Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

We're hunkering down for an alleged storm that continues to deny all charges. Maybe it'll lose it's appeal tonight at last.

So I figured since we're tucked away cozily in our home for the night I'd share my thoughts on the last book I finished, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle , her nonfiction account of the year her family ate almost exclusively food grown locally to their new home back in the Appalachian mountain south.

Now, I have to admit that I adore Kingsolver. Her Poisonwood Bible was a revelation to me. It was the first time I REALLY got cultural relativism and the deep disparities between the worlds all we humans live in. The funny thing is, I remember feeling daunted as I stared at the tome I had to read in about four days for the final week of a multi-culti lit course in college. About an hour into reading it, I was hooked, walking with it spread between my hands on my way to the bus stop. I consumed that book.

And then there's The Bean Trees, which I have read probably ten times through now, because I taught it to 10th and 9th graders. They LOVED hearing their teacher say "pecker" and explain why a "blond Paul McCartney" would be hot, during our shared reading of the first half a chapter, and that got them hooked. I love how this book is pretty much the perfect novel, and full of vigor and life to boot.

I've read other works by Kingsolver, and her Small Miracle clued me in to her political leanings (I also used to include "Household Words" in my American Lit class's study of Frost's "The Hired Man" and our whole discussion of the reality of the American Dream and individualism and all that). I rediscovered this book of essays last year and, being very pregnant, enjoyed her takes on motherhood, like the story about the lost child saved when a bear breastfeeds her, why Kingsolver doesn't watch TV, her letter to her daughter, and her take on the continuum of violence ("Life is precious, or it's not" she sums up so simply. I'd love to use that when I teach with Bowling for Columbine again someday).

So I had gotten to know Kingsolver a little bit by the time I hitched along for the story of her year in local food. And I was biased to trust her research and give her opinions and persuasions a good hearing.

So on to the actual book in question:

Kingsolver organizes her account by explaining how her family moved from Arizona back to the more fertile south, preparing to live on what they could raise or buy locally, beginning their adventure in April, which sounds lovely and spring like to me, but apparently means snow and just the beginnings of greenery for them. She explains their course through eating in season with ingenious precision: she asks us to imagine a plant that represents all food you can grow to eat, and mark the life of that one plant-- shoots, leaves, flowers, fruits, hardening fruits... and each food we eat corresponds to this. So they eat asparagus in the spring, and then lots of leafy greens, and then fruits ranging from early ones like peaches all the way to melons and squash and pumpkins. This illustrated powerfully and precisely the way we make use of various plants as food. The one thing I felt funny about while reading this book was all the times she referred to how, SURE, you can get cucumber all year from California, if you want to spend the fossil fuels and resources on shipping it here. Well, I live in California, raised in the northern valley and now in the Edenic southern bit with farms sprawling between mountains and beach. So at least I was getting that eating local foods would be even more do-able for me here in this wonderland of year-round fruit.

Kingsolver delves into gripping research on the toll of the fossil-fuel guzzling distance-food industry, the ubiquity of corn in processed foods and the power of the corn and soy industries, the utter horrors of factory farming of meat, the tragic endangered species status of heirloom strains of both plants and animals (which tend to be heartier, taste better, and be more nutritious than those bred for mass consumption and long distance travel in the factory farms of today), and the burgeoning vigor of the small organic farm movement. It is clear that she passionately identifies with farmers (the real farmers on family farms) and dissects their status (invisible? a joke?) in the USA. But she also delves into lush descriptions of her family's backyard farm, as it were, and her bustling kitchen, with the weeding, the planting, the chopping, the canning, the cooking, and the eating! This book will make you hungry, and for freshly cooked whole foods. She also takes us along on two trips, up the eastern coast with her whole family, as they seek out local foods in different locales, including eating at a local-food cruelty-free diner, and then all the way to Italy with just Barbara and hubby/co-author Hopp, where she shows us how it's all really meant to be, when it comes to big cities and the local farms fanning out around them.

Hopp and daughter Camille offer more hard data/web resources and delightful menu ideas and recipes, respectively. And the littlest Kingsolver, Lily, offers a delightful character who runs an egg business with all the strategy of a CEO.

I enjoyed this book. It made me think, it scared me, and it gave me hope. It made me act. And it made me hungry!


Leslie said...

Nicely put, as always! I've tried the cheese making with less than wonderful results...all our milk (even the organic that says NOT ultra pasteurized on it) does the made-with -ultrapasteurized clumping thing. By next summer I want home made mozzarella with my home grown tomatoes and basil!

Leanne said...

I was thinking of that experience you shared with me when I got to that part of the book. Mmmm that sounds good! The warmth of a summer day is totally part of that recipe, no? :)

Thanks for lending me the book, Nonna!

Hippie Housewife said...

Very interesting review. :)