Rakel Evenson

Book Review

Kingsolver, Barbara, and Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

A year of food life is right. Barbara Kingsolver and her family, which consists of her husband, Steven, and two daughters, Camille and Lily, make a permanent decision to move from Tucson, Arizona to a small, unnamed town in Appalachia. In rising awareness that the desert was not meant to sustain a city growing past one million, the Kingsolver-Hopps moved permanently to an old farm that they had owned and lived on for many summers in order to live a sustainable life. They covenanted, in a way, with one another to eat food only grown and produced within their county. They then wrote this book about this year, if they were able to eat local for a whole twelve months, and what they learned along the way.

Beginning in April, when just a few vegetables are beginning to become harvestable, the Kingsolver-Hopps began their year. As a reader following their year, we learn a number of things from the Kingsolver-Hopp family, a number of things they have learned about vegetables, organic farming, making cheeses, allowing turkeys to mate, and how many canning jars their family of four needs on the shelves at the end of September. Scattered like seeds throughout the book are blurbs consisting of fun-factiodish type things by Steven Hopp. Camille Kingsolver also has a spot at the end of each chapter where she echoes what her mother, Barbara, just wrote, in her own words, and also shares multiple recipes containing the seasonal ingredients mentioned in the chapter—like asparagus, cheese, tomatoes, eggs, and cherries to name quite literally, just a few.

Linking all the vegetables together in the year is a fabricated all-encompassing vegetable by Barbara. She calls it vegetannual and describes it as, “a season of foods unfolding as if from one single plant.”(64). It is meant to mimic the growing season from the bottom up. First come things like spinach and lettuce, followed by broccoli and cauliflower; then cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, then melons, squash, and finally potatoes. The vegetables and the tomato receive the most attention from Barbara, but only because it seems their garden produces more of them than their orchards or melon patches.

Of significant note is asparagus and tomato. For Barbara, the asparagus, as the first of the garden fruits, exemplifies her solid point about patience. It is a food that takes a few years to prepare for harvest and then marks the beginning of fresh produce instead of canned in April. Eating local is about patience and not acting upon the knowledge that one in the U.S. culture be gratified by any food desire at any one time. She makes this point about eating according to seasons solidly when she writes,

The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint. . .Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message they should wait for sex, for example. . . We’re raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.” (31)

The tomato, on the other hand, seems to be Barbara’s entree into adoration and praise. It is the staple of so many meals in their home, as evidenced by the many recipes offered. It is also one of the fruits she uses to talk about seeds and their importance in the whole cycle of gardening. She uses special heirloom seeds, seeds that are “open-pollinated” and therefore hardier, producing much better tasting foods than any of the genetically modified foods grown on large farms. (46-47.) Much later in the book we learn of her consuming love of tomatoes—during August they fill her kitchen as she dries, roasts, and boils down tomato after tomato. Four hundred pounds is what she and her family processed in the August of the local year and her point about abundance is clear. The abundance of the garden is overwhelming in the late summer. She writes about so many foods pouring out of her garden—it is easy to imagine a waterfall of fruits and vegetables as she talks about surpluses of all vegetables and the summer fruits. (199).

Besides the details of her vegetable garden, Barbara is continually bringing in stories of friends she’s made along the way who also share her enthusiasm for local, organic foods. There’s Amy, who is an organic farmer but chooses not to obtain the certification because of costs. Amy also believes the certification would not change her business because her local community buys her food because they trust the methods of her farming. (119-121). David and Elsie are farmers, who are Amish, and meander through their life in simple and thoughtful ways. They seem to have a measured reverence for the whole ecosystem of their farm and cherish dearly what they have cultivated at many levels. (159-168). And finally, there are the new friends Steven and Barbara met in Italy where the food culture was so close to their own, I think it’s accurate to describe them tasting heaven for seven straight days. They loved the localness and the fact that ordinary conversations contained talk of the agriculture, though usually a boasting of what one region had to offer compared to another. (244-258).

Lastly, a few other topics covered in the book would be CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), kitchens, harvesting turkeys, and oil. CAFOs are mentioned continually throughout the book, almost like the blaring counterpoint to what the Kingsolver-Hopps aim to do with their local foods year. A CAFO is a large facility where many, many animals like chicken, turkeys, and cows are fed grain quickly and never allowed outside. (238-239). Completely opposite, the Kingsolver-Hopps make food not for ultimate dollar value but for ultimate nutritional value, something lost upon CAFOs.

The kitchen is the room which receives the most attention in this book. Obviously, it is where food is stored and cooked but throughout the book, Barbara is drawing the connections between family life and the food life in kitchens. She writes, “Kitchen-based gatherings are process-oriented, cooperative, and in the best of worlds, nourishing and soulful”(288) and “Full-time homemaking may not be an option for those of us delivered without trust funds into the modern era. . .But approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option. . .kitchens where food is cooked and food is eaten, those were really a good idea.”(127-128).

As far as harvesting turkeys, it suffices to say the whole process is detailed, from calming them down pre throat-slicing in a room with only water, to picking off feathers and hosing off clothes. (229-235.) Oil, the fuel costs of food, and even really healthy food choices coming from California, is mentioned throughout the book. (5 and 298). Implicit in the local foods year for the Kingsolver-Hopps was reducing the amount of fuel spent obtaining their foods.

My best summation of the book is that Barbara, Steven, and Camille together put forth an apologetic for how their family lives, not an apologetic for eating locally. Even though the premise of the book is only one year in their lives, so much biography and critique pours out from the pages in strict defense of how they’ve chosen to make their way through life in the United States of America. Chapter after chapter I learned vast amounts about gardening and seeds, fuel and cooking, and closed the book a decent sense of what it meant in Appalachia to eat locally and yet a much more pervasive sense of what the Kingsolver-Hopps value and condemn in their ways of living. They never claim perfection yet anything they did that took their eating outside their county (organic flour from Virginia for example) is immediately rationalized. The title portion that reads “A Year of Food Life” is somewhat misleading as it is the many, many years previous in their lives that seemed to have put the Kingsolver-Hopp family into the position of being able to eat only local for twelve months. And it is those previous years that in the end are the most talked about.

Since I am on the way to obtaining a Masters in Divinity, I’ll make some theological remarks. In earlier books, Barbara Kingsolver used much spiritual language. One of her most famous books, The Poisonwood Bible is completely about religion as she follows a missionary family in the Congo. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, no real spiritual musings is recorded. At one point she mentions that their household holds different spiritual backgrounds; as this book was a joint effort between herself, husband, and daughter, perhaps taking out spirituality made sense. But as I read the book, I think Barbara and her family very nearly worship gardening/biology/farming. In the framework of ultimate trust, I think it is a fair assumption that in this book, her ultimate trust resides in her garden processes and her farming as the means to the salvation her family found in eating local. They were “freed” in a sense from the tangled food web of U.S. culture and their farming saved them. The real issue I take is not about where they choose to put trust but in how they reference over and over how grateful they are about food. Because the Kingsolver-Hopps have now become intimately aware of how food goes from seed to their table, they are filled with gratefulness. That gratitude is never directed towards a divinity or other source. Based on what I deduced as their ultimate trust—themselves and their gardening, I draw the line to conclude that their gratefulness is towards themselves, whether realized or not. As I see my problems with food and food culture in the U.S. more through the lens of a broken relationship with God and creation, I am less than awed about their gratitude in their own human abilities.

My less than awe leads to my final point. I have simply adored in every way all the other books Barbara Kingsolver has written. I read them quickly and buy them at used book stores whenever I see one. I think in the end I equally adored about 70% of this book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver does have such a unique way of making information accessible and digestible with some humor and irony mixed in. She also models a lifestyle I would really love to see myself growing towards—more time in the kitchen baking bread and canning foods for later and loving family the whole while. And then there’s that 30% where I found her and her family’s writing to simply be wholly pretentious and snotty. The critiques came too close for me—and I am even very aligned with her politics and thinking! There was not evidence of a deep well of grace for the world and its choices of buying bananas and tomatoes in February, something I would have expected. The feelings I have after reading her book make me take a great pause—food choices are deep choices we make. Insulting them and adding them up to be evil will not change hearts immediately. There needs to be grace in the meantime and an understanding that I’m still growing too. Barbara didn’t offer that in her book. Maybe that’s a difference between churches and farms. I hope I can offer the grace or perhaps more exactly, keep pointing to the source of grace.