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One night, when my son was four weeks old, he developed a slight fever. By the next morning he was having trouble breathing. On our pediatrician’s recommendation, we took him to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which often expresses itself in adults as the common cold, but in babies can be extremely dangerous, even life threatening. We ended up spending a week in the pediatric intensive-care unit, my wife and I taking turns sleeping in the armchair in our son’s room, and on the waiting-room recliner.
On the second, third, fourth, and fifth days, our friends Sam and Eleanor brought us food. Lots of food, far more than we could eat: lentil salad, chocolate truffles, roasted vegetables, nuts and berries, mushroom risotto, potato pancakes, green beans, nachos, wild rice, oatmeal, dried mango, pasta primavera, chili—all of it comfort food. We could have eaten in the cafeteria or ordered in. And they could have expressed their love with visits and kind words. But they brought all of that food, and it was a small, good thing that we needed. That, more than any other reason—and there are many other reasons—is why this book is dedicated to them.
Comfort Food, Cont.
On the sixth day, my wife and I were able, for the first time since arriving, to leave the hospital together. Our son was clearly over the hump, and doctors thought we’d be able to take him home the following morning. We could hear the bullet we’d dodged whistle past. So as soon as he’d fallen asleep (with my in-laws by his bedside), we took the elevator down and reemerged into the world. It was snowing. The snowflakes were surreally large, distinct and durable: like the ones children cut out of white paper. We glided like sleepwalkers down Second Avenue, no destination in mind, and ended up in a Polish diner. Massive glass windows faced the street, and the snowflakes clung for several seconds before descending. I can’t remember what I ordered. I can’t remember if the food was any good. It was the best meal of my life.
Not only the willful causing of unnecessary suffering, but the indifference to it. It’s much easier to be cruel than one might think. It’s often said that nature, “red in tooth and claw,” is cruel. I heard this again and again from ranchers, who tried to persuade me that they were protecting their animals from what lay outside the enclosures. Nature is no picnic, true. (Picnics are rarely picnics.)
And it’s also true that animals on the very best farms often have better lives than they would in the wild. But nature isn’t cruel. And neither are the animals in nature that kill and occasionally even torture one another. Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it.
There are sixty pounds of flour in my grandmother’s basement. On a recent weekend visit, I was sent down to retrieve a bottle of Coke and discovered the sacks lining the wall, like sandbags on the banks of a rising river. Why would a ninety-year-old woman need so much flour? And why the several dozen two-liter bottles of Coke, or the pyramid of Uncle Ben’s, or the wall of pumpernickel loaves in the freezer?
“I noticed you have an awful lot of flour in the basement,” I said, returning to the kitchen.
I couldn’t read her tone. Was that pride I heard? A hint of challenge?
“Can I ask why?”
She opened a cabinet and took down a thick stack of coupons, each of which offered a free sack of flour for every bag purchased.
“How did you get so many of these?” I asked.
“It wasn’t a problem.’
“What are you going to do with all of that flour?”
“I’ll make some cookies.”
I tried to imagine how my grandmother, who has never driven a car in her life, managed to schlep all of those sacks from the supermarket to her house. Someone drove her, as always, but did she load down any one car with all sixty, or did she make multiple trips? Knowing my grandmother, she probably calculated how many sacks she could get in one car without overly inconveniencing the driver. She then contacted the necessary number of friends and made that many trips to the supermarket, likely in one day. Was this what she meant by ingenuity, all those times she told me that it was her luck and ingenuity that got her through the Holocaust?
I’ve been an accomplice on many of my grandmother’s food acquisition missions. I remember a sale of some pelleted bran cereal, for which the coupon limited three boxes per customer. After buying three boxes herself, my grandmother sent my brother and me to buy three boxes each while she waited at the door. What must I have looked like to the cashier? A five-year-old boy using a coupon to buy multiple boxes of a foodstuff that not even a genuinely starving person would willfully eat? We went back an hour later and did it again. The flour demanded answers. For what population was she planning on baking all of these cookies? Where was she hiding the 1,400 cartons of eggs? And most obviously: How did she get all of those sacks into the basement? I’ve met enough of her decrepit chauffeurs to know they weren’t doing the hauling.
“One bag at a time,” she said, dusting the table with her palm.
One bag at a time. My grandmother has trouble making it from the car to the front door one step at a time. Her breathing is slow and labored, and on a recent visit to the doctor, it was discovered that she shares a heart rate with the great blue whale.
Her perpetual wish is to live to the next bar mitzvah, but I expect her to live another decade, at least. She’s not the kind of person who dies. She could live to be 120, and there’s no way she’ll use up half of the flour. And she must know that.
Sharing food generates good feeling and creates social bonds. Michael Pollan, who has written as thoughtfully about food as anyone, calls this “table fellowship” and argues that its importance, which I agree is significant, is a vote against vegetarianism. At one level, he’s right.
Let’s assume you’re like Pollan and are opposed to factory-farmed meat. If you’re at the guest end, it stinks not to eat food that was prepared for you, especially (although he doesn’t get into this) when the grounds for refusal are ethical. But how much does it stink? It’s a classic dilemma: How much do I value creating a socially comfortable situation, and how much do I value acting socially responsible? The relative importance of ethical eating and table fellowship will be different in different situations (declining my grandmother’s chicken with carrots is different from passing on microwaved buffalo wings). More important, though, and what Pollan curiously doesn’t emphasize, is that attempting to be a selective omnivore is a much heavier blow to table fellowship than vegetarianism. Imagine an acquaintance invites you to dinner. You could say, “I’d love to come. And just so you know, I’m a vegetarian.” You could also say, “I’d love to come. But I only eat meat that is produced by family farmers.” Then what do you do? You’ll probably have to send the host a web link or list of local shops to even make the request intelligible, let alone manageable. This effort might be well-placed, but it is certainly more invasive than asking for vegetarian food (which these days requires no explanation). The entire food industry (restaurants, airline and college food services, catering at weddings) is set up to accommodate vegetarians. There is no such infrastructure for the selective omnivore.
And what about being at the host end of a gathering? Selective omnivores also eat vegetarian fare, but the reverse is obviously not true. What choice promotes greater table fellowship?
And it isn’t just what we put into our mouths that creates table fellowship, but what comes out. There is also the possibility that a conversation about what we believe would generate more fellowship—even when we believe different things—than any food being served.
Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Safran Foer. All rights reserved. From Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Progressive Book Club
By Jonathan Safran Foer