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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 75.
- Review Date: 2007-03-26
- Reviewer: Staff
[Signature]Reviewed by Nina PlanckMichael Pollan is the crack investigator and graceful narrator of the ecology of local food and the toxic logic of industrial agriculture. Now he has a peer. Novelist Kingsolver recounts a year spent eating home-grown food and, if not that, local. Accomplished gardeners, the Kingsolver clan grow a large garden in southern Appalachia and spend summers "putting food by," as the classic kitchen title goes. They make pickles, chutney and mozzarella; they jar tomatoes, braid garlic and stuff turkey sausage. Nine-year-old Lily runs a heritage poultry business, selling eggs and meat. What they don't raise (lamb, beef, apples) comes from local farms. Come winter, they feast on root crops and canned goods, menus slouching toward asparagus. Along the way, the Kingsolver family, having given up industrial meat years before, abandons its vegetarian ways and discovers the pleasures of conscientious carnivory.This field—local food and sustainable agriculture—is crowded with books in increasingly predictable flavors: the earnest manual, diary of an epicure, the environmental battle cry, the accidental gardener. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is all of these, and much smarter. Kingsolver takes the genre to a new literary level; a well-paced narrative and the apparent ease of the beautiful prose makes the pages fly. Her tale is both classy and disarming, substantive and entertaining, earnest and funny. Kingsolver is a moralist ("the conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners"), but more often wry than pious. Another hazard of the genre is snobbery. You won't find it here. Seldom do paeans to heirloom tomatoes (which I grew up selling at farmers' markets) include equal respect for outstanding modern hybrids like Early Girl.Kingsolver has the ear of a journalist and the accuracy of a naturalist. She makes short, neat work of complex topics: what's risky about the vegan diet, why animals belong on ecologically sound farms, why bitterness in lettuce is good. Kingsolver's clue to help greenhorns remember what's in season is the best I've seen. You trace the harvest by botanical development, from buds to fruits to roots.Kingsolver is not the first to note our national "eating disorder" and the injuries industrial agriculture wreaks, yet this practical vision of how we might eat instead is as fresh as just-picked sweet corn. The narrative is peppered with useful sidebars on industrial agriculture and ecology (by husband Steven Hopp) and recipes (by daughter Camille), as if to show that local food—in the growing, buying, cooking, eating and the telling—demands teamwork. (May)Nina Planck is the author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why (Bloomsbury USA, 2006).
Barbara Kingsolver puts homegrown food on the menu
All stories, they say, begin in one of two ways: 'A stranger came to town,' or else, 'I set out upon a journey,'" writes novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The latter theme pervades her new memoir cum investigative nonfiction narrative, a faithful, funny and thought-provoking chronicle of a year in which the author and her family pulled up their big-city stakes and moved from Tucson, Arizona, to a farm in southwestern Virginia. The objective: to spend a year subsisting on food they would raise themselves, or purchase only from local sources, like farmers' markets.
"The project of taking this sort of sabbatical year really was something we had to do as a family," Kingsolver says, speaking from her Virginia farm. "I couldn't do it by myself. And we talked about it for yearsit's not something we did overnight." Indeed, the experiment germinated a while; its roots are clearly visible in her essay, "Lily's Chickens," (from the 2002 Small Wonder collection) in which she discusses the "energy crime" of American food transportation and the ethics of responsible eating.
Kingsolver's Appalachian adventure was her response to a conviction that America's food system "has been kidnapped," that our nation's food production and consumption habits have been hijacked ("there are ingredients on food labels we can't even pronounce!" she exclaims). She observes that we are now a mostly urban society disconnected from the landthe source of our sustenance. "To connect to it, we have to know what farmers do and how vegetables grow. It's a whole area of knowledge that has been lost from our culture in the last two generations," she says.
Contributing to this loss is America's reliance upon highly processed foods across all product lines, with foodstuffs routinely transported worldwide to satisfy our national cravings for any comestible, any time. "Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars," states Steven L. Hopp, Kingsolver's husband, in the book's first chapter.
As it turns out, this book has not one author, but three. It is a collaborative project that, Kingsolver admits, no one in the family saw coming. The idea to make a book, she says, had its genesis in practicality and generosity, a way to inform people about how small, individual lifestyle changes (such as buying food locally and cooking at home) can make a huge difference in quality of life. And inform it doesaccompanying Kingsolver's finely crafted, endearingly personal narrative are information-packed sidebars of no-
nonsense prose by Hopp, a biologist. There are also delightful, earnest essays from her 19-year-old daughter, Camille, who comments on the whole adventure, nutritional issues and the sometimes embarrassing (sausage-making!) behaviors of parents. Rounding out this bi-generational perspective are family recipes and weekly meal plans (downloadable from the book's website, www.animalvegetable.com). Readerswhether vegetarian or carnivorewill not go hungry, literally or literarily.
Nor was the Kingsolver-Hopp clan famished during their year of "cutting off the industrial pipeline and sinking into the local foodshed." Though Kingsolver reports that it was hard work cultivating the farm, and harvesting and storing the crops for use in the winter months, she says her family thrived on reconnecting with a bounteous earth and its cycles, and derived great pleasure from cooking and eating delicious meals. "This was a project that brought our family together," Kingsolver says.
This year of engaging with the land, of changing eating and purchasing habits, expanded a sense of plentynot scarcity. During our conversation, she reveals that there has been a tremendous interest in the book, even before its publication. And the question people repeatedly ask her is: What was the hardest thing to give up? This confounds Kingsolver, who feels that, in their year of eating consciously, they gained a sense of connection, awareness and fulfillment, and a gratitude for the earth's abundance and generosity. "We didn't drag through the year missing things," she says, "We had such a good time celebrating what we had and celebrating the seasonsit's really such a lesson for life, isn't it?" One thing they did not eschew, however, was coffee. "We wheedled out of that one!" she laughs, explaining that they purchased only fair-trade java.
Though they handily solved the coffee conundrum, situations arose that were not so easily dealt with, such as "harvesting" their livestock for the table. Just before our interview, Kingsolver had been out checking on her animals. "We just had lambs born yesterday," she enthuses. One of the book's most powerful essays, "You Can't Run Away on Harvest Day," rationally, but tenderly, discusses how humans kill other life formsfrom worms, butterflies and broccoli to cattlefor sustenance. "People do get emotional about killing animals, but less than five percent of the population is vegetarian, which means that 95 percent of us eat animals, and we know that somebody killed them," Kingsolver says firmly. She knows that humans don't want to think about this, and says that it's hard for her, too, even though she takes great care in raisingand dispatchingher animals in the most humane ways possible. "I am a very soft-hearted person," she admits, "and it's difficult to look your food in the eye and face the fact that someone had to kill it for you. But looking at it head-on allows you to make good decisions. Every book I've ever written is about something difficultI don't shrink from raising the difficult questions."
After all our discussion of flora and fauna, I realized I hadn't queried Kingsolver about the third element of her book's title. What, I asked her, was your particular miracle? "Realizing that I could change," she answers, "that I could joyfully embrace a simpler, more sustainable way to live. We can act sensibly, return to our local economies and have a different world. Whether or not people read this book, fossil fuels are going to run out. The dinosaurs are not going to lie down and make more oil."
Alison Hood tends her strawberry patch in sunny California.