Kauffman on Foer on Dog Meat

Why the latest veg manifesto is a crock.

As part of the book-release promotion for Eating Animals, his new pro-vegetarian polemic, Jonathan Safran Foer published an essay this Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, the premise of which he’s repeated on NPR and other media outlets: If we believe in eating meat, he asks, why do we eat some species and not others? More specifically, why do we find dog-eating taboo?

Spurred in part by his adoption of a cute li’l puppy, Foer converted permanently to vegetarianism a short while ago and has decided to spend 352 pages telling us why. In the WSJ article, Foer appropriates Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal,” a savage satire of the British indifference toward famine in Ireland; Swift suggested the Irish eat their babies if they had no food. In the same spirit of logical excess, Foer proposes that we start eating the dogs and cats euthanized in humane shelters. At the climax of his rhetoric, he reprints a Filipino recipe for “Stewed Dog, Wedding Style.” After presumably making readers ewwwwww for a thousand words, the writer concludes, “And despite it being entirely reasonable, the case for eating dogs is likely repulsive to just about every reader of this paper. The instinct comes before our reason, and is more important.”

What he appears to be saying is that our eww instinct regarding eating dogs is innate and the appetite for meat is cultural. It’s not a strong conclusion—nor an inevitable one. As a meat eater and a food critic, I’ve asked myself Foer’s question many times: Why do we eat certain kinds of meat but find others gross? Considering the issue, and the cultural prejudices beneath it, has led me to taste bunny rabbits, goats, pig ears, cow stomachs, chicken anuses, crickets, iguanas, snails, sea squirts, and more species of fish than the Seattle Aquarium currently stocks.

In fact, that very question led me to eat dog.

It was in Hanoi a few years ago. I’d been seeing roast dogs for sale in the market, their mahogany, spike-tailed carcasses stacked up next to plucked chickens and baskets of frilly herbs. On excursions into the countryside, I’d passed numerous signs for “thit cho,” or dog meat. So one night I enlisted the services of a beery motorcycle-taxi driver and ended up clutching his back, riding out of the center of town to a rickety, half-empty restaurant famous for serving dog seven ways.

That trek is a tale in itself, one of the party stories I tell omnivorous friends. Suffice it to say that I found dog sausage, grilled dog meatballs, and roast dog loin rich, almost beefy, almost mushroomy, tough, and altogether edible. This being Vietnam, where the source of your food is often steps away, as I finished my meal a dog caged below the restaurant started whimpering. That was a little hard—just about as hard as it had been to watch a pig being slaughtered and then eat it. But to me, the fleeting discomfort was culturally inspired, not some instinctive response. And to this day I don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt about either meal.

Part of the reason I went in search of thit cho was curiosity. Part of it, I have to say, was for bragging rights. And part of it was because I was tired of Americans’ xenophobic attitude toward cultures (mainly Asian) in which dog meat is eaten. If there were people who ate dog, rather than considering them savage, base, and disgusting, I wanted to understand why they did it.

It galls me that Foer taps into that xenophobia to suggest that everyone should anthropomorphize animals as he does, to have the same relationship to cows and halibut that Americans do to our “pets.” There are far fewer people in the world who designate certain species as intimate members of their families than there are who think of animals as a food source, regardless of how close those animals live to them.

I’m with Foer in decrying Americans’ tendency to shield ourselves from the realities of eating meat by purchasing plastic-wrapped containers of boneless, skinless, nameless protein. But I think you can respect the life of a creature, and support the humans who raise and kill it without undue cruelty, without thinking it wants birthday presents and midnight girl-talk sessions. (I agree with Food Matters author Mark Bittman: The ethical way to consume meat is to eat much less and buy better.)

Do I enjoy cuddling with my sister’s dog? Once in a while. Would I eat dog again? Sure, if my host served it to me or if I were in a place where dog was commonly eaten (the wedding stew, incidentally, sounds delicious). Would I eat euthanized dog from the humane shelter? Probably not, for the same reason that I don’t buy chicken from Safeway: I don’t know where it’s been, and don’t trust it to taste good, either.


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