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.

15 comments:

Lotus Reads said...

Great review as always, Gentle Reader! I'm glad you didn't find Kingsolver's tone preachy, I was wondering about that.

I really would love to eat more locally grown food but I'm afraid there isn't a whole lot of choice for those of us that eat ethnic foods. I'm from India and a lot of the veggies and fruits I eat are native to tropical climates. Still, there are changes I can make to our diet to incorporate more local food and I will make sure I do that.

Also, I have always wanted to have a little patch of garden on which to grow my own vegetables...your review reminds me that I should start looking into it seriously.

Thank you again for a wonderful review!

Gentle Reader said...

lotus--Thannks! I think it's difficult to eat locally for most people for a lot of reasons, especially for those of us in urban areas. But I think you're right, there are always some small changes people can make, and awareness is always the first step--like awareness of our consumption of things made in China...

MyUtopia said...

Great review. I can't wait to read this book. I am waiting for it to come out in paperback.

SFP said...

Thanks for the great review. I'm looking forward to reading this one.

Gentle Reader said...

myutopia and sfp--I hope you like it. I was surprised at how much I liked this book, considering that I'm not a huge non-fiction person, and I was afraid it was going to be didactic. But Kingsolver isn't a novelist for nothing--she used her gift for description well here.

John Mutford said...

After reading Fast Food Nation I felt a lot of guilt but didn't really feel that it offered much alternatives beyond eating out less. Sounds like this one might actually offer suggestions. Good find!

Dewey said...

I really can't imagine Kingsolver being preachy! I'm so looking forward to this book. And I'm thrilled that it's affecting how so many people at. I think Omnivore is doing that, too.

Melanie said...

I liked this book a lot, too. I agree with you that the tone was inspiring rather than preachy; I've been going to the farmer's market more often and actually planted some tomatoes this year. A bigger garden will have to come next year...

Joy said...

This book is really getting rave reviews ... makes me want to read it! :) Thanks for sharing.

Gentle Reader said...

john--I'd like to read Fast Food Nation, as well. Omnivore's Dilemma had an impact on me, too. There were lots of practical suggestions in this book, so you can pick and choose what works for you and your family :)

dewey--it's true, preachy doesn't seem like Kingsolver's m.o., but I was a little worried because the subject matter could make anyone a little preachy. And I think you're right about Omnivore, too.

melanie--sounds like we're on the same wavelength about the garden. I managed two tomato plants and a little kitchen herb garden this year, but I'm hoping to expand next year!

joy--thanks! I was surprised how much I liked this book, and happy to read it for the challenge!

Tara said...

I enjoyed this book as well. I loved reading about their day to day life and how hard they worked to 'put up' all that food.

Robin said...

I enjoyed this book very much, and I'm much more aware and conscientious about the food we eat.

stefanie said...

I've been wondering about this book. Glad to know it's good. The book seems to be part of a growing literature on food awareness which I a good thing. I am often shocked but never really surprised about food production in the US. My husband and I joined a CSA this year. Every week we get a box of veggies from a local organic farm. The food was picked the day before we get it. The freshness and taste can't be beat and we are trying and enjoying vegetables we've never eaten before.

Gentle Reader said...

tara--I agree, the food preservation was really interesting to me, too. I had never thought about drying tomatoes, for example. My dad grows tomatoes and always has way too many, so he's constantly giving them away to friends. But maybe he could dry some. There's no way he's going to make sauce out of them...

robin--me, too. I was really inspired to do something when I read the book (which is unusual for me, I'll admit).

stefanie--that kind of service is available here, too, and I've often thought about joining one. But our local farmer's market, which is open year-round, makes it less necessary for us. However, I see the benefit of getting the produce delivered and being forced (in a good way) to try new things! Because even at the farmer's market in summer, you can get into a rut...

Annie the Superfast Reader said...

We just joined a CSA ourselves, and the vegetables are delicious! Wish I'd done this sooner.

Great blog!