Well, hell, I thought, shutting Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals after reading its last page. There goes that. I have been a vegetarian (careful omnivore, pescatarian) off and on for fifteen years now. But having read the author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close's latest offering, Safran Foer's exploration of the horrific world and consequences of our current addiction to factory farming, I realized I could no straddle the fence. There would be, I realized, no more salmon on my plate, or "cage-free" eggs, or cheddar cheese. Why? Well besides the whole institutionalized torture thing in most slaughterhouses-dairy farms-egg factories today, here's a fact to chew on: omnivores generate seven times more carbon emissions than vegan. And I can live without eggs and bacon. Call me Natalie Portman if you must. I chatted with Safran Foer over the phone about his lyrical horror story in anticipation of his SF appearances next week, including a benefit for 826 Valencia (Weds/22). He's no activist, but I like him.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: This book made me reconsider the way I eat in a major way. But I felt like a lot of the arguments could be extended past meat to dairy products and eggs as well. Are you a vegan?
Jonathan Safran Foer: No, not exactly. I'm pretty close. I try to eat as little as possible and also only from sources that I know. I'm not by definition a vegan. I don't think there's any one line, I think that this is an important thing to acknowledge. There are certain things that come down to instincts that we have, how we were raised. There are people in this country that don't have access to anything but fast food, not even a supermarket. The line for me will been shifting for the next couple years. I won't eat meat, that's a line that I've drawn.
SFBG: What do you think was the hardest part about quitting meat?
JSF: It's a habit, it tastes good and you're used to doing it. Habits are hard to change, especially since they're so fundamental to your lifestyle. Anything you do twice a day is hard to change, especially when they're so tied to your culture.
SFBG: So what's the good word for people that are considering going cold turkey [or rather, cold no-turkey]?
JSF: Be forgiving of yourself. If you slip up, it doesn't have to signify the end of your experiment. I recommend to people that they phase it in. If I had done that from the beginning I would have had a much easier time with it.
SFBG: The book has, understandably stirred up some healthy debate. Do you read your critics? Has anyone offered criticism that's caused you to revisit your findings?
JSF: Not exactly. I was surprised by the responses, mostly that they were very generous. When I was writing the book, I couldn't envision the person that would defend factory farming. Whenever I do a reading I always say that if you have a defense that I haven't heard of, please, share it. I guess I've been surprised by the strange consensus on the subject. Obviously there are a lot of people that think eating meat is a fine thing to do. But I've never met the person that, once exposed to factory farming, thinks that factory farming is a good thing to do.
SFBG: The scenes you describe in the factory farms you visit, as well as their environmental impact that you describe, are horrifying. How is it that the facts about this topic aren't more well-known?
JSF: For one thing, there are incentives for it not to be. We would just as soon not think about it. It makes our lives easier not to think about. Also the meat lobby is incredibly strong, incredibly powerful, and good at keeping information from consumers. Finally, we don't have much exposure to what farming is really like. Most of the exposure that we have is stories that are told to us from the industry, labeling on packages. They encourage us to think of farms as places wheres there's animals on the grass. For a lot of people, the problem is that there's a distance between what we hold in our mind and the reality. And it's hard to close that distance.
SFBG: You say the impetus for writing Eating Animals was to figure out whether or not you should serve your newborn son meat. The book focuses mainly on animal welfare though, with a smattering of environmental concern. Were there other books you could have written on this subject focusing on labor issues or nutritional concerns, say?
JSF: I don't think of the book as being about animal welfare, actually. It's not comprehensive but it is as comprehensive as I could be in a book thats only 300 pages.
SFBG: How many farms did you visit throughout the course of your research?
JSF: A lot. It depends on what you mean by visits. Some you could drive up and see by the side of the road, some I had to go to in the middle of the night. I don't know – a dozen?
SFBG: You talk a lot in this book about the importance of meat in “table fellowship.” You focus, in particular on eating turkey at Thanksgiving. How should one approach the subject of vegetarianism with family that eats meat in those types of situations?
JSF: I think one of the most important things is to feel out the answer that the person wants. Some people are genuinely curious, some are just asking out of politeness. It can be a kind of vanity that makes you feel good to say it, but it's not helping anything. I have found actually that conversations about this don't really work. I don't really try to persuade people in person, I mostly go about my business and do my thing. I think we've made a mistake, the people who care about this thinking that argument will win. I think conversation will. We have to be more humble.
SFBG: Do you consider yourself an animal rights activist?
JSF: No. I don't even think about animal rights. I think about animal welfare. It's a piece of a puzzle.
SFBG: What's the next project? Will your next book be back to fiction?
JSF: Yeah it is.
SFBG: Was it a strange process researching a non-fiction book?
JSF: It was very strange and at times difficult. I don't know if I would do it again
SFBG: Why not?
JSF: I found it frustrating. The thing I value most about fiction is freedom, being able to pursue my imagination. Basically having nowhere to go is what I like about writing fiction, there is no referring to anything. But in this book, I'm referring to the world. I found it at times very difficult.
Jonathan Safran Foer's upcoming SF appearances:
Q&A and Book Signing
Tues/21 1 p.m., free
Rosa Parks Room, Student Center
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway, SF
In conversation with Vendela Vida
City Arts & Lectures Fall Literary Series
Weds/22 8 p.m., $20
401 Van Ness, SF