Wednesday, October 28, 2009

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

I love Barbara Kingsolver. I first fell in love with Pigs in Heaven; backtracked to read The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Homeland and Other Stories; bought The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer in hardback as soon as they were out; and read her books of essays. She writes beautifully...and she has a point of view that is uniquely hers.

So why did I resist buying Animal, Vegetable, Miracle until it was out in paperback; let it sit on my nightstand for months after I bought it; and dawdle over reading it once I started? Perhaps it's the guilt--knowing that she was writing about her family's experience changing their eating habits by adopting a locavore approach and knowing that, while I see the argument, I'm too lazy to grow and preserve my own food.

I loved the parts of the book when Kingsolver is relating her family's story--their move from Arizona to Virginia, their nervousness in beginning the year (that would extend indefinitely) of eating locally, dealing with the challenge of the too-successful zucchini crop, teaching turkeys how to mate, and more. Her words and her family charm you as they demonstrate the many benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal foods. Kingsolver's husband Steven Hopp contributes sidebars on a wide variety of topics--from the arguments against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to how to develop recipes for use with your bread machine. Her daughter Camille Kingsolver describes seasonal cooking and provides recipes and typical family menus for each season (the recipes are also available at

I was less taken with the sections of the book in which Kingsolver is writing in a journalistic style with a strong pinch of editorializing about topics like the economics of small farms, organic certification, and the history of farming. All of the topics are woven into the story of their family's locavore experiment, but honestly it became a bit much, as does her fervor for the locavore approach Can a working class or poor family living in an urban area in the Rust Belt really follow this approach to eating? I have serious doubts.

Even though this is my least favorite Kingsolver book, it would provide plenty of fodder (pun intended) for a book group. And I, perhaps, will try to buy more food at farmers' markets next year.

Favorite passages (she does write beautifully about food and family):
The Saturday of Labor Day weekend dawned with a sweet, translucent bite, like a Golden Delicious apple. I always seem to harbor a childlike hope through the berry-stained months of June and July that summer will be for keeps. But then a day comes in early fall to remind me why it should end, after all.

I do know that flavors work their own ways under the skin, into the heart of longing. Where my kids are concerned I find myself hoping for the simplest things: that if someday they crave orchards where their kids can climb into the branhes and steal apples, the world will have trees enough with arms to receive them.

To this tasty native assembly [of foods] add a cohort of female relatives sharing work and gossip in the kitchen, kids flopped on the living room floor watching behemoth cartoon characters float down a New York thoroughfare on TV, and men out in the yard pretending they still have the upper-body strengh for lateral passes, and that is a perfect American day.

When I'm cooking, I find myself inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it. Slamming a door on food-rich holidays, declaring food an enemy, sends all the grandparents and great aunts to a lonely place . . . Here I stand in the consecrated presence of all they wished for me, and cooked for me. Right here, canning tomatoes with Camille, making egg bread with Lily. I find myself begging every memory: Come back for a potholder hug.

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