Sunday, October 12, 2008

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Barbara Kingsolver (with contributions from Camille Kingsolver and Steven Hopp)
c2007 Harper Collins, 400 pgs.

For dinner tonight, I had two slices of sausage and pepperoni pizza, washed down with a Oreo blizzard from Dairy Queen (an extreme example, but it could be a homecooked meal and it would still make the same point). The sauce on the pizza was potentially made from tomatoes grown in China, responsible for 1/4 of the world's output. The cheese on the pizza and milk in the ice cream may have come from cows in California, or far away Wisconsin. Not knowing what specific brand or type of sausage and pepperoni Papa Murphy's chooses to festoon their pizzas with, I can't be certain where the meats came from, but the lack of livestock roaming the hills of northern Washington leads me to believe they didn't come from around here. Needless to say, had I not been engrossed in the book featured in this review, I would not have given my dinner a second thought - except perhaps to contemplate a third slice.

Thinking about and being aware of where your food comes from is only one aim of Barbara Kingsolver's most recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Kingsolver is a well-known novelist (begin with The Poisonwood Bible, and go from there), so when I saw her latest on a table at Barnes and Noble, I was curious what a fiction writer would have to say about a year's worth of food. The book is essentially a year of Kingsolver's life; quoting from the book, "This is the story of a year in which we [she and her family] made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew...". Basically, using a lot of family gardening know how, some helpful rural connections, and extensive use of local farmer's markets, the Kingsolver family swore off Pop-Tarts and grocery store ground beef for a year, choosing to provide their bodies with only food that they knew had been grown or tended in a healthy way - healthy for the animal or vegetable, the environment, and the humans consuming it. They have some ups and downs, but by the end, the family celebrates their success. Kingsolver chronicles their year with educational information on food and farming; statistical information substantiating the idea that eating locally is better for your diet, wallet, waist, children, and planet; anecdotes about turkey sex and cheese making; and thought-provoking information about the priorities most Americans have and how our food choices seem too often in contradiction with every other goal we have in life.

For those of you who know me well, you might be wondering at this point how or why I read this entire book, basically encouraging a lifestyle I am not only completely unqualified to subscribe to, but also probably not really interested in. In the past, I've been known to use the word "organic" as a slur, and vegetables usually arrive in my body via ketchup, pie, or mistake. However, I am turning over a new leaf - figuratively and literally! Why this change of heart? Well, several reasons: 1) for budgeting reasons, I am trying to force NavyGuy (and myself) to eat homecooked meals more often, requiring actual cooking, not just radiating Lean Cuisines; 2) in an attempt to retain my youthful physique (for health reasons solely, I would never be so vain as to want to be super fit and hot for the upcoming wedding...); 3) doctors claim that injesting vegetables and other healthy alternatives will improve your overall health and wellness, and they're probably right; and 4) I can't figure out any rational downsides to this idea. Additionally, this book is incredibly convincing; reading it inspires a person to want to cook more, to shop more discriminately; to be more patient, and to search out quality instead of quantity (or our modern equivalent - the cheapest/fastest option).

Kingsolver is not a rabid environmentalist or an angry farmer ranting about the big corporations who are killing the small family farm (she rants a few times, but that's just good writing). She doesn't expect the majority of readers to start their own gardens in the backyard or survive just on roots and grasses for life. She simply wants people to be more involved in what they put in their mouths - where the food came from, whether it has any nutritional value, etc. It is difficult to summarize all of the issues covered in the book, but when you stop to think about it, food and the act of eating is really a "current event" that impacts everyone on a daily basis; it connects to countless issues in society - environmental concerns, food costs, transportation costs, childhood obesity - even family values. Kingsolver gives a wonderful sound bite about the irony of how many Americans complicate their attempts to provide a healthy lifestyle for their children:

"Family time is at a premium for most of us, and legitimate competing interests can easily crowd out cooking. But if grabbing fast food is the only way to get the kids to their healthy fresh-air soccer practice on time, that's an interesting call."
Throughout the book, Kingsolver refrains from sounding preachy or condescending, which I appreciated. Obviously, I'm not going to go out and start only eating locally produced food; Nabisco and General Mills will still have my business. Krispy Kreme and Qdoba can still count me in their quarterly profits. But, I can take small steps - the other day, instead of buying pre-cut, bagged baby carrots, I bought a regular bunch of full length, un-cleaned, fresh from the ground, carrots. Sure, I have to clean them and peel them and cut them and sort them into my own small baggies, but it felt kind of good! Plus, I finally got to use the cute vegetable peeler I bought at Target four years ago. Did it take a little more time? Yes. Did I do it while I watching a television show I would have normally been sitting on my ass watching? Yes. Did I save a little money? Yes. Do I feel better? Yes.

I could also try the Anacortes Farmer's Market this coming weekend and see what kind of fall vegetables I can find. Another major point in the book is to eat things in season, instead of paying a premium for fruits and vegetables that are not meant to be harvested in October in the northern hemisphere. Not only do, for instance asparagus or artichokes, cost more in the fall, but according to her, they just plain do not taste as good out of season. She brilliantly points out how our instant-gratitication culture has forced us to do away with all normal growing seasons:
"The main barrier standing between ourselvs and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint - virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. These virtues seem to find precious little shelter, in fact, in any modern quarter of this nation founded by Puritans. Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal conditions (the story goes), will they know its true value. 'Blah blah blah' hears the teenager: words issueing from a mouth that can't even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now."
The beginning of the book takes a little while to rev up; there's a lot of vegetable explanations and for a novice, it's a lot to absorb. Kingsolver's explanation ("picture a single imaginary plant, bearing throughout one season all the different vegetables we harvest...") of a "vegetannual" helps create a visual mnemonic device for remembering when different plants are in season (left). Regardless of your political feelings, beliefs about climate change, or personal food tastes, I would strongly urge each of you to read this book (or if not, at least carefully read the excerpts I've included below and in a following post). Living in an urban area, struggling on a limited budget, or having any specific dietary regulations are all challenges to changing the way you eat; the most difficult obstacle to overcome though is willpower and attitude. I am certainly not trying to guilt trip any of you into avoiding Pick'n'Save; I will still be eating pizza at least once a week. It's quick, it's easy, and I almost never mess it up. However, there's nothing wrong with me buying an actual onion or pepper to chop up and add to the basic pizza though... food for thought? :)

I have two special recommendations. Farmer's Wife - not only do I think you would find this book fascinating (based on your green thumb and obvious occupational connections), but I'd be curious to hear your opinion knowing what you know about dairy farming, etc. YellowBunny Girl - you may find this book helpful from a dietary standpoint. There are countless recipes in the book (and on their accompanying website) that would probably work well with your food restrictions.

Additional bits from the book that stuck out to me and/or made me think:

"In two generations we've transformed ourselves from a rural to an urban nation. North American children begin their school year around Labor Day and finish at the beginning of June with no idea that this arrangement was devised to free up children's labor when it was needed on the farm. Most people of my grandparents' generation had an intuitive sense of agricultural basics: when various fruits and vegetables come into season, which ones keep through the winter, how to preserve the others... Few people of my generation, and approximately none of our children, [know this]. This knowledge has vanished from our culture.

"We also have largely convinced ourselves it wasn't too important. Consider how Americans might respond to a proposal that agriculture was to become a mandatory subject in all schools, alongside reading and mathematics... The baby boom psyche embraces a powerful presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt - two undeniable ingredients of farming. It's good enough for us that somebody, somewhere, knows food production well enough to serve the rest of us with all we need to eat, each day of our lives.

"If that is true, why isn't it good enough for someone else to know multiplication and the contents of the Bill of Rights? Is the story of bread from tilled ground to our table, less relevant to our lives than the history of the thirteen colonies? Couldn't one make a case for the relevance of a subject that informs choices we make daily - as in, What's for dinner? Isn't ignorance of our food sources causing problems as diverse as overdependence on petroleum, and an epidemic of diet-related diseases?
I leave you to hem and haw over this tidbit. It was the first page I folded down in the book, and I'll post more excerpts from the book soon. If you're interested in more info now, check out the accompanying website: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.


Anonymous,  October 13, 2008 at 3:39 PM  

This sounds like a great book! Thanks for the summary, I may have to check it out!

I have to say that the hippies, or should I say liberals, or should I say health nuts (healthiest city in the US?), here in Boulder actually have forced the demand for local and organic foods enough that when you go to the local pick n' save (here, King Soopers or Safeway), you actually have a choice right in front of you. It doesn't take any extra effort to eat locally or organically (well, except that CO has a semi-arid climate and limited crop growth). It's unfortunate that this isn't the case in places like Wisconsin. I have a hard time eating when I go home (and I'm dreading living there again). As I've learned to eat gluten-free here I've definitely given up most processed foods (they all have wheat!), which eliminates a lot of the bad stuff you speak of. I DO like the new idea of eating seasonal foods. It sounds like a fun challenge!

From an environmental point of view, it's scary to start calculating your carbon footprint based on the gasoline it took to get the various ingredients in your pizza to your dining table (not to mention the energy to actually grow the stuff and fertilize/pesticide it). I used to do this calculation with my environment and culture students for my morning cup of Starbucks (soy latte). Scary stuff! It's awful that the U.S. has taken this route with no thoughts of the environment or our own personal health.

~YellowBunny Girl

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