Friday, February 06, 2009

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is part memoir, part treatise/meditation on sustainable agriculture and ethical eating. In it, she recounts a year-long experiment in which she and her family opted out of the industrial food chain, eating only what they could grow or raise themselves on their Virginia farm, or purchase from their neighbours, save for a very few fair trade indulgences (coffee, hot chocolate and spices such as cinnamon and turmeric) shipped from afar. Kingsolver explains the endeavour and something of the motivation behind it thus:

This is the story of a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew. We tried to wring most of the petroleum out of our food chain, even if it meant giving up some things. Our highest shopping goal was to get our food from so close to home, we'd know the person who grew it. Often that turned out to be us, as we learned to produce more of what we needed, starting with dirt, seeds, and enough knowledge to muddle through. Or starting with baby animals and enough sense to refrain from naming them.

The experiment was very much a family affair and so too is the book. It contains sidebars by Kingsolver’s husband, biologist Steven L. Hopp, on relevant aspects of environmental science, the food industry and legal regulation thereof, and local food activism, and occasional short essays by daughter Camille offering up a teenage perspective on the experience as well as seasonal menus and recipes. But the primary voice is Kingsolver's and a very engaging voice it is. I've read a few books in this vein that suffer from an excess of earnestness and a dearth of writing skill. Kingsolver, by contrast, has produced a smart, funny, thought-provoking, and highly evocative book.

A good bit of it is devoted to a day-to-day, season-by-season, nuts and bolts description of the small-scale farming that brought food to their table. In the introduction, Kingsolver is quick to say of this aspect of the book that it is not intended as a "how-to," and making a case for the relevance of it to urbanites like me who lack the resources or the inclination to contemplate growing our own dinners:

...think of the agricultural parts of the story as a music-appreciation course for food—acquainting yourself with the composers and conductors can improve the quality of your experience. [...] Knowing how foods grow is to know how and when to look for them; such expertise is useful for certain kinds of people, namely, the ones who eat, no matter where they live or grocery shop.

But it turns out that I didn't need to be convinced on utilitarian grounds. The agricultural parts of the story proved to be my favourite parts. They're beautifully written and were frequently something of a revelation to me. Early on, when I found myself reading a lengthy bit about asparagus (pages 26-29 of the hardcover edition) aloud to Eric, it was clear that I was hooked. I've been enjoying asparagus for years but I had not previously so much as pictured how it looks in the ground. Ditto for peanuts. I was so taken with Kingsolver's description of cheese making that I'm contemplating learning how to do it myself despite being borderline lactose intolerant and not even slightly domestic. And who would have thought that there could be such suspense in a tale of turkey mating? The book was truly a pleasure from beginning to end. I highly recommend it.

Soup of the Day: Today's soup was a delicious Lentil and Carrot, made from a recipe in Cooking With Foods That Fight Cancer. It's the third soup recipe from this book that I've tried that has produced stellar results (the other winners are Cuban Black Bean, and Mediterranean Bean) and the Shepherd's Pie proved excellent also. This book is a companion to another that explains the cancer-fighting properties of the various foods that figure in the recipes, Foods That Fight Cancer. I haven't yet read the nutritional science behind it all, so for now I'm recommending the recipes simply on the basis of deliciousness with the healthiness factor in the background as a potential added bonus.

Next Friday: A post on Harvey Levenstein's Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, a most interesting social history of eating in the U.S. that spans the apparently pivotal years of 1880-1930.


Kailana said...

Man, I have an ARC of this book and I still haven't read it! Very slack of me!

Suko said...

Very interesting post, Kate. I rely heavily on the convenience of supermarket shopping (although I do believe in buying organic within the constraints of a reasonable food budget, and buying with a conscience) but Kingsolver's book sounds fascinating. With so many food oriented books on the market, thanks for presenting some good "food for thought".

Anonymous said...

I have heard so many good things about this book. I am gonna have to pick it up.

sassymonkey said...

When I finished reading this I was ready to go and buy 40 acres of farm land and live off of it. Common sense (and my bank account) prevailed and I settle for attempting to grow herbs (black thumb, that's me good thing I didn't buy a farm) and buying from the local farmers market. I think this book, more so than the 100 Mile Diet or even The Omnivore's Dilemma, was what made me *get* buying local.

Now only if spring would come back so we can get back to the farmers market. sigh.