Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, may be a memoir, but it is far from light reading. Phew. I thought I was familiar with all the horrors of the food industry from having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really makes it hit home. It is the story of how Kingsolver and her family embark on a year of growing and raising almost all of their own food, and obtaining the rest from as local as possible sources. They are lucky enough to own a farm in Virginia, and thus had the setting to make such an experiment work. Along the way, they comment on many of the ironies and horrific practices of the food industry. Despite the at times depressing content, the book is wonderfully well-written, with plenty of humor and entertaining passages. I recommend it! If you want to know more about the content of the book and my reflections on what I can do differently, read on.

Barbara Kingsolver and her husband and daughter make the eloquent point that we Americans have become extremely detached from the very thing that sustains us, and that there is much to be gained in rediscovering food from the source. One thing that I had thought about before but had never quite sunk in was how very strange it is for it to be snowing outside but to be able to go to the grocery store and buy fresh lettuce. Our industrialized food system has removed from us the need to know when different fruits and vegetables are in season; fresh fruits and vegetables of all sorts are transported from all over the world to allow us to have things like fresh lettuce in January in Colorado. The enormous environmental impact of this process of moving food around (not to mention the conventional methods of growing the produce, with oil-based fertilizers and pesticides) is highly ignored in our society. As Kingsolver says, “The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.”

Kingsolver goes beyond the lower environmental impact of eating locally, however. Going into their experiment, her family anticipated deprivation, as many people would: no peaches in April, no lettuce in January, etc. However, they discovered that the pleasures of eating fresh produce in season far surpassed the deprivations. Asparagus grown locally and eaten fresh in April tastes far better than asparagus grown halfway across the country in January (note, I did in fact see asparagus at the grocery store the other day, and I was not tempted to buy any). Winter was not a deprivation either: they canned tomatoes and froze many other vegetables and fruit when they were fresh, to eat all winter along with winter squashes and root vegetables that they stored in their root cellar. Furthermore, many of the fruits and vegetables they grew were heirloom breeds that are not found in the conventional grocery stores, and which have much greater variety and more flavorful taste than the ones that have been bred for the industrialized processes. Kingsolver makes a passionate and compelling case for cooking from scratch with fresh, local ingredients and reconnecting to the source of our sustenance.

So, am I going to make changes in my eating habits after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? I find that thinking about doing so is a little overwhelming. It is a far from easy thing to do, because the impact of continuing to buy non-local and conventionally-grown food is not tangible. I know, intellectually, that it is having a negative impact that I do not like, but it is easy to disconnect my knowledge of that from my actions and continue to buy that broccoli in January that was grown conventionally in California – in fact, it takes a purposeful effort to make the connection and change my habits because of it. Furthermore, it is difficult to get good information about how sustainably grown something actually was. I know, especially from reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the big industrial organic companies are sometimes only marginally better than conventional ones – and that they continue to push for loosening of the organic rules.

Kingsolver does point out, thankfully, that the middle of winter is probably not the right time to start thinking about eating more locally. She is right. My town has a fabulous farmer’s market that runs from the beginning of April through the end of October. I do make an effort to buy much of my produce from the farmer’s market during those months, although I don’t succeed 100%. I am thinking that this year perhaps I should try freezing more fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market for use during the winter. Canning scares me (and I don’t have the equipment for it), but freezing is simple and, although my freezer is not that big, currently it is usually not very full. I would also like to stock up on locally grown winter squashes and root vegetables in the fall, but I am not sure I have the proper place to store them long-term, that would be the right temperature and humidity. The final change I am thinking about looking into is a local source for milk and eggs. We eat a lot of both and it seems so illogical to transport them great distances (and, I would much prefer to know that they came from free-range cows and hens raised and treated in a sustainable and humane manner).

A final thought on changing my habits: I am going to make an effort not to feel guilty, but to just remain aware of things and make changes in one area at a time when it feels doable. So many factors in the structure of our society are against eating locally and sustainably, so it takes more effort and time, at least initially, than just going to Safeway and buying anything I want. I only have so much time and effort, so I can only do so much. The most important thing that I must remind myself, the reason that the effort is worth making and the time worth spending, is that we are talking about what we put in to our bodies. Food is the very core of our existence and we should not take it lightly.

I will conclude my ruminations with a little admission. There are three items that I am highly unlikely to give up any time soon, even though I know that they are transported ridiculous distances to get to me: bananas, avocados, and chocolate. I just love them too much.

In case you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It will definitely make you think, and perhaps make you look at your grocery store a little differently the next time you go.

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