Saturday, February 5, 2011

just finished: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

This week, I finished this lovely book. I'm a bit behind on the bandwagon, but I'm glad I finally got around to it: finishing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle left me feeling challenged and alive and hopeful.

The book is Kingsolver's account of a year's experiment in local eating. She, along with her husband and two daughters, set out to fully occupy their Virginia land, gardening and raising animals, canning and freezing, cooking from scratch, and purchasing what they could not make (with a few exceptions) from sources as nearby as possible. It's a beautifully written narrative, combining experience and research. Kingsolver's husband Steven Hopp provides succinct (and sometimes zingy) sidebars on the politics and science of U.S. food economics, and her daughter Camille ends many of the chapters with a young person's perspective and suggested recipes.

This is the sort of book that makes me long for a bit of land, a laundry line, a nice wide pantry, a chest freezer. Its compelling writing and solid argumentation leave me wondering how most of us continue to deceive ourselves that our participation in widespread profit-driven food practices has no lasting negative effects. The book doesn't browbeat, but it certainly leaves me with a heavy sense of my responsibility--our responsibility--as well as our possibilities. Does our attachment to convenient, out-of-season, processed, cheap foods in the U.S. damage our own health, the health of soil, the health of local economies (in the States and across the globe), the health of global economies, the health of vulnerable migrant workers, and the health of the planet--thus the health of our children and theirs? Absolutely. Are we all free to up and leave our urban or suburban lives to go claim a bit of homestead? Not really. But are there things we can do? Absolutely.

My takeaway, at a time of year when snowy winds howl outside my third-floor windows, and I can't exactly take up container gardening on my back fire escape or visit a bustling farmers market, is that I absolutely can

(1) seek to purchase foods from local sources (the Illinois or Wisconsin dairy products, the Michigan apples, bread from the local bakery instead of Target, even the canned goods processed nearby)
(2) seek to purchase foods that have been minimally processed (as these require the least fuel for processing and delivery) -- dried beans rather than canned, for instance
(3) seek to purchase well-raised meats (which means, of course, that J and I eat far less of it on our limited budget--but we've been headed in this direction for a long time anyway).

During the summer, our options are broader: last year we participated in a CSA program, as well as a bit of back porch gardening (our most successful endeavor was basil, though we've had a some success with lettuce). Our neighborhood also now offers a Sunday farmers' market during the warmer months.

The morning I finished the book, before the impending snow storm, I snow-booted my way over to the market for a few things: cabbage, carrots, parsnips, beets, onions, potatoes. I was proud of my choices of (mostly) cold-weather storage crops, all set to cook for the next few days. I practically patted myself on the back for passing up bananas, pineapples, and tomatoes.

But then, as I surveyed the produce section, my gaze was arrested by a woman whose caramel hands caressed first one avocado, gently pressing its pebbly skin, and then another. This woman knew her avocados. This woman was not from the blizzardy Midwestern United States: she was from somewhere further south, somewhere nearer the equator and the sun. An avocado in her hand whispered home. It meant grandmothers' recipes and good memories and delicious soft familiarity.

One of Kingsolver's strong points in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the importance of food culture linked to a particular place and people, the weather and land, the seasons and crops, the culture and life. She delivers a biting (and I think fair) critique of U.S. food culture as fast, convenient, and fake. Because we are a nation made up, in large part, of transplanted people, we have pockets of transplanted food culture (Italian, for instance, or Mexican), but very few strong and lasting traditions based on particular places in the U.S. Shouldn't what one eats and how one cooks in Michigan be different from what one eats and how one cooks in southern California? (It really doesn't help that we displaced and decimated those who had established food traditions related to these lands when we colonized them.)

I feel compelled, as the great-great-granddaughter of Polish and German and who-knows-what-all-else immigrants, as a woman with the privilege and leisure to research food sources and recipes, as a follower along a Way of peace and justice, to take responsibility--to whatever extent I can--for my participation in the messed up systems of eating and agriculture in the United States. I must follow my conscience with my meal planning, my grocery bags, and my wallet. But can I judge the immigrant who preserves her own food culture, her sense of identity and home, with goods transported from who-knows-where and grown under who-knows-what conditions? Can I raise my eyebrows at the refugee for whom vegetables from another hemisphere signify life and hope?

I cannot.

These are complicated issues, and complex questions, and long-distance produce transports are hardly the only question here. But as I've written about before, what about the extra time it takes to cook from scratch, or garden, or preserve food? How feasible is the move to increase our domestic labor loads within present social structures, and what other injustices might come about as a result (particularly gender work imbalance)? What thoughts do you, dear readers, have on these topics? What choices do you feel good about? What tips or resources can you recommend?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I have to say, there are few things more rewarding than eating food grown with the assistance of your own hands in your own little bit of earth (plotted or potted). This year, my garden will expand in variety and space, moving to the back yard, though the hardest part about it is the time. We (as a society) work too much. I think that the time to grow our own food can be easily reclaimed from the many useless things that occupy it at present.

  3. mmm... yes, time. Time is precisely what we've all lost track of. We're so busy with our artificial lights and clocks and year-round produce trying to live outside of time. Perhaps its not that we don't have time, but that we don't value time, nor the work that forces us to live within it and submit to/admit to it's effects. But I think that's why God gave humanity garden-work in the first place, it was more than a primitive evolution into agrarian lifestyle. It was a gift. Or that's my theory anyway.

    Thanks for this! I want to read this book!