Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
Published by HarperCollins
370 pages, 2007
A Turkey for Your Thoughts
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle chronicles the Kingsolver-Hopp family's resolution to step off the petroleum grid for one year, eating only local, sustainably produced meats, fruits, and vegetables either from or near their Kentucky farm.
The journey begins literally, with the family -- biologist Steven L. Hopp, Barbara, 19-year-old Camille, and nine-year old Lily -- packing up their Tucson home and reverse migrating to Hopp's land. There the family cultivates vegetables and fruits, culls morels from a back field, and tends the asparagus patch. Lily raises chickens, displaying astonishing business acumen and a sure hand at her egg-selling enterprise. Bread and cheese making follow; amazingly, Kingsolver manages to breed turkeys. (More later on why this is amazing.)
Kingsolver writes the majority of the book, with Hopp adding informative sidebars on biodiversity, farming practices, agribusiness, real solutions for world hunger, and the political benefits (to some) of mass-produced foodstuffs. Camille's chapter-closing essays counter these sobering reports with humor, loving insight into her parents' seemingly outlandish food practices (home sausage making! canning!), wonderful recipes, and seasonal weekly meal plans.
The Kingsolver clan begins their local adventure in March. Fresh, local food selections are slim, and Kingsolver fears for the entire enterprise. But wet, muddy April brings asparagus, sending Barbara and Lily out into the rain, where they set out their seedling flats. As they are walking along, Lily spots a sure sign of spring: "Oh, Mama," Lily cried, "Look what's about to bloom -- the tranquils."
From here it's a long discussion of Seed Savers, genetically modified foods, and governmental complicity in getting as much corn syrup into every American man, woman, and child as possible. Why, Kingsolver asks, would any child prefer denatured broccoli shipped cross-country to an alluringly sweet soft drink? What reasonable child would eat badly prepared greens? What can consumers do to better enjoy their chard?
Kingsolver refrains from preaching even as she impresses upon the reader the need to buy local foods and shop farmer's markets. The Kingsolvers round out their home-grown foods with strawberries, honey, and rhubarb from their local farmers, keeping their food dollars close to home. In a state devastated by the demise of tobacco farming, this is more than a gesture toward personal well-being.
In a nation trained to consider convenience foods in lieu of seasonal shopping, menu planning, and regular cooking, Kingsolver's suggestions can sound heretical.
Camille writes of "... planning meals around whatever you have. This presents opportunities to get inventive in the kitchen and try new things .... How many spinach dishes can you have in one week without getting sick of it? When working with fresh ingredients, the answer is, a lot!"
She's right. But thinking about food and cooking this way -- eating seasonally, planning ahead -- is so antithetical to most Americans that those of us who do eat this way are considered food snobs or plain old weirdos.
Kingsolver and Hopp's analysis of CAFO meats -- the cows, pigs, and chickens most of us consume -- (CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) is enough to make the most vociferous carnivore contemplate vegetarianism. In lieu of giving up animal protein, the Kingsolvers tackle their meat problem by eating locally farmed, pasture-fed meats and raising Bourbon Red turkeys. They also, it must be noted, eat far less meat than many carnivorous American households. Those of us not raising chickens out back can seek out pasture-fed meats and poultry from farmer's markets, or, increasingly, in some markets. We'll pay more, but what price health, personal and planetary? Kingsolver points out that while few children need $120 basketball shoes, they all require adequate nutrition.
Kingsolver is a staunch advocate of home cookery. But most Americans, working long hours, are exhausted. Few live near fancy markets stocking organic arugula; it is all too easy to pick up take-out or defrost a frozen meal. Further, Kingsolver points out, kitchen work is a feminist issue, albeit a flawed one: finally allowed into the workplace, women are still coming home to the housework. Convenience foods have their insidious place in our overworked lives. And they are killing us.
August arrives with its vegetable bounty: the Kingsolvers begin
canning, freezing, drying, preserving. Those of us with apartment kitchens can only be envious, until we're told that local tomatoes (the treat of the year in my household) may be frozen whole and saved, like so many red, green, and gold croquet balls. It never occurred to me that such a thing was possible. A fresh (kind of), local tomato in my February soup? This is sacrifice?
At one point Barbara and Steven vacation in Italy, where good eating is considered a matter of course. Even the most pedestrian spots serve good food. This sounds odd only when one considers the sort of feed Americans expect, and receive, in most restaurants. For example, last week my husband and I traveled to southern California. All too familiar with the grim culinary offerings along I-5, I packed lunch: olives, cornichons, panini. Thus we feasted while fellow travelers ate the worst sorts of junk, purchased from the convenience markets where we all bought gasoline. Pretty depressing. Even more depressing was the "Prime Steakhouse" restaurant alongside an enormous, stinking ranch crammed with cows. The stench permeated the air for miles. How could people slice into their steaks without wondering about the "food" suffering only steps from their seats?
The book closes with a long passage about Kingsolver's Bourbon Reds reaching sexual maturity. Naturally mating domesticated turkeys are absent in this country: the demand for holiday-only white meat has reduced the once-vibrant population to mass-farmed, genetically modified creatures too fat to mate. Hens must be artificially inseminated. So when Kingsolver's "girls" begin acting oddly, she is forced to consult her husband's arcane book collection, hoping to find an agrarian manual old enough to help her facilitate a nearly-vanished natural process. Only a writer as skilled as Kingsolver can make you weepy as she agonizes over her hens, their gradually awakening mothering skills, the phenomenal moment when she holds a cracking turkey egg in her hand, the first glance at newly hatched, healthy chicks.
Until reading this book I considered myself (somewhat smugly) a good environmental citizen. I buy local foods, cook daily, recycle. But this book sent me into my kitchen, opening cupboards and yanking things from the freezer. I was shocked to find my pasta comes from Illinois and the hamburger buns are courtesy of Sara Lee. Crime and Punishment is shorter than the ingredient list on our favored brand of tortilla. The paper napkins and plastic supermarket bags are history; so are the wonderful quail, which come all the way from Montréal and don't even pretend to be all natural.
In my case, then, Kingsolver has succeeded in her attempt to sway the reader. We can only hope she is able to do so with others. | June 2007
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at http://barkingkitten.blogspot.com. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.