The stories we tell ourselves about what is true in our lives have tremendous power, especially when those stories involve what we eat. We humans have strong convictions about food—many of these formed from memories ranging from sublime to scary—that are woven closely into our families and lives, affecting our choices about the foods we crave, purchase and consume. “We are made of stories. . . . Stories establish narratives, and stories establish rules,” writes novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated) in his first nonfiction book, Eating Animals, an idiosyncratic exploration of meat: what it actually is (and isn’t); how it is farmed in modern America; and the economic, social and environmental implications of eating it.

As a college student, Foer had no strong allegiance to any one diet manifesto. An on-again, off-again vegetarian, he maintained a diet of “unconscious inconsistency.” He admits sheepishly that he “just ate what was available or tasty, what seemed natural, sensible or healthy—what was there to explain?” It was not until he became a father that Foer perceived a lack of morality and responsibility inherent in his ongoing dietary vacillation. Now that he was responsible for nurturing and nourishing his son, what stories and lessons would he truly want to transmit to his children?

Two tales, of boyhood meals past and imagined future repasts with his wife and son, serve as bookends for Foer’s horrifically enlightening, thought-provoking examination of how farmed animals—hogs, chickens and cows—are bred, raised, distributed and consumed in our nation. Under cover of darkness, he sneaks into a chicken CAFO (aka “concentrated animal feeding operation”) to observe firsthand its hellish confines. He interviews farmers, like Bill and Nicollette Niman, who are trying to raise animals for consumption with kindness and conscience. He allows a multitude of voices to speak—CAFO workers, animal rights activists, farmers, scientists and literary figures—in order to build a case for conscious and ethical food consumption.

Foer employs an adroit blend of storytelling, philosophical reflection and rigorous investigative journalism to illustrate “how our food choices impact the ecology of our planet and the lives of its animals,” and to persuade us toward unflinching self-examination in how we choose our nourishment. He admirably presents fact and science, while pricking the reader’s conscience by recounting his own probing questions about dietary choice and moral acceptability. Eating Animals is “an argument for vegetarianism, but it’s also an argument for another, wiser animal agriculture and more honorable omnivory.”

America, the author believes, has made a choice between basing its meals around harvest or slaughter. And, collectively, we have chosen slaughter. Even using the most humane practices, consuming meat is a social act of war, of aggression. This is, he says, “the truest version of our story of eating animals.” Can we, Foer asks, tell another story instead? For the future of our race and of our fragile and heated planet, the question is timely and well worth any painful self-interrogation.

Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.

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Read an interview with Foer for Eating Animals.

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