A Chat With Frank Bruni and Jonathan Safran Foer

"Why not fix the system by making the model farm the rule, rather than jettisoning the entire notion of eating animals?"


What would a restaurant critic say to a vegetarian author? We found out at a sold-out auditorium at the Jewish Community Center, listening to Frank Bruni, New York Times restaurant critic, go up against author Jonathan Safran Foer. Both Bruni and Foer have recently published books on the matter of food—respectively, Born Round and Eating Animals. Of course, Bruni's book focuses on the pleasure of eating animals (if not the problems of managing that desire) and Foer's on the injustice of doing so—yet both share an interest in knowing where our food comes from and its significance in forming our identities.

Much of the discussion was shaped by the meaning of food in our culture. Bruni spoke of the importance of his grandmother's cooking—the pleasure of eating, her contribution to the family. Foer, on the other hand, commented that his grandmother now makes vegetarian matzo-ball soup. The chicken, claimed Foer, did not have to be the primary focus of the soup—to which Bruni joked, "You haven't met my grandmother."

Jokes aside, Bruni's objection addressed the heart of the issue: the extent to which pure pleasure can play a role in our decision about what we eat.

My questions for Foer, after the jump.

Foer's book, part factual and part philosophical, is a personal exploration into the world of meat-eating—with policy implications. Clearly, he thinks that eating animals is wrong, yet Foer didn't want to commit to a theoretical standpoint. Can he really get away with sitting out on the debate?

Merely seeing slaughter, suggested Foer, and our reactions to that sight, should change how we behave. Certainly, factory farming is both visually and emotionally repellant. But if that is the case, then shouldn't farms with ethical practices be exempt from such condemnation?

According to Foer, not so. Hailing farms such as Dan Barber's Blue Hill as a paragon of the "goodness of farms," Foer went as far to say that Barber "..treats his animals better than I treat my dog." And still, Foer would "not endorse these kinds of farms," because even the most conscientious farms are part of the "system" of meat-eating, which is generally wrong. As an analogy, Foer said, "Even if we found an extremely intelligent 5-year-old to whom we could give a job, we still wouldn't endorse a system of child labor."

This answer left me unsatisfied. I asked Foer why we couldn't simply refine our moral judgments about eating animals to include cases of virtuous farms.

"Because these farms are the exception to the rule," he replied.

But even if the "system" of meat-eating is broken, I asked, "Why not fix the system by making the model farm the rule, rather than jettisoning the entire notion of eating animals?"

In his final answer to me, Foer commented, "If one percent of the world has good farms, I devote twenty percent of my book to celebrating those farms."

Foer was unresponsive to the idea that a moral framework could suffice. He gave as an example the system of farmed salmon, which initially began as a way to take the pressure off the wild salmon population. Instead of alleviating overfishing, farmed salmon populations risk infecting wild fish with their parasites and diseases, competing for habitat when farmed fish escape from their enclosures. Such was the risk we face in any solution to the ethical consumption of animals; for Foer, this risk is always unjustified.

Moral utilitarians often make just these sorts of argument, yet their premise is philosophical rather than emotive or factual. When asked how he could refrain from being anything but a "proselytizer" of animal ethics, Foer claimed: "Arguments don't persuade people to change."

Ironically, the last person I heard make this claim was Dan Barber. According to the Blue Hill chef, people change their eating habits through persuasion rather than principles. For Barber, that persuasion comes in the form of taste—the best-tasting carrots, the best-tasting veal. In this way, people like Barber and Bruni can never be fully reconciled with Foer: the former enjoy the idea that pure pleasure can lead the way to more sustainable, ethical practices; for the latter, that change can only come when we stop according to "pleasure" a privileged role in our decisions about food.