Monday, March 9, 2009

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

Summary: "As the U.S. population made an unprecedented mad dash for the Sun Belt, one carload of us paddled against the tide, heading for the Promised Land where water falls from the sky and green stuff grows all around. We were about to being the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain.

"Naturally, our first stop was to buy junk food and fossil fuel..."

Hang on for the ride: With characteristic poetry and pluck, Barbara Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along their journey away from thee industrial-food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. Their good-humored search yields surprising discoveries about turkey sex life and overly zealous zucchini plants, en route to a food culture that's better for the neighborhood and also better on the table. Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle makes a passionate case for putting the kitchen back at the center of family life and diversified farms at the center of the American diet.

"This is the story of a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals, and vegetables whose provenance we really knew...and of how our family was changed by our first year of deliberately eating food produced from the same place where we worked, went to school, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air."  (Summary from book - Image from

My Review:

WARNING: This book will make you want to rent a rototiller and chop up your whole backyard so that you can have the kind of fresh produce Kingsolver waxes poetic about. You’ll also probably be struck with the desperate urge to raise your own chickens…and maybe buy a goat. Proceed with caution...

I decided to read this book when my former boss (a campus bookstore manager) mentioned it was the big thing on campus. As a general rule, if she recommends a book it's pretty darn good, so I opened this book expecting to be blown away...and I was.

Barbara Kingsolver, a self-described locavore, is one heck of a writer. I've yet to read her other books but I was very impressed at her ability to both entertain and inform. Kingsolver's recipes sound divine, as well as healthy. My favorite chapter, Zucchini Larceny, kept me giggling throughout with its descriptions of tone-deaf roosters, nympho turkeys and a staggering abundance of squash. I laughed hysterically over her descriptions of turkey sex (and that one had a desperate crush on her husband) and was shocked to discover the 2 billion things that I didn't know about agriculture. Seriously—nearly every page of this book taught me something I’d either never heard before or never understood about nutrition, agriculture, history, or cooking. I fully admit that I am part of the generation Kingsolver describes, that knows little to nothing about farming or agricultural basics concerning when food comes into season, when it can be planted, and how to care for and preserve it. I thought an "heirloom" was a brand of vegetable. I didn't think the word meant anything.

Here's a taste of a few facts that I learned reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Did you know...
  • At any given meal, if you look down at your meal, each item will have traveled an average of 1500 miles to get to your plate...that's 1500 miles PER ITEM?!? That's a lot of fossil fuel.
  • Chickens can legally be called "free range" if they have a small yard to run in, even if they are crammed into a house with 20,000 other chickens and never go through the door into the yard?
  • By insisting on having better-looking, longer lasting, cheaper foods year round we have essentially "convenienced" the taste right out of our food? The really tasty foods aren't as pretty to look at or just can't withstand the rigors of cross-country travel--so we don't get them.
  • Most plant varieties are patented and seed sales are controlled by six companies that genetically alter them to be bug or pesticide resistant? They also alter them to commit a type of seed suicide at the end of every growing season, making farmers purchase new seed yearly from, you guessed it, the seed industry.
  • Pineapples grow from the ground? I had no idea.
  • Pesticides, when applied to a crop, essentially kill all bugs that are susceptible to it, but leave behind heartier bugs that go on to produce heartier offspring. The pesticides also kill off many of the bugs natural predators. Sounds potential problematic, doesn't it?
I recognize that Kingsolver is writing about her personal experience and her own beliefs and, as such, is likely to present a somewhat biased view of the situation. I tried reading her book with that in mind but found that most of her arguments for purchasing/eating locally were well thought out--and sort of common-sense. Kingsolver obviously wanted to share her experience, but she also wanted to pass along some fairly pertinent information and to create within the reader a desire to know more about the food they eat. 

There are many people in the world, including myself, who live from paycheck to paycheck.  Price is important and often a determining factor in what we purchase. This book helped me see that there is a difference between PRICE and actual COST. When I take all of the cost into account, I’m not entirely certain that buying beautiful, long lasting, easily packable, tasteless, and pesticide covered produce is the way to go, even if it is less expensive.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent reading AVM. When I closed the cover, I felt a bit enlightened. While, I don’t know if I will ever be able to make all the changes that Kingsolver does, I do know that reading this book has altered how I look at food—before I put it in my mouth, on my table, or in my shopping cart. It's definitely worth your time.

Incidentally, if you have read and liked this book you might also like In Defense of Food by Michael Pollen.

My Rating: 5 stars. I really enjoyed this book. I've talked about it with pretty much everyone I've come into contact with the last few days and have already recommended it to several people who I know will appreciate it.

Sum it up: Some tasty food for thought.

1 comment:

Jillian said...

I love this book, too. If you still haven't read other books by her, the fictional (but based on some actual events, stretched) Poisonwood Bible was quite good. I finished it in two days--with kids running around. ;)


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