When Kingsolver and her family move from suburban Arizona to rural Appalachia, they take on a new challenge: to spend a year on a locally produced diet, paying close attention to the provenance of all they consume. "Our highest shopping goal was to get our food from so close to home, we'd know the person who grew it. Often that turned out to be ourselves as we learned to produce what we needed, starting with dirt, seeds, and enough knowledge to muddle through. Or starting with baby animals, and enough sense to refrain from naming them."--From publisher description.
This book: good idea, repellently smug execution. One of the most eye-rolling things about the smugness is the casual way all three contributors (Kingsolver, her daughter, and her husband) toss off references to the incredible amount of kitchen equipment they own that makes all of this possible: a food dryer to dry fruit for the winter, professional-grade canning equipment, a dishwasher (they assume that everyone has one, which simply isn't true), vast amounts of kitchen, pantry, and freezer space, and a bread maker (of which her husband says, in a sidebar, "I know you own one. Go get it out of the closet or the basement and use it," because EVERYONE has a $100+ machine just sitting in the basement, didn't you know?). It is pretty much the definition of unexamined privilege, and it's vile.
The daughter is also a trip. I can only thank my lucky stars no one was publishing my screeds on That Thing I Know More About Than You when I was nineteen, but please, Camille. Somehow I don't buy the claim that you are the only person at Duke University, in 2008, who has ever even heard of free range meat.
I think that the Kingsolvers would have done better to acknowledge how hard this year was, and how much work went into it, because the alternative to that form of bragging is a much more offensive form of it: "this is SO EASY that anyone who doesn't do it is criminally lazy and hates the planet". I eat food when it is in season (it just tastes awful otherwise). I eat as locally as I can. I also kill plants by glancing sideways at them, and have such a slapstick touch in the kitchen that I'm not sure my town's zoning board would allow me to attempt canning. This doesn't make me a heedless anti-environmentalist who only eats junk food, but I spent the entirety of this book pretty sure Kingsolver would say it does.
The book also succeeded in teaching me quite a bit I didn’t know about food and gardening. As someone who was raised on heavily processed foods, I was fascinated to learn the biological secrets of root vegetables, how a mild-mannered novelist “harvests” chickens at home, and how much better food can taste when it hasn’t been subject to the rigors of corporate food production. Her chapter on asparagus helped me understand why the tough, road-hardened variety found in most conventional stores is only a pale shadow of an organically grown stalk picked just hours earlier; her description of the succulent magic of morels made me want to take up mushroom hunting.
In these celebrations of the pleasures of fresh, locally grown, in-season produce, Kingsolver was very effective in inspiring me to think more about how to plan my menus around what is seasonally available. I’ll be adding her sweet-potato quesadilla recipe to my menu this week, and I’m looking forward to trying out her dried-tomato pesto.
On the down side, Ms. Kingsolver’s charming storytelling is laced with a rather heavy dose of preaching. I have no doubt that the food monoculture promoted by corporate America has had devastating effects on our health, taste buds, and environment, and the loss of crop diversity these practices have created has made us very vulnerable as a population. These are important issues that need to be talked about. But part of the reason I’ve admired Ms. Kingsolver’s past writing is because she has always woven her political views so seamlessly into her stories that, in reading her books, I always learned new things without feeling like I had been force-fed someone else’s opinions.
That was not the case with this book. The first quarter is particularly thick with commentary on the evils of our current food system. More than once, I found myself slogging through sections that left me feeling more guilty about the food currently in my kitchen than inspired to adopt her suggestions. This tone made the read much less effective for me than it would have been had she focused primarily on the very real value her family gained from choosing to forgo convenience in favor of such fantastically delicious food.
Good food, healthy food, and socially/ecologically-responsible food are very often the same thing, as Kingsolver shows in this memoir that is also a fair bit of journalistic investigation. She proves that not only is it possible to eat responsibly without feeling like you’re making sacrifices, it can also be a lot of fun and extremely rewarding. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is also interspersed with essays, helpful tips and websites, recipes, and food information from the other members of her family, underscoring the family effort behind this project. If you’re concerned about what you eat and how it got to your plate, or if you’re worried about the state of our nation’s food industry and what you’re putting in your body (and you probably should be), this is an excellent and highly accessible read, thanks to Kingsolver’s down to earth prose, engaging writing, amusing stories, and thoughtful essays.
Review: I didn't want to read this book. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my top three favorite authors, possibly my favorite author, and yet I did not want anything to do with this book. The reason is a simple one: I hate to be made to feel bad about what I'm eating. It's the reason I try to avoid dining with militant vegetarians, people who talk about their Weight Watchers points, and anyone who is horrified that I grew up eating (and still prefer) ketchup with my pork chops. I've been lectured at about food many times before, and I can't stand it, and no matter what anyone told me about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I was convinced that it was going to be more of the same... and as a result, I wanted no part of it.
So imagine my surprise when I finally (and grumpily) started reading it, to find that not only was it not lecture-y at all, but that it was also completely fascinating, actively inspiring, and compellingly readable. Kingsolver's fiction will always be my first love, but she's an accomplished non-fiction writer as well. It didn't hurt that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was written in my favorite style of non-fiction: mostly memoir-ish personal experiences blended seamlessly into the more journalistic factual sections.
An added bonus was that the setting for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was in rural southern Appalachia, which is an area of the country that I know and love, as well as being the same setting as Prodigal Summer, my far-and-away favorite Kingsolver novel. In fact, it was almost immediately clear upon starting Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that the fictional Widener family farm, setting of the "Moth Love" chapters in Prodigal Summer, was drawn almost entirely from her real-life homestead. So even if the tone of the book got a little too lecture-y, at least I was on familiar ground.
But the thing was, I rarely felt like I was being lectured at. Kingsolver's obviously very passionate about the topic, but she lays out her arguments logically and persuasively, appealing to the scientist and pragmatist in me. What's better, although the rational argument underlies everything, the prose dwells more on the personal immediacies of the issue: the small "miracles" of the title, the joy of eating cherries right off the tree and the wonder of holding a newly-hatched chick, rather than the important but substantially less tangible benefit of saving the environment. Kingsolver's prose is as rich and wonderful as ever, equally adept at evoking a field of tiny green asparagas shoots, a hunt for mushrooms in the Appalachian forests, and a homey kitchen full of tomatoes to be canned.
Despite how warm I found Kingsolver's prose and how accessible I found her argument, I had a hard time turning off the part of me that hates feeling guilty about what I eat. Even when I was absorbed in the story, there was still a small part of my brain that kept up a constant litany of complaints that sounded obnoxiously whiny, even to me. "But I don't wanna give up tea and grapefruit and Oreos! I don't wanna spend every free minute of the summer slaving over a steaming canning bath! I don't wanna never eat an avocado again unless I move to the Southwest, and I don't wanna move to the Southwest!" I couldn't shut this voice up, despite the fact that Kingsolver never once suggested that I do any of those things. In fact, she's very sympathetic to the fact that becoming a dedicated locavore is not an easy undertaking, that her family is unusual, and that not everyone has the time, money, or acreage to produce all of their food themselves. (On the other hand, she does such a good job of describing the joys of growing and making your own food that I often found myself wishing for a house with space to garden, and I'm seriously considering attempting to make my own cheese.)
The thing was, despite my whining and my resistant heel-dragging, I kept running up against a factoid that was presented early on in Chapter 1: if every U.S. citizen ate one meal per week from local, organic food, we would save 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. Just one meal. 1.1 million barrels per week. One meal. I can do that. And Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has convinced me that it might even be enjoyable. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Anybody who's ever bought tomatoes in January, bagged lettuce in November, or bananas anywhere north of the Tropic of Cancer. Also, obviously, anyone who's interested in food and food culture, anyone who's concerned about our planet's dwindling supply of fossil fuel, and anyone who likes Kingsolver's writing style.
As Kingsolver points out, Americans expect to be able to eat all foods at every time of year -- never thinking that it costs a fortune (financially and ecologically) to ship the average piece of produce 2000 miles before it hits the plate. And let's not forget that our produce has been bred over the years to be durable, not tasty...there are many strong arguments for eating local, and Kingsolver (a trained scientist as well as an accomplished novelist) makes them vividly here.
But mostly, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a tale of the seasons. The story begins with asparagus -- the green herald of the green seasons -- and progresses through squash, tomatoes, cherries, green beans...it's all delectabe to read about. Food is one of those rare areas of life in which the pleasurable path is the righteous path.
I learned a million things from this book. For instance: because they have been bred for docility and shot through with so many drugs, 99% of the turkeys in America are SO DUMB that 1) they can drown by looking up at the rain, and 2) they do not know how to reproduce. Pardon my vulgarity, but they are TOO DUMB TO F*CK. This means that on every turkey farm, there's at least one person whose job it is to extract semen from the male turkeys and deliver it to the she-turkeys.
Amazing. But who is more stupid -- the turkey who can't figure out how to make babies, or the people who have reduced them to such a state? If we are what we eat, then Americans are in biiiiiiig trouble.
One of the best parts of this book is the fact that it is about a family. I have read a lot online about single adults, or couples with no children who make the local pledge. I think that what they are doing is wonderful, and more power to them, but it is hard to translate their experiences into my hectic family lifestyle. It’s hard to translate Kingsolver’s experiences, too, since she has a huge garden to grow much of their own food, and I live in a third floor apartment in the city. She regularly points out the alternative for city dwellers, though—go to the farmer’s market. She also points out that making a few compromises to keep peace in the family (like continuing to drink coffee, and declaring grains local) does not invalidate the good in other local eating adventures.
She also makes some interesting points about meat-eating, and how meat that is pasture fed is healthier than meat that comes from a commercial feedlot. I am not planning on starting to eat meat any time soon, but I can see that if I do, I will definitely be searching out a local farm that treats its animals well.
This book gave me a lot to think about, even though I had already done some research into local eating. There were recipes, practical advice and some good ideas for how we can help spread a local food culture. This one is definitely a keeper.
These are some pretty powerful negatives, but don't let them deter you from reading the book. Every chapter is crammed with hard-to-find information about the environemental impact of industrial agriculture, the nutritional value of organic, local food and the benefits of eating free range, pasture-fed beef. I left each chapter feeling inspired that I could simultaneously eat healthier, save the environment and live without produce trucked in from around the world. If I hadn't read this book, I would never have known how easy it is to make my own cheese and can my own tomato sauce, and I would never have understood how small, local farms protect literally thousands of varieties of vegetables from extinction. Those things were absolutely worth my occasional frustration with Kingsolver's attitude.
Bottom line: Read this book for information, not for the narrative. Especially recommended for people trying to get greener -- either in the environmental sense or the healthy eating sense.
This book is organized chronologically through the family's "year of eating locally," beginning in April with the first asparagus and the arrival of laying hens. In addition to their own food production, Kingsolver describes experiences with local food on a family vacation, as well as on a trip to Italy with her husband. Her husband and older daughter contribute essays, recipes, and sidebar topics that enrich the book and provide resources for the reader to conduct their own research on the subject.
I came to this book already interested in gardening, and in supporting our local farming community. I've now identified some initial steps I can take to increase the amount of local food on my own table. I'm not quite ready to raise (and yes, slaughter) my own livestock, nor am I going to swear off the supermarket altogether. But I'd like to think my actions will result in a healthier, tastier diet and make a small dent in fossil fuel consumption.
While I think that the discussions of the problems in the industrial food system and US food and farm policy would provide a good introduction to someone unfamiliar with the topics, I'm guessing that many people reading the book are already clued into these issues and, like me, would find their treatment in the book to be an unnecessary digression from the more interesting and affirming story of the family's year on the farm. Likewise, I found the sidebars written by Steven Hopp to be distracting ; they often repeated things brought up in the main narrative and could and should have been integrated into it. The same could be said of Camille Kingsolver's end-of-chapter notes, although I did appreciate the recipes and the nutritional perspective.
While a bit disjointed at times, this was an enjoyable and useful read for those interested in how their food choices impact their environment and community.
review written in August 2015 Book published in 2007
I wasn't a fan of the lecture feeling parts of the book. I wish I could buy all my food from local sources and in season- and I do for the most part, but this isnt realistic for a lot of individuals. Rather than hunkering down with her own family (who seem to have unlimited means) I would have loved to hear about her using her influence to help address the urban food deserts we have across the country.
It is funny that she is described as one of the 100 most dangerous people in the US. Heck I think we need more dangerous people like her.
The premise of the book is that for one year, Kingsolver's family pledged to eat only what it could procure from within an hour’s drive from their home, with a few exceptions for things like flour and coffee. Although the book is certainly more preachy than Kingsolver’s early novels, the tone reminds me a lot of “Prodigal Summer”. It doesn’t cross the line into straight evangelism, always retaining the ability to entertain as well as inform. Even the message is not a monolithic one, being composed of forays into other philosophies as well as the main “eat local” one.
In one section, there’s even what seems to be a tribute to an early advocate of the (mostly reviled) corporate attitude: Sanford Webb, the first owner of the Hoppsolver (conflation of Kingsolver’s surname and that of her husband, Steven Hopp) homestead. This turn-of-the-century entrepreneur brought in refrigeration (now the tool of the long-distance transporters of produce), and bought trees rather than getting them from his neighbours like everyone else. Not only that, but these were grafted trees that wouldn’t breed true If planted again from seed – and he got the whole neighbourhood doing it.
I’m not sure whether Webb is absolved of being anti-local-food because of the period he lived in, or whether he’s just there as a picturesque portrait, and not meant to be representative of anything modern.
In each chapter, the variety of voices kept me interested. There’s Camille, with recipes and snippets from the new generation’s perspective; Steven, with informational sidebars and references to look up for still more information; and Kingsolver’s own several voices, lecturing us in some parts but always rewarding us with anecdotes from her year of local food.
Camille’s voice is refreshing and authentic; clearly she is one of those young people it is a surprise and a delight to meet, who have opinions and beliefs unexpected in such youth, and admirable in anyone. Many of her recipes are now on my list of things to try – much like the recipes in Jeanne Ray’s “Eat Cake”, they sound almost too good to be true when described in such lovely prose earlier in the chapter.
When the turkeys and their reproductive challenges entered the story, it was clear that they were going to become symbolic somehow of the outcome of the project as a whole; would they succeed? would they only come close? would they fail outright? This suspense story, while it seemed a little bit tacked on at the end, kept me reading avidly right to the end. And Kingsolver certainly doesn’t condescend to her audience, but points out the symbolism and allegory herself, not pretending it’s an accident. Though she follows up with one of my favourite lines in the book: “Maybe the zucchini are just zucchini.”
Finally, the book succeeds by adopting a tone that is wry, not sanctimonious, friendly rather than angry, and by invisibly winning us over with Kingsolver’s beautiful, flawless writing. I may not plant a quarter-acre of garden and can enough to last me through the winter, but I’ll certainly think harder about where my food comes from, and what I can do to shorten that distance.