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Saturday, March 21st, 2009
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The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Ethical Eating in Theory and Practice

A review by Sheila Ashdown

My evolution from omnivore to vegetarian started on the day we dissected fetal pigs in high school biology. (Though, when I say "we," I really mean "my lab partner.") I was repelled by the little pig, so simultaneously adorable and putrid, and disgusted to connect the dots between this animal and... bacon. The result was a short-lived vow to give up meat, which fizzled (as my family loves to remind me) after a measly three days. My resolve couldn't stand up to pepperoni pizza, apparently. It would take another decade for me to really go vegetarian: in 2006, I took a bite of Christmas ham -- its color so reminiscent of that fetal pig! -- and realized that I would not be taking seconds.

This final and lasting moment of resolve was what Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of The Face on Your Plate, would call ashrayaparavrtti: "a sudden moment of life-changing insight." I had finally read enough about industrial-scale food production to reach a critical mass of information about the ramifications of what I put in my mouth -- the environmental and public-health impacts and the inhumane treatment of vulnerable animals -- that I had to put down the hamburger and pick up the garden burger. I now read books like Masson's to deepen and sustain my commitment, but this inspiring book definitely has the potential to reach an audience beyond the already-converted.

The bulk of the book explores the three reasons that vegetarians and vegans forgo meat and animal byproducts: "for their health; for the health of the animals; and for the health of the planet." And, as Masson shows, the three are inextricable. Domestic farm animals are raised in crowded, barren, and unnatural conditions, separated from their offspring, and taxed beyond their reproductive means (like hens, who would normally lay 20 eggs per year rather than the 260-plus eggs they are now bred to lay). These unhealthy conditions extend far beyond the farm: Masson cites the Environmental Protection Agency when he states that "factory farm a greater source of pollution of our rivers and lakes than all other industrial sources combined." This pollution has so far degraded more than 173,000 miles of rivers and streams and created "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico that no longer support aquatic life. The humans who work with the animals are adversely affected by this direct contact with waste; neighbors by the airborne toxins; consumers by the antibiotics and growth hormones they digest; and the entire human population by poisoned water supplies.

The far reaching problems caused by industrial farming are staggering and upsetting, but as Masson points out, none of it is controversial. He argues, then, that the reason these unhealthy and unethical systems persist is that the majority of people are in denial. He actually includes an entire chapter on the subject, which shows his two-pronged expertise in human psychology and animal advocacy. Masson explores a range of denial, from subconscious denials (eating "bacon" instead of "pig") to those based in philosophy (like the notion that a "domestic contract" exists between man and animal) or religion (that the Bible gives humans dominion over animals). And though he has sympathy for those people who are in denial -- "it is hard to eat a chocolate chip cookie and think 'suffering'" -- he doesn't give them an out for their passive complicity. Rather, he reminds us to keep in mind "the bon mot of Francois de La Rochefoucauld, the cynical observer of Louis XIV's court, when he said that 'man has an infinite capacity for enduring the suffering of others.'"

However, Masson doesn't end on an accusatory note. Though he makes a convincing case that our eating habits have a global impact, he shows a better way -- most notably through veganism and sustainable farming practices -- and evokes a measured tone that is ultimately encouraging. His goal, which I believe he accomplishes, is to help readers nurture their own empathy and sense of responsibility. He acknowledges that this is an intensely personal issue, and even uses his own vegan lifestyle as example. In the last chapter, "A Day in the Life of a Vegan," Masson's sincere enthusiasm comes bounding from the page. He describes his food lifestyle -- his favorite foods and their preparation -- and how his choices have shown mental and physical benefits. With descriptions of mouthwatering food and his enviable physical vigor, he certainly doesn't sound like he's sacrificing personal happiness or culinary delight for the sake of animal welfare or the planet. Masson is a living example, in fact, that through enlightenment, empathy, and a little creative cooking, we can help the planet while we help ourselves.

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