Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, Camille Kingsolver--a review
I just finished my second Non-Fiction Five Challenge read, Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Having already read some of Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and several of his articles in the New York Times, and having friends in the food and food writing worlds, I was already aware of many of the issues that Kingsolver is writing about, but never before was I inspired to actually do something about it.
Kingsolver and her family, including her biologist husband Steven L. Kopp, and her two daughters, 19-year-old Camille and 9-year-old Lily, commit to a year of being “locavores”, eating only food that is grown locally, within a hundred miles of their home. Because they have recently moved from arid Arizona to a farming community in verdant Virginia, onto Kopp’s family farm, they attempt to grow much of this food themselves. Kingsolver writes the narrative, while Kopp provides sometimes scary information in sidebars on industrial agriculture and growing practices in this country, and Camille provides a youthful perspective and recipes, which sound pretty darn good, I must say. And Lily’s experiments in keeping chickens and starting an egg business add humor and a sense of wonder to the book.
I was expecting the book to be a little preachy, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the tone. There was no snobbery about food. I found that Kingsolver struck a nice balance between instructive and anecdotal, and I was always interested in hearing about how their garden was coming along, and about the trials and tribulations involved in this difficult choice. Also, I did learn many new things about food production in the U.S., and had some myths busted for me, for example, about some of the negatives of organic food (stemming from organic farming becoming big business and emulating some of big agriculture’s practices), and some of the positives of meat-eating and how the proper stewardship of animals can help rather than hurt the land.
Being a weekend gardener who grows a couple of tomato plants and some herbs every summer, I was sucked in by the sumptuous descriptions of growing and harvesting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and later preserving and preparing them, and eating them and serving them to friends. I also loved the descriptions of hunting for morels, of making cheese, of the couple’s trip to Italy and saving seeds from an Italian pumpkin, and of their American road trip and where they ate along the way. And somehow Kingsolver and co. make many of the things that seem impossibly complicated, like making your own cheese, or canning your own tomato sauce, sound like reasonable things for a family to do.
Will I change the way I eat after reading this book? Yes. I already visit my local farmer’s market (fortunately ours is year-round), but now I buy a greater proportion of my fruits and vegetables there, and plan my meals more carefully because of it. I don’t buy grapes from Chile or apples from New Zealand, now that I appreciate how much fossil fuel was spent in getting them to me. When it doesn’t say where something was grown in my supermarket, I ask. I now only buy grass-fed and finished beef, or I go without, after reading about what goes on in CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, where most animals end up. I also recognize that I can afford these food choices, though according to Kingsolver, if I were to do what she and her family did, I would be spending less money on food than I do now.
The book does give many practical suggestions and resources for people who are not planning to go to the extremes that the Kingsolver/Hopp clan goes to. And again, it’s not a preachy book, and though I found it occasionally guilt-inducing, it wasn’t overly so. And besides, Kingsolver’s prose is very pretty, and never dry, even when she is writing about politics or the more technical aspects of their endeavor. Overall, I found it to be a beautifully written book on an important subject, and it inspired me to change the way I eat.