PODCAST: Jonathan Safran Foer reads from "Eating Animals" [MP3]

One night when Jonathan Safran Foer was 9 years old, his babysitter refused to eat chicken. A confused Foer asked her why, and she blew his mind by explaining that the meat on his dinner plate came from a live animal. "I went from thinking it was the most natural thing to thinking it was the most insane thing," Foer said.

And with that, the babysitter planted the seeds for Foer’s first non-fiction book, Eating Animals (which came out November 2)
. Foer, who tackled the Holocaust in Everything Is Illuminated and September 11 in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has added another heavy topic to his repertoire: humanity's bloody relationship with animals.

Foer started off by reading a brief passage from Eating Animals at Brookline's Congregation Kehillath Israel on Wednesday night. But he chose to devote far more time to audience questions: “I don’t want to read too much, because I think this subject is best served by conversation,” Foer said.

And dominating Foer's end of that conversation was the idea that arguing over whether it’s wrong to sink your teeth into a veal cutlet is just a distraction from the real issue: factory farming. Foer insisted he's never heard anyone present a "cogent defense" of factory farming, which makes him believe that everybody who knows about it opposes it. "If you ate by the values you have, I'm sure factory farming would disappear very quickly," Foer said. "People would continue to eat meat, but nobody would eat this crap."

Audience members asked questions about Foer’s reaction to friends who continue to eat meat (he doesn’t want to alienate them), whether he’s optimistic about change (he is), and how he responds to accusations that vegetarianism is elitist (he said that the meat industry is elitist for forcing unhealthy food on the poor). Foer’s answers were peppered with statistics that would make Ronald McDonald consider ordering a veggie burger: 99% of our meat comes from factory farming; 90% of chickens are infected with E. coli; if Americans ate one fewer serving of meat per week, it would have the same impact as taking five million cars off the road.

Clearly, Foer did his research. But he insists he could pack his book with more statistics than an almanac and still not make a lasting impression -- what really changes minds is stories.

In that vein, one of the two excerpts Foer read recounted a conversation with his grandmother, who survived the Holocaust by scavenging for food in the forests of Europe. She told him that near the end of the war, a sympathetic Russian farmer gave her a piece of pork. But she refused to touch it, preferring to die than to betray the rules of kosher. When Foer asked her why, she replied, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

“That’s really the thesis of this book,” said Foer. “There are certain things about us that are so primary, so fundamental, that to ignore them, to pretend that they don’t exist, risks really losing something about ourselves.”

DOWNLOAD: Jonathan Safran Foer reading from Eating Animals [MP3]

Recorded live at a Brookline Booksmith-organized reading at the Congregation Kehillath Israel on November 11, 2009. To subscribe to this podcast, use this RSS feed or bookmark the Boston Phoenix podcast blog.

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