Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Eating Animals: Words/Meaning - the third chapter of the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

As an author, Foer likes to play. In his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, he played with time and the sharing (or not sharing) of space. In Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, he played with images - specifically, visual and cognitive perceptions of the world from unusual viewpoints (such as those of a nine year old boy struggling with incomprehensible loss). In his latest book, Eating Animals, Foer plays with language: both in the meaning and sound of words, as well as the physical presence of letters, words, and shapes printed on a page. This is present throughout the book in the chapter headings - pick up a copy and you'll see what I mean. But nowhere is it more expressed than in the third chapter of the book, "Words/Meaning."

This chapter reads as a highly editorialized series of unusual encyclopedia entries, which are indeed listed in alphabetical order. The device allows Foer to address a wide range of issues without leaving his central exploration of the food industry. At times the "definitions" reference each other; many flow brilliantly from one to the next (Bullshit -> Bycatch, for instance), though each stands on its own.

Michael Pollan, an author who has become one of the best known food journalists at least in western culture, takes his knocks in this book. This is unsurprising - many in the vegetarian / vegan community feel that Pollan has all of the information directly in front of him, and yet draws all of the wrong conclusions from it. For example, Pollan has taken the position that becoming veg is the wrong way to go about combating factory farming, and that it is in fact much better to buy meat and animal products from real family farms instead. In 'Discomfort Food', Foer makes the following fabulous point, more or less in direct response to Pollan's argument that vegetarianism is a barrier to 'table fellowship':
Imagine an acquaintance invites you to dinner. You could say, "I'd love to come. And just so you know, I'm a vegetarian." You could also say, "I'd love to come. But I only eat meat that is produced by family farmers." Then what do you do? You'll probably have to send the host a web link or list of local shops to even make the request intelligible, let alone manageable. This effort might be well-placed, but it is certainly more invasive than asking for vegetarian food.
(Is he trying to imply that pasta with marinara is easier than chicken from Joel Salatin? Pish posh.)

Foer's definition of "Free-Range" is priceless:
Applied to meat, eggs, dairy, and every now and then even fish (tuna on the range?), the free-range label is bullshit. It should provde no more peace of mind than "all natural," "fresh," or "magical."
Followed by "Fresh":
According to the USDA, "fresh" poultry has never had an internal temperature below 26 degrees or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Fresh chicken can be frozen (thus the oxymoron "fresh frozen"), and there is no time component to food freshness.
Food labeling conundrums are really Marion Nestle's ball of wax, but they're always good for a (terrified) laugh. Other definitions of interest include "KFC" "PETA," "Sentimentality,"

In this chapter, Foer briefly addresses the problems that have arisen in the kosher food industry due to the industrialization of the slaughter process. He asks this difficult question of his own Jewish community: "Has the very concept of kosher meat become a contradiction in terms?"

Living in New York City, I have made many friends and acquaintances who keep kosher. One of the things we have in common is our "restrictive" diets - we tend to understand each other on that level in a way that people who aren't so conscious of food do not. I've had many conversations in which the "two sets of pots and dishes" situation comes up, particularly among people who are dealing with roommates who do not share the same habits. And admittedly, more than once, I've brought up the idea that by going vegan those kosher friends would only need one set, ha.

While less of a story is woven here than in other chapters, it is no less compelling - in fact, given the variety and content of information presented, quite the opposite.

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