My partner and I have been eating vegetarian for the summer, and it wasn’t a particularly major decision. He wanted to eat healthier and didn’t want to do it alone, and I was eager to tag along. It gave me the excuse I always wanted to cut meat out of my diet.
During my freshman year at Hollins, I took a class called The Animal Rights Movement. From the first day of class, I felt singled out. When we went around the room introducing ourselves, almost everyone’s narratives were the same: “I love animals. I’m a vegetarian.” I, too, echoed a love for animals but also disclosed my meat-eating diet. The teacher paused and said, “You know who else ate meat?” Pause. Um…lots of people? “Hitler.”
That teacher turned me off to a lot of animal rights causes and a lot of the rhetoric surrounding these issues. She screened gory videos, assigned books that equated slaughterhouses to concentration camps, and forced us to do some not-so-legal weekend protesting. She was the epitome of the militant vegan.
I liked the point behind the class, though. And after one too many weekend trips driving between Roanoke and Charleston on the turnpike stuck behind packed hog trucks, I stopped eating pork. It wasn’t a hard decision. I love pigs. Pigs are super smart. I don’t want to eat them. I could never convince myself the same of other animals, though. Cows have such vacant eyes, I thought. Chickens just run around squawking all day, I assured myself. Fish don’t do a damn thing.
Cue Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, which raises the question (among many others), “Is the suffering of a drawn-out death something that is cruel to inflict on any animal that can experience it, or just some animals?” (31).
A number of things struck me as notable about this book. First and foremost is Foer’s ability to tell a story, which delights the fiction-lover in me. And though this tale of non-fiction is different from his other works, the art of storytelling is not ignored. Foer highlights the importance of storytelling in relation to our complicated thoughts and actions about food & values, attention that delights the comp scholar-to-be in me.
“Stories about food are stories about us—our histories and our lives.” 11
Perhaps the best part about this attention to storytelling is Foer’s acute awareness of the role of storytelling to make a good argument. He describes facts as “important, but they don’t, on their own, provide meaning” (14). We see this in the everyday choices we make, particularly when it comes to food. We know fast food is bad for us, but we eat it. We know animals are treated badly, but we eat them. The mere fact of knowing, the logos, doesn’t make us change our ways. As Foer reminds us, “Something else is needed.” In this case, that something is pathos.
Within the book, pathos frequently takes the form of shame. Foer describes shame as both intimate and social, something felt within our very beings & when confronted in front of others (36). In terms of eating animals, shame is also tied to our fast-capital desires for getting what we want when we want it:
“Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely—yet not entirely—forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of immediate gratification.” 37
It’s the feeling I have when I am excited about an old favorite food (chicken & waffles) at a restaurant, then remember I’m vegetarian. And yet, it’s also the feeling when a family member or a friend makes a meal that I have to turn down.
That second kind of shame, though, quickly dissipates when I think of the advantages. Beyond the reasons Foer lists for not eating factory farmed meat—the diseases (linked to pandemic flu), the cruelty, the global climate damage—there are also personal benefits. I’m a very sensitive eater, and I feel physically better this summer than I usually do. We’ve also been trying a lot of new recipes and new foods (including tofu, lentils, black bean burgers, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, kale & chard). And lastly, I feel like I’m being more responsible to my body. When people are diagnosed with cancer, their doctors often tell them to switch their diets—to eat organic foods and to give up meat. My mom wasn’t told that when she was diagnosed with cancer, likely because it was such an advanced stage. The point remains, however, that somehow it is healthier for cancer patients not to eat meat.
“It’s possible you can’t afford to care [about the food you eat], but it’s certain you can’t afford not to care.” 113
With my family’s health record, I am certainly someone who can’t afford not to care about what foods I put into my body. If the choice is between a vegetarian diet or one that includes meats filled with antibiotics and growth hormones, I’ll take the first one.
Finally, Foer acknowledges that his book “is an argument for vegetarianism, but it’s also an argument for another, wiser animal agriculture and more honorable omnivory” (244). I’m not anti-meat & don’t know if this will be a permanent diet, but for now at least—for the reasons Foer lists and for my own—I’m going to extend my summer vegetarianism a little further.