Barbara Kingsolver thinks Jonathan Safan Foer is an idiot.
She doesn’t say it, at least not directly, but that’s the inevitable takeaway from first reading her bestseller, “Animal Vegetable Miracle,” then reading his, “Eating Animals.”
Read them back to back and you’ll be ping-ponged between two strong moral voices who come to very different conclusions about one of the biggest dilemmas we omnivores face: should we eat meat?
They both have a wide and substantial area of agreement. Both lay out the case against the modern factory farm. In this they repeat or reiterate a lot of the facts marshaled by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, but, hey, keep screaming until people listen, I suppose.
But Safran Foer (or is it just Foer?—I’ll call him JSF) goes further than Kingsolver in exploring the basic question of not what kind of meat we should eat, but whether we should eat it at all. He thinks not. He drives home the point that eating any animal is no different than eating any other animal. Eating a chicken is like eating your family dog.
“What justification might I have for sparing dogs but eating other animals?” he asks—rhetorically. JSF lays out the case that any distinction is immoral. That cow pain is dog pain is salmon pain is human pain.
Kingsolver’s book revolves around the first year she and her family moved to Virginia and became devout locavores, eating only what they grew and raised and other foods from within a 200 mile radius. The idea was not just to explore all the food issues Pollan, et. al, have raised, but to learn by doing, to understand what a commitment to local, sustainable food really means, and if it’s a replicable, rational choice for an American family.
In the course of doing that, Kingsolver lambastes those who believe we’re doing farm animals a favor by NOT eating them. Here’s what she argues:
“I find myself fundamentally aligned with a vegetarian position in every way except one: however selectively, I eat meat. I’m unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods. Unaccountable deaths by pesticide and habitat removal—the beetles and bunnies that die collaterally for our bread and veggie burgers—are lives plumb wasted….
…“We raise these creatures for a reason.” *What, to kill them? It seems that sensitivity and compassion to animals is lacking in this comment.
“To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte’s Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d’Urbervilles…
“Recently while I was cooking eggs, my kids sat at the kitchen table entertaining me with readings from a magazine profile of a famous, rather young vegan movie star….What a life’s work for that poor gal: traipsing about the farm in her strappy heels, weaving among the cow flops, bending gracefully to pick up eggs and stick them in an incubator where they would maddeningly hatch, and grow bent on laying more eggs. It’s dirty work, trying to save an endless chain of uneaten lives. Realisticially, my kids observed, she’d hire somebody.”
“My animals all had a good life, with death as its natural end. It’s not without thought and gratitude that I slaughter my own animals, it is a hard thing to do. It’s taken me time to be able to eat my own lambs that I had played with.”
I don’t know what starlet Kingsolver is referring to, but she sweeps up JSF in the argument as well.
“It’s just the high-mindedness that rankles,” she concludes. “When moral superiority combines with billowing ignorance, they fill up a hot air balloon that’s awfully hard not to poke. The farm-liberation fantasy simply reflects a modern cultural confusion about farm animals. They’re human property, not just legally but biologically. Over the millennia of our clever history, we created from wild progenitors whole new classes of beasts whose sole purpose was to feed us.”
This is the meat—okay, sorry—of Kingsolver’s argument, and it’s easy to find long passages of it quoted about the Net. Meat eaters find succor in it, vegans fuel for flames.
Am I sorry to see the good guys fighting? No—true belief breeds conflict. Even those who agree on the power of food to change our lives and our world can disagree on exactly how to put that power into practice.
Eating animals at all versus eating only ethically raised and slaughtered ones is probably a permanent and lasting schism among Foodaists. Is it two different camps of the same religion, or is it Christians and Jews, two wholly different points of view on a fundamental matter of faith? Probably the former. Some will agree to disagree, some will continue to slug it out, some will join forces for the larger good, and some will snipe behind the others’ backs— Goofballs! Murderers! In Foodaism, you aren’t what you eat, you are what you don’t eat.
As for me, my head says Kingsolver, but my heart says Foer. I look at my goat and think—dog. I look at my chicken and think—dinner. And if I am in Greece say, and I catch of whiff of goat roasted on a spit over oak logs and grape cuttings, brushed with rosemary branches, served in crisp-tinged slices with a glass of Kretikos? Then I’m with Kingsolver too. I admit it: my higher moral calling can be too easily derailed by a good cook and a glass of wine. Or by some good gribenes.
A lot of us try to split the difference by sticking to fish (wild, sustainable, not farmed raised, etc etc). I know JSF thinks eating Alaskan cod is like chewing on a chihuahua, but as powerful a writer as he is, I just can’t follow him there. And even if he did, I’d be lured away by the smell that blooms from these packets when you cut them open, as I did last night at the dinner table:
Alaskan Cod en Papillote with Fennel Mustard Sauce
1 3/4 pounds cod, halibut or other great fish fillet
2 cups TOTAL finely diced tomato, carrot, celery, fennel, onion in equal proportions PLUS 1 T. minced fresh parsley and thyme
4 bay leaves
4 T. olive oil
salt and pepper
2 cups white wine
2 T butter
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 T. dijon mustard
3 T. minced fennel fronds
Preheat oven to 450. Cut four large parchment paper circles. Place one fish filet on each circle, top with bay leaf, 1/4 of the vegetable/herb mix, salt and pepper, 1 T. olive oil and a long drizzle of wine. Fold circle shut and crimp edges to seal.
Place on baking sheet and bake in hot oven about 15-20 minutes.
While fish is cooking, boil remaining wine with garlic until reduced top 1/2 cup. Remove from flame, remove garlic. Whisk in butter and mustard until emulsified. Stir in fronds and add salt and pepper.
To serve, put a pouch on each plate, slit open and spread paper apart, pour sauce over fish.