In the past year, I've become something of a local and seasonal food evangelist. Sure, I've always shopped at farmers' markets and tried to buy produce in season. But given the current climate crisis, I've come to realize that eating food produced locally is one of the easiest --- and most enjoyable --- methods we have to reduce fuel consumption and improve both local environments and the health of our families.
Since reading Michael Pollan's utterly engaging THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA, I've been telling everyone I know about it and the case that he makes for saving ourselves through reinventing our food chains. Now, with the publication of Barbara Kingsolver's ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE, I have a new book to recommend in my ongoing crusade to encourage local, seasonal, healthful eating.
Kingsolver's legions of fans know that many of her novels have been located in the American Southwest, as was Kingsolver herself for many years. However, witnessing the negative impact that the Sun Belt's exploding population was having on its environment --- particularly its water table --- and knowing that virtually every produce item on her family's dinner table had to be trucked or flown in from far away forced Kingsolver to make a change. Her family of four pulled up their withering Southwestern roots, drove back to Kingsolver's ancestral homeland of Appalachia, and set about fixing up a small farm that had been in their family for years.
Their plan? To bring the farm back to life, and to make it their life for the next year. Their goal? To eat entirely locally for a period of one year, growing almost all their food themselves and purchasing what they couldn't grow themselves from neighbors, acquaintances and the local farmers' market. Beginning with the emergence of the first asparagus spears that spring, the Kingsolver-Hopp clan was a team, working together to plant (and weed endlessly), harvest, gather eggs and plan creative menus using ingredients they had in hand right then.
Much like their culinary experiment, the book that resulted from it involves a lot of teamwork. Kingsolver writes the main narrative, which weaves together gardening mishaps (and successes), arguments for sustainability, instructions for making your own cheese (really!) and the countless little anecdotes that her writer's mind and eye detect and pass on to the reader. Kingsolver's husband, Steven Hopp (an academic), provides numerous sidebars that include statistics, scientific, political or historical background, and resources for further reading. Kingsolver's young adult daughter Camille, a long-time nutritional advocate (making her somewhat of an oddity among her college friends), contributes her own perspective in brief, engaging essays, recipes and tips for menu planning.
Those who have read Pollan's THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA and other books or articles like it will see some familiar arguments in ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE, particularly in the opening chapter. That's okay, though --- some ideas are important enough to bear third or fourth re-readings. The real heart of the matter in Kingsolver's account, though, comes when readers delve headlong into the family's year of "food life," mouths watering at the delicious recipes, hearts warmed by this industrious and close-knit family, minds inspired to maybe --- just maybe --- try something similar someday.
So is Kingsolver suggesting that we all chuck everything, head out to the country and start growing our own food and raising our own livestock? No --- she is enough of a realist to know that America will never again become an agrarian society. However, I defy anyone to read this book and walk away from it without gaining at least the desire to change. At the very least, you might think twice before buying that next bunch of bananas or throwing that pint of strawberries in your shopping cart in December.
Or, if you want to stretch it a bit further, take Kingsolver's advice and eat locally just one day a week (heck, if we all did that, we'd save 1.1 million barrels of oil every week), checking out the farmers' markets and other sources of organic, sustainable food she recommends in her extensive resources section. Or maybe, just maybe, you might think of ways to start your own family experiment, plant a garden, make your own cheese, search out your own local resources and find your own ways to create a food culture in the United States that's based on local, fresh food that supports area farmers, reduces environmental impact and, by the way, just happens to taste great.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 1, 2007