Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hurt Chickens: The Proustian Swirl Vegetarians Abandon

Posted By on Tue, Oct 13, 2009 at 10:21 AM

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I don't want to kick off some broiling debate about whether vegetarianism is smart, or kind or stupid or unrealistic, but I would like to point you to an elegant essay on the subject of wrestling with vegetarianism by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. If you know his stuff--his first novel Everything Is Illuminated angered as many as it fascinated because the author was a mere 24 when he wrote it--you know he's a funny, thoughtful writer. Here, Foer takes on the complicated relationship humans have with animals and food, and particularly, the very compelling anchors that foods become in our most cherished memories with family and friends. (For me, that's biscuits and gravy--for him, that's chicken and carrots.) He talks about giving that up, and about what you gain in the meantime. What you non-vegetarians (and I'm one of them) will find so pleasurable about reading this story is Foer's honesty: He doesn't pretend not to miss meat.

While the cultural uses of meat can be replaced--my mother and I now eat Italian, my father grills veggie burgers, my grandmother invented her own "vegetarian chopped liver"--there is still the question of pleasure. A vegetarian diet can be rich and fully enjoyable, but I couldn't honestly argue, as many vegetarians try to, that it is as rich as a diet that includes meat. (Those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure.) I love calamari, I love roasted chicken, I love a good steak. But I don't love them without limit.

Elsewhere, he confronts all the attendant paradoxes that the act of eliminating animal protein raises, whether it's explaining to irritated relatives or questioning children. But in the end, it's a choice that changes entire family histories and requires embarking on a quest for new ones. Will his children, never having experienced his grandmother's chicken and carrots, establish equally profound memories over veggie burgers? It's a salient point for anyone who knows both worlds--much like those of us who remember a handwritten-letter, pre-Internet romance.

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