Sunday, February 10, 2013

Re-Reading Thru Epicurean Phantom Pains

Last Thursday, as class was ending just before lunch, I commented to some of my students idling by the doorway that I was hungry. One student asked if I was going to have pepperoni pizza for lunch (it was "Pizza Day" after all), then quickly corrected himself with an "Oh, that's right, you don't eat meat."  I don't preach nor reveal this to students in some grand display, but occasionally we'll talk food and the subject has come up.

The student followed his comment up with a common question, "Why are you a vegetarian? Why don't you eat meat?" I told him that it was in part due to a book I had read early last summer. "I hope I never read that book," he said as he walked into the hallway to the cafeteria.

Cue time travel noise here, to a "review" I posted last July regarding my recently having read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals...

Jonathan Safran Foer is an author who came to prominence for his fictional works, both of which were made into slightly (Everything is Illuminated) and terribly (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) inferior films by the same names. His third book, however, was a piece of non-fiction, that, despite being on my bookshelf in hardcover since its release in 2009, I had not quite taken the opportunity to read through its completion. Until this past week.

Simply put, Eating Animals is the synthesis of Foer's personal research, interviews, reflections and thoughts regarding what it means to be a "meat eater." Taking a wide view approach to "meat," Foer considers the production of poultry, seafood, and red meat in his exploration of the personal, environmental and spiritual impacts on a diet that results from such a significant degree of cruelty.

How one "feels" about what Foer has to say is likely (and unfortunately) dependent on what personal biases or Epicurean practices the reader brings to the table. As one who both loves a good conspiracy theory and has a healthy distrust of regulatory commissions, I appreciated the attempt at being objective via efforts to engage all parties in conversation. Of, course, some groups just don't want to talk, especially to an author likely viewed as a "radical" liberal.
Page 43.
I've researched two reviews, one from each end of the spectrum, which taken as a whole offer a fairly complete consideration of the books content. The first is "Flesh of Your Flesh" by Elizabth Kolbert which was previously published in The New Yorker Magazine ,and secondly, The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani's review "You Know that Chicken is Chicken, Right?"

There are enough interesting things going on with the structure and rhetorical strategies to make this book equally valuable for an analysis of its composition. Foer employs some of the same creative structural touches which were seen in Extremely Loud; first person narratives presented in the voice of the interviewees each of whom offers a first person perspective on their role in the "food chain" ("I am a Vegetarian Rancher," pages 205-219) and engaging graphics employed to offer subtle insight into otherwise potentially forgotten statistics (for example, pages 11-121, and 43, to the right). Foer also includes an extensive "Notes" section to lend creditability to his research and interviews ( pages 271-331).

Foer shows some restraint by avoiding the obvious route with works of this nature--presenting pictures from the kill floor or abused animals on their way to being "processed." The author chooses instead to let his words, and those of his interviewees, paint descriptively the horrors seen and personal conflicts faced as members of this cycle of food production.

Personal beliefs notwithstanding, I found Eating Animals to be remarkably accessible. Where some authors use the vocabulary of the industry without recognition of their readers awareness of the meaning, Foer writes as he seems to think--as an outsider seeking to understand.

... and we're back in the present.

Occasionally I struggle with my dietary choice to avoid eating any animal meat (chicken, fish, beef, pork), not because I necessarily miss the taste of the food, but primarily because it is so much easier to each those things. There is also a level of comfort I used to enjoy with burying my frustrations in a dozen chicken wings. But, despite a twinge of Epicurean phantom pains, I stay resolute to my commitment  and continue to ween myself from other animal products, such as dairy creamer and milk.

From time to time I also pick up Foer's book for a little reminder as to why I eat what I do... and don't.

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