’s a lot more expensive to raise animals humanely. They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. I don’t know the brand you’re talking about. It’s not as if there aren’t places that genuinely really do make good cage-free stuff. My guess is that if you bought it in a supermarket, there’s pretty much no chance of it being something that if you were to go visit the farm, it would be something you’d be okay with. Where do you live?

AVC: Los Angeles.

JSF: Okay, so you have tons of farmers’ markets. Really good farmers’ markets. I’m absolutely sure at those farmers’ markets—and there’s probably one within a five-minute drive of wherever you are—you can find someone who is selling eggs who will have a little photo album. This is like a classic thing now, at least in New York—the farmers have photo albums, and you flip through it, and you look at all their birds and how they’re living, and that’s something that’s much, much harder to lie about. It’s extremely unlikely that they’re creating stage sets and hiring actor chickens from central casting. {Laughs.] Believe what you see, basically.

AVC: Is it a myth that you have to think about food constantly when you decide not to eat animal products, that it takes up all of your time making sure you’re eating the right stuff with the right nutrients?

JSF: I think that if your goal is to be an ethical omnivore, like Michael Pollan writes about, you’re pretty much going to have to be thinking about food all the time. Because you’re going to have to be reading labels, wondering this and that, and never being sure anyway if you’re getting it right or wrong. If you just don’t eat meat, you have no problem. I mean, God, certainly in L.A. and in New York, the idea of going to a restaurant and not eating meat—what could be easier? Have you ever gone to a restaurant and they don’t have at least one or two vegetarian options? The kind of funny irony is that a lot of people talk about ethical meat eating as if it’s a way to care about things, but also not to alienate yourself from the rest of the world. But it’s so much more alienating than vegetarianism. I talk about it in the book. If you’re going to a dinner party or something and you say to your friend, “Oh, by the way, I’m vegetarian,” what are they going to say? They’ll be like, “All right. No big deal.” They won’t need you to explain it, they won’t have a hard time accommodating you. It might be a slight drag not to eat what they’re eating, or for them to have to change, but it’s definitely not a major drag. But, if you say, “That’s great. I can’t wait to see you, but as it turns out, I don’t eat factory-farmed meat.” That’s just going to be a headache. You’re going to make them feel weird, you’re going to feel weird, it’s not a winning proposition. So to me, vegetarianism is so much socially easier than this alternative of ethical meat eating. That having been said, I tip my hat to anybody who wants to and can do the other thing.

AVC: From a political perspective, your book is a treatise against rampant capitalism—it suggests we could all be perfectly healthy meat eaters, not destroying the planet, if it wasn’t for the people selling the meat to us, who are exploiting every possible method to make meat cheaply. Is this yet another aspect of our existence that’s been corrupted by this unfettered drive to make a profit?

JSF: Without a doubt. Factory farmers talk about their desire to feed the world. That’s not what they’re doing. They’re feeding the world with really, really cheap stuff. Farmers since the beginning of time have been feeding the world very successfully without systematically abusing animals or destroying the environment. Americans spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any culture has in the history of mankind. And we’re breeding food that is less safe for us, it tastes much worse than it ever has in history, and it’s wreaking havoc on the environment in a way that it never did in history before. All in the interest of it being cheap. The thing is, we have been conditioned to these false prices. What food costs is not what food actually costs; we’ve just been trained to think that it does. In fact, all of the costs are externalized. Yeah, it’s pretty nifty togo to a supermarket and buy steak, hamburger, or chicken for whatever it’s costing a pound. What’s unfortunate is that there isn’t a cash register next to the cash register that also rings up, “Oh, by the way, here’s the burden on the health-care system. By the way, here’s what the environmental cleanup is going to be…”

Just as one example, these factory farms have these enormous lagoons where they keep all the manure, and the USDA pays for 75 percent of the cost to keep them watertight so they don’t leak into rivers, which they do anyway. So who pays for that? We do. This myth of it being cheap—not even the reality of it being cheap, but the myth of it being cheap—is what has created the system. It’s also, by the way, made it very, very hard to learn how to cook other things. Vegetables are fairly priced, they’re not the product of incredible subsidies, and we’re not paying for them later in terms of these other ways that I was mentioning. So could I possibly blame a working-class family who goes to the supermarket and says, “I could feed my family burgers for this amount of money, or a healthy meal for twice as much?” No. It’s not their fault, it’s the fault of these huge farm corporations. 

AVC: What do you say to someone who is struggling to get by who says, “I really wish I was in a position of privilege to decide that I’m not going to eat meat”? Isn’t it elitist to tell a family of five that they shouldn’t be eating something that’s abundant and cheap and easy to make?

JSF: Well, I would say a couple of things. Again, this is the problem with ethical meat eating—humanely raised meat and environmentally sustained meat is going to be out of the price range for a lot of people. Eating vegetarian is not, it’s truly not. You can make great meals without meat that are, of course, much more healthy for the same price, but it takes a process of reeducation, just because Americans aren’t familiar with how to cook vegetables anymore. Or pasta, or beans—around the world, a lot of cuisines are almost inherently vegetarian, like Chinese and Indian. Thai is largely vegetarian. It’s not as if cultures don’t do it successfully, it’s just that we’ve been talked out of it. The other thing I would say is that this is not a conversation that is had equally among all parties. People approach it in different ways. It’s not like a law, or a religion—there are people for whom refraining from eating meat is like nothing. It’s like, “All right. Fine.” The next day, they decide to do it, and that’s it. For other people, it’s really, really hard. They’re just so used to it, or they like it so much. To scoff at those people is a big mistake. It’s not taking into account the extent to which our diet affects our culture and our senses of ourselves. Similarly, for people on different budgets living in different parts of the country, it’s much harder than it is for other people. I really, really hope it is clear that the point of my book isn’t to say, “Everyone has to stop doing this right now!” It’s to say, “Everyone has to think about this right now.”

AVC: Even by the end of your book, it’s not exactly clear whether you would eat a chicken if you knew it had a perfectly happy life.

JSF: It’s not a coincidence that you don’t know my answer to that question, because I don’t make a big point of it in the book. I don’t think it’s the important question to ask. I wouldn’t [eat chicken], but for my own complicated reasons that I wouldn’t try to persuade someone else of. I’m curious, because you say you still like meat. What do you love, what do you eat a lot of, how do you eat it? Just out of curiosity.

AVC: I wouldn’t say I love meat, but I eat it fairly regularly. Recently, for instance, some friends were going to a new restaurant that makes some new Japanese hamburger everyone seems to be raving about. I was reading your book, but I went with them and ate a burger anyway. It was really good.

JSF: One way of thinking about this is to say, “Well, here’s a special occasion with people I like, and it was a new thing, and it was a lot of fun.” The thing that creates a bad environment is not people going out to special meals and doing it thoughtfully and enjoying it. It’s people who are like, “Oh, what do I feel like? I guess I’ll eat whatever.” It’s that kind of decision, frankly, which is about 95 percent of the decisions we make when it comes to food. So for you to say, “There are these situations that matter to me. I value them. It might not be right, but so what, I’m a human being, and everyone does stuff that isn’t right all the time.” It’s almost like this whole notion of carbon offsetting—sometimes you’ve just got to throw some carbon off into the atmosphere. [Laughs.] It’s just a fact of our economy. But maybe you can trade with other people, or you can trade with other meals. Like, “I went to this great dinner last night, so for lunch, I’ll be a little more thoughtful than I would’ve been otherwise.”

I think people get into trouble when they start thinking about it as a rule. Which, by the way, is something we would never ever apply to other realms of our life. Let’s say I want to be an honest person, but my mom asks me if she looks nice in her dress. What am I going to say? I’m going to say “You look great in the dress,” regardless of how she looks. And, by the way, she normally looks perfectly nice in dresses. {Laughs.] But say I tell a white lie once. Does that mean I’m someone who always has to tell lies, that my honesty is totally undermined? Of course not. It just means that there’s a situation when, for whatever reason, it was more comfortable, or more easy, or the right thing to do. I think this is the same thing. So you went to a restaurant, it was a nice time, who cares? {Laughs.] It doesn’t undermine anything, but maybe next time you’re passing McDonald’s and you’re kind of hungry, but not that hungry, and there are other options anyway, you might say, “You know what? All things being equal, I’m not going to eat at McDonald’s.” That decision is so much more important than the one you’re describing.

AVC: Getting everyone to put down their hamburgers seems unlikely. Fast food and home barbecues are big parts of the culture. Is that too daunting a thing to oppose, or is that not even your goal?

JSF: The goal is not to work against it. Because as you’re suggesting, those people share the same values. You know what’s really weird? And this is something that surprised me when I was doing my research. Real farmers—as in people who actually farm, not just workers for the huge factory-farm corporations, but like farmers as in the way we envision them in our minds, guys wearing overalls, interacting with animals, that kind of stuff—their values overlap 95 percent with activists at PETA. And a lot of these farmers are members of PETA. The kind of values that would lead one not to eat factory-farmed meat are precisely the same as the values that lead people to farm animals in the way that we did 75 or 80 years ago. So I think it’s about finding those alliances where they seem unlikely, or where they would seem in opposition. There are some great groups out there. There’s one called Farm Forward that tries to bring together all of these disparate voices to say, “There’s actually a common enemy here.” The extent to which we disagree with the enemy is so much more important and significant than the ways in which we disagree with each other. I think people who work for the Humane Society and PETA and family farmers should be driving around in buses together figuring out how to change things, because they have the same goals. Yes, of course, there are some fundamental differences in their outlooks, but they’re actually not that big. 

AVC: At one point in the book you bring up Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their struggles for social justice, and point out that Chavez and King’s wife were vegans. Are you suggesting that since hundreds of thousands of animals are being abused every day, that calls for a movement on the scale and in the spirit of the civil-rights movement?

JSF: First of all, it’s not “hundreds of thousands,” it’s hundreds of millions of animals abused every day. The scale is something you constantly have to correct yourself on, because it really just blows your mind. But if you’re asking me if I think it is a fundamental question of justice? Yes. I think so. I know there are people in the world who think animal suffering is unfortunate, but not unfortunate in the same way that some other social-justice issues are, and I don’t think I could really argue with them. Again—this is also why I wouldn’t eat chicken even from the very, very best farms, but wouldn’t have a problem with other people doing it—there is a point at which our reason ends and we make our decisions from very personal ideas or instincts, things influenced by our personal history. I do think that there’s no reason to isolate animal welfare when thinking about factory farming. In a grand sense, it is clearly an issue of justice—the way farmers are treated, the way workers are treated, the way the environment is treated, the way human health is regarded. They add up to a picture nobody would say is just. You wouldn’t even find factory farmers who would say it. They would say, “Well, there are all of these unfortunate compromises and trade-offs in feeding the world. If five billion people want to eat meat, there’s no perfect way to do it.” And it’s true.

AVC: Is becoming vegetarian and writing this book enough for you? Is this the extent of your activism?

JSF: The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know that I would have guessed I would write a book about it. There’s also the point at which you say, “This is an incredibly important issue, and I’ve done the best I can with it.” I’m a novelist, I’m not an activist. I’m not a non-fiction writer, I’m not a journalist. I’m not a foodie, I’m not even really an animal person, or an environmentalist. I did the best I could with this, but it’s not who I am. I hope it’s always part of who I am, but while I was writing this book, it took up an awful lot of my time and my identity. I have to say, I was grateful for it, but I also look forward to just being a novelist again. I don’t think I will ever think about food choices the same way, and I’ll probably talk about it to others in a different way than I used to, but just because I wrote about it doesn’t mean I think it’s the worst thing in the world, or the only thing going on in the world, or more important than other issues. It just so happens that there’s this incredible silence surrounding it. It’s not so much silence as an inability to talk about it in a useful way. People tend to talk about it in ways that make people feel like, “Oh God, another one of those books.” So I thought maybe there was another way of approaching this. 

AVC: What happens when your son goes on a field trip and his friend has a corndog and he comes home and asks you why he can’t have a corndog too?

JSF: First off, I wouldn’t say, “You can’t.” I would say, “Here’s why we don’t in the house.” I think kids are much more strongly inclined to see what’s wrong with meat than what’s right with it. It has to be explained to them what is okay about it, because what’s wrong with it is so obvious on a level of instinct. But I would just say, “Here’s why we don’t do it. We don’t do it for the same reason we don’t kick our dog. We don’t make our dog suffer unnecessarily. We do it for the same reason we recycle.” And we could have a conversation about that. If he came home and said, “I tried it,” I wouldn’t scold him, or ground him, or whatever parents who discipline kids do. As I said, it’s not a religion, it’s not a law, and thinking about it in those ways is naïve and counterproductive. On top of which, Lord knows, I’ve eaten a lot of meat in my life. [Laughs.] How could I blame him for being curious, or for thinking it looks good, or tastes good?

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