Sarah Trone Garriott

Book Review

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

In Animal Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver and her family leave their Arizona home behind in search of a place “where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground” (3). This is not only a change of scenery, but also the beginning of a lifestyle experiment in which the family bypasses modern consumer food culture for an intimate engagement with dirt, plants and animals. The family has forsworn their reliance on the “space station” culture of Tucson, where every morsel to eat and drop to drink was trucked or piped in from a far away place. Almost everything that passes their lips will be from their farm or the immediate community. The reader is invited also to join with the family in the challenges and joys in their year of eating locally. Part diary, part how-to, part political-scientific exposé, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral looks at food culture from a variety of angles. The voices of Barbara, her husband Steven, and her daughter Camille combine to tell a story of food that is at times disheartening, frequently optimistic, and always engaging.

The Kingsolver clan is not really casting themselves out into the wilderness to forage for roots and berries. The family relocates to their farm in Southern Virginia, where they have spent many summers honing their garden skills. While they are no strangers to farmer’s markets and canning, this time things will be different. There is no going back---in leaving Arizona they have also permanently put behind the American food culture in which candy is more seasonal than produce. Relying on local food production helps the family to think and act according to the season. Beginning in the spring, each period of time evokes stories from Barbara about people and food. Political and scientific commentary from Steven interrupts the flow of the narrative, mimicking the disruption of natural cycles by modern food production. Closing each chapter, Camille offers the reader a taste of the experience with recipes appropriate to the moment in time. Seasonal living provides a counterpoint to the destructive impact of conventional food production and consumption. The reader cannot help but become aware that “we’re a nation with an eating disorder” (18).

Barbara’s narrative puts a human face on an issue that is so often broken down into statistics. While she does not shy away from the daunting numbers, the point is to engage the reader on a personal level, beginning with the means of production. It is an economic reality that Americans “obligingly give 85 cents of our every food the processors, marketers, and transporters” (13). Barbara then reveals the real-life impact of this statement, telling stories of farmers who struggle to make a living on the losing end of this formula. The big-picture result is a dramatic shift in US food production in the past century, with rapidly disappearing family farms and ever-expanding single crop farms. The remaining family owned farms are caught between a rock and a hard place: with corporations maintaining control of every means of production (financing, machines, seeds, fertilizer, processing, the markets) while the farmers keep the risk.

The absurdity of American’s present day farming economy is most apparent in the production of commodities such as corn and soybeans. Barbara notes, “commodity farmers only survive by producing their maximum yields, so they do” (14). The personal consequence for the consumers is a surplus of calories that the food industry sneaks into the American diet in ever increasing portions and in the guise of additives such as corn syrup. Out nation’s health and well-being is directly affected by the economic injustice perpetrated by the present-day agricultural system. For the Kingsolver family, food is not just personal, it is a justice issue affecting the whole world. This belief would guide their year of eating locally. As Barbara explains:

We were going to spend a year integrating our food choices with our family values, which include both “love your neighbor” and “try not to wreck every blooming thing on the planet while you’re here” (23).

The food itself also takes on life in this text, becoming characters that forward the plot in Barbara’s narrative. Each arrives in their own time, like a string of much anticipated house guests. For each there is waiting, celebration upon arrival, and fatigue shortly before the visit ends. Each food is an intimate friend with stories associated. The author was gifted early in life with a legacy of asparagus, and this most seasonal of vegetables continues to inspire her gardening today. Her father’s annual hunt for the wild vegetable led to cultivating this taste of spring no matter what. Even in the most transient of apartments, “I sweated to dig it into countless yards I was destined to leave behind, for no better reason than I believe in vegetables in general, and this one in particular” (29). In late summer, shades of red fill the Kingsolver family’s imagination as ripe tomatoes pile up on every kitchen surface. The long awaited first tomato, weighed and announced like a bouncing baby, gives way to a crimson tide that threatens to overwhelm them all. Even the youngest child was influenced by the tomato avalanche and “wrote and illustrated a small book entitled “Mama the Tomato Queen,” which fully exhausted the red spectrum of her Crayola box” (199). While the Kingsolver family attempt to keep emotional distance with the meat poultry, they are intimately involved in every aspect of their lives and deaths. Closely tended by Lily, the Turkeys receive their names and destiny, “Mr. thanksgiving, Mr. Dinner, Mr. Sausage, and in a wild first-grade culinary stretch—Sushi” (184). Barbara herself literally lends a hand, disemboweling the deceased birds.

Not does the Kingsolver family develop their relationship with food, but food helps them to form relationships with their community. The food becomes a community building experience as neighbors swap seeds and give each other tomato plants on mother’s day (100). Participating in practices of canning and preserving connect Barbara to an older generation. For her, standing “in line at the hardware store carrying one or two boxes of canning jars and lids,” is like renewing her “membership in a secret society,” as “Elderly women and some men, too, will smile their approval or ask outright, “what are you canning?” (199). Local food consumption as a practice also offers community building of a different sort. Barbara notes that “buying your gods from local businesses rather than national chains generates about three times as much money for the local economy” (149). While many local producers, processors and market have disappeared, there are projects that are breathing new life into local economies. The Farmer’s Diner in Vermont began when the owner “and his farming neighbors faced was finding a market for their good products” (150). The diner not only provided a market for their good, but encouraged the creation of local infrastructure for meat processing, dairy production and baked goods. The Farmer’s Diner is not just a gathering spot for the local community, it is also a center of local economic revitalization.

Steven adds big picture perspective to Barbara’s more personal take on food culture. The shift in agricultural trends has yielded some pretty dire statistics in terms of exploding energy use, expansive corporate power, eroding biological diversity and increasing pollution. For example, U.S. citizens consume about “400 gallons of oil a year per citizen—about 17 percent of our nation’s energy use—for agriculture” (5). Machines are responsible for a potion of this amount, but much oil is also used in the production of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Transportation is the largest drain, with each item on the typical U.S. dinner plate traveling 1,500 miles. However, each negative scenario reveals simple changes that have immense positive potential. Steven notes that, “If every US citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week” (5). Recent history reveals how a community can rally to change food culture dramatically. When German U-boats blocked the import of food during WWII to the United Kingdom, the “Dig for Victory” campaign urged citizens to garden every spare inch of soil. The impact was dramatic, as “these urban gardens quickly produced twice the tonnage of food previously imported” (250). The United States soon followed suit with “victory gardens” popping up in nearly every backyard. Clearly, when consumers to take a more active and informed role in food production the results are significant. Steven offers “Eco-gastronomy” as a model for today’s responsible eating: favor food grown in an environmentally responsible way, delivered with minimal petroleum use, in a manner that doesn’t exploit farmers” (348).

At the end of each chapter, Camille’s recipes offer a tangible, hands-on opportunity to engage in responsible eating. The recipes are revealed in their appropriate season, so that foods are used when they are available locally. Eating in season requires creativity, as the consumer attempts to make the most of each harvest. Camille offers meal plans to help make use of an abundance of fresh produce, with tips on preserving for later use. Most of all, Camille encourages thinking about food in the present tense. She explains that the first strawberries will not wait:

When I saw the giant boxes of strawberries piled on the tailgate of a farmer’s truck, I didn’t waste ten seconds asking myself the questions I would mull over in a conventional grocery store...The key to consuming enough produce and reaping maximum nutritional benefits is planning meals around whatever you have (83).

Conventional food culture has attempted to make nature work around human schedules. However, the result is a number of nasty side effects, not to mention fruits and vegetables that literally pale in comparison to their garden cousins. Instead, humans must patiently and graciously respond to nature’s offering, in order to reap the nutritional and taste benefits. For each recipe, Camille includes anecdotes that tantalize the reader with colors, flavors, and scents of the season, and underscore the joys of responsible eating.

While reading Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, I excitedly shared details of the book with my husband. My comments were so frequent that I stopped citing the book as my reference and began relating the information like news from a friend. Nearly every time I opened my mouth, I began with “Babs says…” Quickly and completely taken in by the book and its philosophy, I longed to try every recipe and start my garden. The only problem: is it is March, and I am a transient grad student living in Chicago. Over the years of apartment dwelling, I have longed to grow food. And I’ve tried—only to have my containers of tomatoes and eggplants languish on too shady porches, with every tiny bud devoured by voracious squirrels. My seed catalogues will have to wait till I move to Virginia in the summer, and with some hope, still have enough warm weather to plant. The cold mist outside dampens my excitement. Defeated, I schlep off to the chain grocery store once again in hopes of organic produce, in the least.

And yet, I have come to a new awareness of food, which is at the heart of the Kingsolver’s experiment. It may not be possible for all readers, especially many in urban environments, to follow the Kingsolver’s model. As such, Barbara encourages the reader to “think of the agricultural parts of the story as a music appreciation course for food” (10). Greater appreciation for food and its production will result in a more conscientious approach to eating. Barbara acknowledges that while her family may recede from their first-year stringency, “altered routines were really at the heart of what we’d gained” (342). A year of eating locally brought food into the center of family and community life. As a result, the family established many new patterns of behavior that will persevere. I too find myself engaging in new patterns of behavior. From checking labels for place of origin to avoiding out-of-season and out-of-range foods, I have changed my shopping strategies. I cannot remember the last time I ate a banana, and I’m eagerly awaiting the appearance of the first salad greens at the farmer’s market.

These altered routines bring human life into sync physically and spiritually with creation. Living in season, much like living according to the church year, is way to ground oneself in the cycle of life, death and resurrection. God brings forth life from death, as one can see more clearly when the first shoots of green emerge after a long, dark winter. It is no accident that Lent takes the church from winter into spring, with the days growing longer as they reach toward Easter. To live in season, encourages a deeper appreciation of God’s many gifts that unfold according to their own time.