Jonathan Safran Foer is a writer and practicing vegetarian. He published his first novel "Everything Is Illuminated" in 2002, winning much critical acclaim and several literary awards including the National Jewish Book Award and The Guardian First Book Award. His second novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" dealt with a 9-year-old coming to terms with his father's death in the World Trade Center during 9/11. Foer's most recent work is "Eating Animals," a non-fiction exploration of the factory farm industry in the United States.
Foer graduated from Princeton University in 1998, where he studied with novelist Joyce Carol Oates. He now lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn.
Question: Aside from the idea of “table fellowship,” is there anything else you and Michael Pollan disagree over?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well I think Michael Pollan is not only the most important, but the most sensible food writer, perhaps in American history. And it’s true that I disagree with him about certain things, but in the general scheme of things, extraordinarily small.
So as you were suggesting, one thing I disagree with him about is this notion of table fellowship, which basically states that there’s a good that comes from eating with other people. Eating what they make. I completely agree. The question is; how valuable is that? And is there anything that’s more valuable than that? And also, if you were going to be a conscientious eater, you know, Michael Pollan advocates eating an ethical meat, meat that comes from small farms. How does that figure into table fellowship? So let’s say somebody invites you over for dinner and you say, “I’d love to come. In advance let me tell you, I’m a vegetarian.” You know, in 2010 that’s not a shocking statement and it’s almost never a statement that requires explanation. Most people say, all right, fine. And they cook something else. Maybe it’s not what they had in mind, maybe it will require them to open a cookbook to figure out what they can make as an alternative, but really by no measure is it a big deal.
If you say instead, “Thanks so much, I’d love to come. Just so you know, I only eat meat that isn’t factory farmed.” You know, that comes from small farms, family farms. That all of a sudden really does create a situation and you’re going to have to probably send the person to a different link to different websites just so they can figure out what you’re talking about and then instruct them where to buy this food, which is almost certainly going to be much more expensive then what they were going to prepare. So if the question is table fellowship and this notion of the social bonds that are forged across a table, to me it seems the thing that promotes the most table fellowship is just being upfront about vegetarianism.
And the other thing I would say is, there might be some discomforts that we have to face, you know. It may be that there are going to be situations that we don’t eat the food that someone’s cooking, and it might be that the conversation that surrounds that decision that will inspire a fight or an argument at least. But I think we’re past the point of hiding behind politeness or discomfort. You know, we’re looking at a future of skyscrapers filled with animals. We’re looking at a future of an ocean with no wild fish. Fishery scientists say that in the year 2048, if we continue to fish like we are now and consume fish like we do now, there won’t be wild fish. And that sounds like a precise number. It’s not 2050, it’s 2048. It’s because it’s based on very precise calculations. We know that antibiotics won’t be useful for us in the future if we continue feeding animals 25 million pounds of antibiotics a year while humans only get 3 million pounds. Now this is not a future that we want and it’s only going to be avoided if we take a stand.
Recorded on August 26, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller