Lunch with the FT: Jonathan Safran Foer

No, no meat” says the writer Jonathan Safran Foer. He is sitting in a restaurant in a remote Ukrainian shtetl. His translator looks worried, and then makes a suggestion: “Steak?” “Nope,” Foer replies. “Chickens?” “No.” “Veal?” “Oh, God. Absolutely no veal.” “What about sausage?”

Finally, the waitress agrees to bring Foer two potatoes served with meat; at this restaurant, vegetables cannot be ordered separately. When the meal arrives, Foer’s translator moves the meat on to his own plate; Foer prefers not to touch it with his fork.

The Jonathan Safran Foer referred to above is not the hugely successful young novelist who burst on to the literary scene in 2002 with Everything Is Illuminated, a disarmingly comic novel, said to have been written in just 10 weeks. The story was based on a trip that Foer, then a philosophy student at Princeton, made to Ukraine in 1999 to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The real Foer found nothing there, so wrote a novel about an alter-ego (also, in the postmodern way, called Jonathan Safran Foer, and also a writer) who had more luck. But, says the 33-year-old Foer when we meet in New York, the restaurant episode is real; both Foers are vegetarian; in the Ukraine, both were stuck with potatoes and little else.

Today Foer is wearing square glasses, a fitted black jumper and jeans that look as if they might have been ironed. We are meeting at Gobo, a vegan restaurant in the West Village, opposite the office where Foer works. Near-empty and surprisingly dark within, Gobo has an awning promising “food for the five senses”. The menu features dishes including “seitan”, “nori”, and “konnyaku”, which, Foer tells me dismissively, are different kinds of “fake meat”. He feels no need to order such substitutes but, having ascertained that I am a “selective omnivore”, suggests I try seitan, a protein made from wheat gluten that the menu describes as “tender and succulent”.

Foer was 25 when Everything is Illuminated was published; the hardback rights were bought for $500,000, and two years later a film adaptation, starring Elijah Wood, was made. His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), was written from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy whose father had died in the 9/11 attacks. The book attracted attention for its use of “visual writing” (blank pages, squished-up fonts, and a sequence of photographs of a man falling from the Twin Towers arranged in reverse order). Writing in The New Yorker, John Updike suggested that the style was cluttered; another critic called Foer “a fraud and a hack”. Others, including Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende, acclaimed him as a genius.

Eating Animals, Foer’s latest book – a non-fictional and occasionally gruesome investigation of the US factory farm industry – might come as something of a shock to those used to Foer’s tricksy and cerebral fiction. The book combines graphic reports of chickens’ living conditions, slaughterhouses, and the environmental impact of the meat industry with first-person statements from farmers and activists. It is also overtly and unironically autobiographical: Foer describes the chicken and carrots made for him as a child by his grandmother, who had survived the Holocaust; his food-faddy teenage years; the moment in 2001 when he and his future wife, Nicole Krauss (now also a novelist), talked about vegetarianism. His decision to reject meat altogether, he writes, was triggered by learning he was to have a child (the couple now have two – Sasha, four, and Cy, one). He had, though, already started thinking about the philosophical implications of eating animals, especially after falling in love with and adopting a puppy wearing an “adopt me” T-shirt on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, a literary quarter of Brooklyn where the family now live (neighbours include Paul Auster, and Jonathan Lethem, with whom Foer teaches creative writing at NYU).

Foer thinks we need to be less sentimental about our meaty meals; they may be “the centre of stories” or “symbols” but they can be replaced. Thanksgiving, for instance, could be an opportunity to discuss why we are not eating turkey. For people who really like food, like me, such a linguistic approach to eating can sound just a little detached. It is noticeable that, in the book, Foer never once describes a vegetarian dish he really enjoys.

“Oh, I’d say I like a meal as much as anybody,” he tells me, mildly, as he browses the menu. “But I find a certain kind of foodiness silly, gluttonous and embarrassing.” He pauses, looking up. “Look, taste is clearly the crudest of our senses: this is scientifically, objectively factual. It is less nuanced. Eyesight is extraordinary – hearing, touch. I find people who devote their whole lives to taste a little strange.” He stresses the last words as if this was a vast understatement.

The waiter comes to take our order. Foer chooses a Vietnamese spicy stir-fry and, hesitating between various types of juices, decides on a “Rejuvenate” (carrot, apple, parsley and spinach). I choose a “Zing” juice, with scallion pancakes as a starter for us to share, followed by the seitan.

In 20 years most meals will be vegetarian, says Foer. “I think we’re going to shift away from thinking about it as a lifestyle; it will be more an awareness of the choices in front of us.” He raises his voice over the mechanical juicers. “The real problem is the question, ‘Are you vegetarian?’ It doesn’t leave a great deal of room ... If we all had one less serving of meat a week, that would be the equivalent of taking 5m cars off the road. One serving a day – 35m cars. There is nothing that we could do that would have a greater impact on the environment. Just don’t eat the shitty thing at lunch that you don’t even like anyway.”

Our starter arrives – a plate of luke-warm brown pancakes scattered with spring onion and cubes of mango. Foer picks up a pancake; it is hard, as if deep-fried. He crunches it, absent-mindedly. My “Zing” juice is orange, Foer’s “Rejuvenate” the colour of manure.

When I ask Foer what he thinks about the current glut of books concerned about how to eat healthily, ethically and sustainably, he says he first read Animal Liberation, Peter Singer’s 1975 classic polemic on animal rights, when he was at high school. “I’m not sure it changes that many people,” he says. “It invites one to say, ‘I know that’s true but ... ’ as opposed to ‘I know that’s true and ... ’” Michael Pollan, on the other hand, whose 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma suggests we “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”, doesn’t go quite far enough for Foer as Pollan doesn’t deal sufficiently with factory farming. “It’s like the bullseye of the target – the most important aspect – and he just stops,” he laments.

I suggest that the effect of all these books could be to provoke a kind of ethical paralysis. A couple of years ago writers such as Barbara Kingsolver, Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon argued for local food because of the ecological cost of transportation – which made sense to me until I read Professor James McWilliams’ Just Food (2009), which argues cogently against this locavore approach. Pollan has praised producers such as Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, known for its sustainable farming methods; Foer interviews another farmer, who thinks Polyface is “horrible” because it produces “industrial” rather than “vintage” birds. One side gives us permission to eat something; another denies it, so we end up walking out of the supermarket with no food.

Foer leans back and smiles, just a little smug. “That’s the nice thing about being a vegetarian. You don’t have to be neurotic. Selective omnivores” – he points a fork in my direction – “have to be neurotic. Personally, I don’t have time for all that; I don’t want to get into it.”

Our main courses join the half-eaten pancakes on our little table. My seitan is, to my eyes at least, a pork chop, in a gelatinous marinade. Its texture is like chicken; the flavour is of soggy bread. Foer’s plate is overflowing with brownish noodles, which he tucks into immediately.

One of the good things about vegetarianism, says Foer, it that it makes people “care more”. “I’m not sure why,” he says, “but a lot of my behaviour has changed. I’ve all but stopped buying things online. I want to live in a world where there are mom-and-pop stores, where everything isn’t homogenous ... Writing the book made me open my eyes a little bit wider.”

As a fellow resident of Park Slope, I know that ethical consumption can be a pleasurable retail experience – but what about less fortunate neighbourhoods? “Not everyone is going to move at the same pace,” he agrees. “Poor people will not move at the same pace as people with a disposable income. People who live in food deserts, who don’t have the same access, will move at a different pace to people who shop at Whole Foods.”

Foer lists some policies that Obama might adopt: “I would install a department of food, advised by small farmers; take meat and dairy lobbying out of schools; make a change to the [school] lunch programme ... ” I ask if he has ever considered starting his own campaign: he could be the US answer to British chefs and campaigners Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, I venture. He shakes his head, decisively. “That’s not what I do. It’s not where my strengths lie. I have to get back to being a fiction writer.” He looks at his watch as if due to start any minute.

Born in Washington, DC, Foer is one of three sons brought up by Albert, a lawyer, and Esther, the president of a PR company. Franklin, his older brother, is editor of the magazine The New Republic; his younger brother, Joshua, is a journalist who is working on a book about memory. I comment on how his parents have raised three impressively literary sons but Foer corrects me. “Not literary,” he says. “My older brother is more into politics; my younger brother is a journalist; he’s a true Renaissance man.” Foer isn’t literary either, he insists. At Princeton, he only took Creative Writing with Joyce Carol Oates to balance his course load.

Indeed, most of Foer’s responses to my questions about writing tend towards the negative. He used to collect things to inspire him; is this still the case? No, he’s in more of a stripping down phase. Did his wife help edit his book? No, not really. Was there a moment when Foer realised he wanted to be a writer? “No,” he says, meekly. “A swimmer doesn’t like swimming just because he was born with a swimmer’s body.”

I imagine this “writing chose me” attitude might irritate writers who struggle away with less success and am reminded of Foer’s most recent literary manifestation – in a play written by Itamar Moses, a close friend of his. The Four of Us (“four” is how Foer pronounces his surname) describes the friendship between a young and unsuccessful playwright, David, and his novelist friend, Benjamin, who writes a hit in a few weeks apparently without trying. Benjamin is trendy, reserved, and a little prudish. “I liked the play,” says Foer. “We’re really good friends still.”

I mention the point in the drama when Benjamin sees himself on stage in a play and worries that he comes across as a “self-satisfied, pretentious asshole”. Was that true to life? “Oh, we made a lot of jokes about that scene,” Foer tells me, smiling benevolently. “In the sequel, I will be watching that scene, commenting on how I’m commenting on the play.” Foer – who seems to have a way of receding even as I talk to him – looks at his watch. Apologising, he gathers his winter coat, shakes my hand, and departs.

Somewhere in the restaurant behind me I can hear a familiar conversation. ‘It’s not so much a lifestyle”, a young man is saying, “it’s just a way of asking questions about what we’re eating.” I smile sympathetically at his companion, and then at the waiter who hands me a recycled cardboard box containing the remainder of the seitan and kale, which, one week later, I will discover in the fridge when looking for something to eat.

‘Eating Animals’ is published on March 4 by Hamish Hamilton, £20

401 6th Avenue, New York

Scallion pancake $9.00
Vietnamese stirfry $13.00
Slice of seitan $14.00
‘Zing’ juice $6.00
‘Rejuvenate’ juice $8.00

Total (including tax) $54.44

‘Everything is Illuminated’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel tells the story of a young writer named Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to Ukraine. The narrative alternates between his voice and that of his Ukrainian translator Alexander Perchov, a young man with a creative use of the English language. In this opening section, Alex introduces himself and prepares to meet his American visitor.

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother. Father used to dub me Shapka, for the fur hat I would don even in the summer month. He ceased dubbing me that because I ordered him to cease dubbing me that. It sounded boyish to me, and I have always thought of myself as very potent and generative. I have many many girls, believe me, and they all have a different name for me. One dubs me Baby, not because I am a baby, but because she attends to me. Another dubs me All Night. Do you want to know why? I have a girl who dubs me Currency, because I disseminate so much currency around her. She licks my chops for it. I have a miniature brother who dubs me Alli. I do not dig this name very much, but I dig him very much, so OK, I permit him to dub me Alli. As for his name, it is Little Igor, but Father dubs him Climsy One, because he is always promenading into things. It was only four days previous that he made his eye blue from a mismanagement with a brick wall. If you’re wondering what my bitch’s name is, it is Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. She has this name because Sammy Davis, Junior was Grandfather’s beloved singer, and the bitch is his, not mine, because I am not the one who thinks he is blind.

When his train finally arrived, both of my legs were needles and nails from being an upright person for such a duration. I would have roosted, but the floor was very dirty, and I wore my peerless blue jeans to oppress the hero. I knew which car he would be disembarking from, because Father told me, and I tried to walk to it when the train arrived, but it was very difficult with two legs that were all needles and nails. I held a sign with his name in front of me, and fell many times on my legs, and looked into the eyes of every person that walked past.

When we found each other, I was very flabbergasted by his appearance. This is an American? I thought. And also, This is a Jew? He was severely short. He wore spectacles and had diminutive hairs which were not split anywhere, but rested on his head like a Shapka. (If I were like Father, I might even have dubbed him Shapka.) He did not appear like either the Americans I had witnessed in magazines, with yellow hairs and muscles, or the Jews from history books, with no hairs and prominent bones. He was wearing nor blue jeans nor the uniform. In truth, he did not look like anything special at all. I was underwhelmed to the maximum.)

Extracted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Everything is Illuminated’, published by Penguin in the UK and Harper Perennial in the US

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