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In the first chapter entitled “Storeytelling,” of his 2009 book, Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “We believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God. Her culinary prowess was one of our family’s primal stories…” This storytelling theme sets the stage for Foer’s nonfiction, “Eating Animals.”
If you are familiar with Foer’s writing style—his two previous books, “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” both fiction and incidentally both made into movies—then you are aware that he is indeed an intriguing storyteller, albeit in a particular manner. As one commentator explains, “Foer’s novels are pointedly postmodern; they play with voice and genre, language and typography… ‘Eating Animals’ is written in a similar po-mode; it is constantly shifting among formats—a glossary of terms, interviews, personal vignettes—and each chapter is introduced with a page or two of graphic art.” Nonetheless, story is what carries his nonfiction writing as well, a story that drives the message and, I would argue, forces the reader to confront the mental models and primal story operating in his or her own life.
In “Eating Animals,” Foer uses the story of his grandmother and his grandmother’s story to unpack the challenging issues of justice and morality regarding people and their relationship to animals, particularly as the title suggests, of people eating animals. I’ll put it out there: he falls squarely in the vegetarian camp. You need not agree with him nor do you need to land where he lands however; but you do need to confront what your values are.
He tells in that first chapter of how his grandmother had grown up in Eastern Europe. She says, “We weren’t rich, but we always had enough.” This is related entirely through food, what they ate, the rhythms and patterns of a typical week. “We were happy. We didn’t know any better. And we took what we had for granted, too.” All this abruptly changes as the Second World War engulfs all of life.
“During the War it was hell on earth, and I had nothing… There was never enough food. I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I’m not just talking about being skin and bones. I had sores all over my body. It became difficult to move. I wasn’t too good to eat from a garbage can. I ate the parts others wouldn’t eat. If you helped yourself, you could survive. I took whatever I could find. I ate things I wouldn’t tell you about.”
But his grandmother shares of kindnesses experienced then as well. “Even at the worst times, there were good people too.”
Foer concludes the first chapter with the following exchange with his grandmother. It propels the rest of the book which discusses such topics as wide as industrial animal agriculture, global fishing, and humane slaughter alongside him sharing of his own marriage and family, getting a dog and raising a child. Ultimately, however, he returns to his grandmother’s words:
“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
On a day like this day, Thanksgiving 2015 in the United States, it can be hard to imagine such dire circumstance. (Although many currently are experiencing just such circumstances all around the globe.) What is most poignant, of course, is the grandmother’s last statement, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” What is worth saving? What are the values that we hold, put stock in, and live by? As Christians, especially from the Reformed tradition, what are the primal stories operative to us on a day like Thanksgiving? On a day that accentuates a primary theological focus of gratitude widely across the culture, how do we really embody and live out that story and those values?
Later today many of us will have the opportunity to join friends and family and gather around tables. I want to encourage you to listen to the stories that are primal to you, to encounter and become aware of them. What are these stories creative powers? What are the values that they foster? And perhaps, what with greater awareness needs to be unlearned as well? Amidst the conversation more than just stories will be shared. Beyond various opinions and political pontificating, what are the undergirding values shared around the table? What really matters? What’s worth saving?
One more thing… I confess, that I have much regard for Mr. Foer’s, “Eating Animals,” which is why it’s on my mind today and is being shared here. It has significantly impacted my own eating habits, so much so that I’ve not had turkey on Thanksgiving for the last few years. (That changes today, but with far too many details that will not go into this blog post here today.) Although I am not a vegetarian and do not come to the same conclusions as he does, I do much appreciate (and mostly share) Foer’s values. I say confess, because as I write this the sweet aroma emanating from the kitchen and the turkey in the oven—organic, pastured, locally raised, and humanely slaughtered as the case may be—causes me to be thankfully honest. With gratitude to the bird, and to God, Happy Thanksgiving.