Sunday, March 08, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year Of Food Life - Barbara Kingsolver

A few years ago, Barbara Kingsolver and her family decided to leave Arizona, where Kingsolver had been based for about 25 years, and move to her husband's farm in southern Appalachia. They also determined at that time that they would eat locally -- either grow/raise their own produce/livestock or buy it from neighboring farmers right in their own county. This decision came from their growing concern that a staggering amount of oil goes into bringing food to consumers --all the way from the tractors in the farms to the trucks and airplanes that get the food to the grocery stores.

When you read Barbara Kingsolver, you're in for a good scolding; she tends to be a little preachy. In this case, I'm using good in the conventional sense as well as a synonym for "thorough". About 99% of what she says is nothing but truth and sensible to boot. Plus, she put her money where her mouth is by embarking on a year-long journey of living off the land. Her account of this time makes for captivating reading -- good solid reportage combined with memoir.

Kingsolver's co-authors are also rich with insights. Her husband, Steven L. Hopp, an environmental studies professor provides succinct and informative sidebars pertaining to Kingsolver's narrative in each chapter. Kingsolver's college-age daughter, Camille, who plans to study nutrition in graduate school, gives her take on the experiment (very positive and encouraging) and includes dozens of recipes, many of which she created in her family's kitchen. They all scan deliciously as well as healthfully.

Kingsolver's younger daughter Lily, an elementary-schooler, was "too young to sign a book contract", but her contribution to the year of food life was significant. She raised chickens organically, helping to provide her family with extra sustenance via poultry and eggs ("about 50 dozen", notes Kingsolver) as well as generating some income for herself by selling eggs to the neighbors. Those are also Lily's hands on the cover of the book, holding those gorgeous Christmas lima beans, an heirloom variety.

In the middle of their food year, Barbara and Steven visit Italy for about a month. Kingsolver's account of the trip focuses on restaurants and farms throughout the country. Not surprisingly, eating locally is a way of life there rather than something that one must consciously decide to do. Readers should find the Italians' passion for food -- growing, gathering, preparing and eating -- wonderfully compelling reading.

The family also decides to raise turkeys, so Kingsolver has a hilarious chapter about turkey sex and the subsequent results. She can come off as a little holier-than-thou, but she's equally adept at telling a good story on herself, which is an admirable quality. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle also includes an excellent bibliography and a long list of resources regarding eating locally and the "Slow Food" movement.

I often find myself missing certain western foods like crazy, but AVM brought me up short. I'm ashamed to admit that I've helped to contribute to the huge cost of food transportation and the squandering of vital resources. In AVM, a large part of Kingsolver's ire is focuses on, of all things, the importing of bananas. To her credit, I've only eaten one banana since reading her book and I didn't enjoy it!

Although I finished this book in January, AVM still has me thinking about the parallels between Korean and Italian food. Koreans take great pride in their distinctive cuisine and many, if not all cities and/or provinces are famed for a particular food which is celebrated with its own festival when it's in season.

In addition, much of Korean food preparation is labor-intensive and there is especial care taken with the look and presentation that would seem like Martha Stewart-like fussiness to most Americans, but it shows a deep connection and appreciation for where the food came from and the traditions that accompany it.

I haven't done a complete 180 since reading AVM (there are still those stubborn dark longings for Quizno's) but my eyes have been somewhat opened and now when I eat Korean food, I'm curious. I long to have a conversation about the origins of my meal. If the Koreans and I could communicate fluently, I'm almost positive that they'd be happy and proud to inform and educate me. My sincere appreciate for their cuisine may be the very thing that springboards me into getting serious about learning Korean.


Jeane said...

I loved this book. It really encourage me to start a small vegetable garden.

Chrisbookarama said...

I like the idea but I'd be eating ice and dirt for 6 months of the year. I don't think I'd put us all in danger of scurvy.

Tara said...

I really enjoyed reading this book, but obviously for most people the level Kingsolver goes to is unattainable. Like Chris, I would be pretty hungry here in MN for most of the year if I only ate locally.

Anonymous said...

I really loved this book too!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

This is one of the few books I actually purchased and plan to keep. Of course, that doesn't mean I've READ it yet ... it is still sitting on the shelf since last summer. But I really WANT to read it, so I guess that counts for something. :)

Anonymous said...

Terrific review!

myza said...

I love Barbara Kingsolver - Every book I have read by her has been a treat. I haven't picked this one up yet...English books are hard to come by in Turkey.

Living in a foreign country means that most of the time you have no idea where your food is coming from. I promised myself that when I moved back to Canada I would start buying local (or organic) and move more towards the vegetarian I was before I moved to Korea. Butthen I moved to Turkey and I pretty much just eat what I am given! Maybe my next move will be more sustainable.

jenclair said...

I MUST get around to reading this one. I've enjoyed most of Kingsolver's books, but for some reason, have not followed through with this one. Great review, Bybee.

Susan said...

I have to read this book. I think I've been avoiding it because of her preachiness, which I've heard other people say too about it. I also eat as much local as I can, and I eat organic foods Chris, this would be the time of year for rotten wormy apples and yucky meat if it were pioneer days, so I still say power to the oil companies - some long-distance food isn't bad, if it keeps those economies going. It's not an easy debate, but since we can't grow bananas here or there in Korea, is it bad to eat only because it's driven by oil there? what about when sailboats were used? You see, this is why I haven't read it, I'd end up in a huge argument in my head with the author!!! I do like your review. One day I will pick this up!

Jeanne said...

I love what you say about her preachiness, and putting her money where her mouth is--I agree, it makes the preachiness more palatable.

After I read this book, I started looking for more local food. It's not just ice and dirt, northerners; I get local beef, lamb and eggs all winter. In the summer I get produce from a CSA.

But we also order pizza every Friday night!

Gentle Reader said...

I loved this book, too, and it opened my eyes as well. I now try to grow more vegetables at home, but Kingsolver sets the bar so high, I still feel a little inadequate when I harvest my ten string beans and twenty tomatoes :)