Michael Pollan on Jonathan Safran Foer

Michael Pollan in The New York Review of Books:

Animal rights advocates occasionally pick fights with sustainable meat producers (such as Joel Salatin), as Jonathan Safran Foer does in his recent vegetarian polemic, Eating Animals.

This is at best a gross misrepresentation of Foer’s book and at worst largely false.

Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm are mentioned exactly once in Eating Animals. And here’s what the book says,

Michael Pollan wrote about Polyface Farm in The Omnivore’s Dilemma like it was something great, but that farm is horrible. It’s a joke. Joel Salatin is doing industrial birds. Call him up and ask them. So he puts them on pasture. It makes no difference. (113)

That might sound like Foer is picking a fight, but here’s the thing: Foer is actually quoting poultry farmer Frank Reese. Foer never endorses this rhetoric. While he doesn’t shoot it down, either, he lets a lot of people with opposing views have their say.

One might point out that Pollan’s sentence might be interpreted to say that Foer was picking a fight with sustainable meat producers in general, rather than Salatin specifically. Yet this claim would hold up little better. Although he is uncomfortable with the idea of eating their products, Foer is always respectful in his discussion of these farmers. He writes,

In another direction, though, the vision of sustainable farms that give animals a good life (a life as good as we give our dogs or cats) and an easy death (as easy a death as we give our suffering and terminally ill companion animals) has moved me. Paul [Willis], Bill [Niman], Nicolette [Hahn Niman], and most of all Frank [Reese] are not only good people, but extraordinary people. They should be among the people a president consults when selecting a secretary of agriculture. Their farms are what I want our elected officials to strive to create and our economy to support. (242)

Does Michael Pollan really consider those to be fighting words?

It’s hard to read Pollan’s sentence about Eating Animals and believe that he’s read the book. Perhaps he briefly skimmed it. Maybe he got the idea that Foer was picking a fight with Salatin from the Huffington Post interviewer last month who incorrectly claimed that Foer said Polyface Farm was a joke (that interview will be the subject of another post in the near future).

Perhaps Pollan thinks he’s given vegetarianism enough consideration in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and that he therefore doesn’t need to read Eating Animals. But if he’s going to write a review of Eating Animals, he should first read the book with some attention to detail. Elementary school students have to read books before they write reviews, and so should professional journalists.

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13 Comments »

  1. […] In his post this morning, Merberg addresses Pollan’s new article in the New York Review of Books, a piece I blogged about over the weekend. Link. […]

  2. Hi Adam,
    Kudos for your efforts to tackle Pollan and bring his words under the microscope. Nobody need have a free pass in the food debate, much less icons like Pollan.

    I just wanted to offer a slight correction (if I’m correct) to what you’ve written above. The paragraph about Joel Salatin in Eating Animals (“It’s a joke,” etc.) are not Foer’s words. It’s a big confusing in his book, but those words are from an individual he interviewed, not Foer himself (again, if I am correct). Before the quoted paragraph, you attribute the quote to “the book” (which is accurate), but following the quote you refer again to Foer making it seem that the words are his.

    It’s a small point — and again, a bit confusing in Foer’s book. You may want to verify this for yourself — I could have misinterpreted the quote myself when I read the book. I’m going on memory here — don’t have time to look up the quote to verify.

    Best wishes for success with your blog! I’ll be a regular reader.

    Cheers,

    William K.

  3. Hi again, Adam,

    I APOLOGIZE!! Reading further in your post, you indicate that it was Pollan who made the interpretive error, not you.

    I should have read your entire post first before jumping to the keyboard.

    Again, I apologize!! I’ll be more careful in the future. (Feel free to delete me original post if you like — I don’t mind looking like a dufus, but it was a false alarm, obviously.)

    William K.

  4. Pollan is the darling of the movement and let’s face it, he speaks to mainstream white, middle class america. Hes image of the poster child of the food movement could be demaged by speaking of such of controversial issues like meat consumption and etichs ( environmental, human/non human rights, etc). There is a reason why he is a best seller. He is pleasant to mainstream foodies and food folks. I wish one day Pollan writes a book half good and hones as Foer has wrote!

  5. Mirkat said

    Thank you for starting this blog! Michael Pollan has been a source of frustration for me, too. I’ll add to your suspicion that he hasn’t really read Eating Animals my own suspicion that he hasn’t really read The China Study. In Defense of Food cites an exchange that T. Colin Campbell recounted in TCS–a conversation that he once had with Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Health. And yet there’s a footnote elsewhere in Defense where he notes that while there may be ethical reasons to avoid meat completely, there are no compelling health reasons to do so. And I can’t believe that anyone who has actually READ The China Study reach this conclusion.

  6. […] and respectful tone, rather than the irate tone suggested by the question. And as I discussed in my last post, it was Frank Reese (and not Jonathan Safran Foer) who described Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm […]

  7. Geraldo Tristan wrote:
    Pollan is the darling of the movement and let’s face it, he speaks to mainstream white, middle class america.

    Geraldo. If a person is white, not poor and not rich, does that mean his/her opinion is less authentic or less valid? If so, how does that work? What is the mechanism? May I ask you what your skin color and income level are so I can evaluate your opinion? End of sarcasm. I think you get my point.

    For what it is worth I agree with you about Pollan.

    There isn’t a mystery why Pollan keeps dodging the points brought up by animal rights activists.

    1. Pollan wants to eat eggs, milk and meat.

    2. Pollan does not have a fact based justification for his desires in #1

    Pollan shares #1 & #2 with most Americans and that is why he has achieved his popularity where other researchers/authors have not. Pollan addresses their growing concern about the nations food supply without telling them what they don’t want to hear and what he doesn’t want to talk about either.

  8. […] (362). His dismissiveness persists to the present day, most recently exemplified by his review of Eating Animals that showed precious little evidence of his having read Foer’s […]

  9. […] York Review of Books deserves much of the credit for prompting me to start this blog last month. I criticized Pollan for misrepresenting Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. A blogger for the […]

  10. […] think it’s a great letter, but I wish it had raised an objection to Pollan’s accusation that Foer picks a fight with sustainable meat farmers. I agree that characterizing Foer’s book as a “vegetarian polemic” is unfair, but […]

  11. […] view, vegetarian advocates can’t have opinions worth listening to (which might explain why he didn’t see the need to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals before reviewing it). To be sure, Myers clearly has some opinions that are not expressly stated in his piece, but […]

  12. D. Murphy said

    I know both Frank Reese and Joel Salatin and have heard them speak several times, in person and on video. They are BOTH fantastic people, and have done fantastic things in agriculture. Joel has developed methods of raising poultry, pigs and beef that enable farmers to actually make a living, without polluting the environment. He just isn’t interested in heritage breeds at this point; maybe someday he will be. But those into non-heritage birds must convince him that he can make a living doing it. Joel’s arguments against government control of small farms are absolutely wonderful. Read his book “Everything I want to do is illigal” and also “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven.” Also, Joel and his son have actually worked at developing a few breeds that work in their own environment, especially rabbits . Frank Reese is a gem of a person and probably the best poultry breeder in the U.S. If anyone could convince Joel that you can make it with heritage breeds, he could, because he knows how to breed a heritage bird so it actually has meat on it. Most large hatcheries only care how many eggs a bird lays, so they can hatch out the most birds for their customers and they make more profit. Frank has the skill and experience, learned from many years with the “old masters” (now gone) to select birds that will produce decent meat yields, without getting so big they can no longer mate naturally (did you know your white broad-breasted turkey can’t do that?). Frank is a purist. He doesn’t believe in buying ANYthing from the industrial poultry system. He’s right. But Joel’s right too. They have different talents, and different missions in life. I hope someday that Joel will teach our government how to be fair to “real” farmers, and help consumers support local farmers all they can. I hope Frank will someday help us have a system throughout our entire nation of heritage chickens and turkeys, so we won’t have to rely on the cornish cross chicken and BB White Turkey for our poultry meals. I have raised both types of birds, and the time to butcher is way more with heritage, but they eat less per day. But you can’t satisfy as many customers, and the birds aren’t as big. It’s all a trade off. I hope someday we can have a system where we can eat heritage birds raised in such a way that the farmer can succeed without being in the poor house.

  13. theglevin said

    Good stuff. Love the ‘Elementary school students’ line; apt and to the point.

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