Saturday, June 02, 2007

Book Review: "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins, 2007) is on its surface the story of the successful attempt by the author and her family to live as locavores for a year - that is, eating, almost exclusively, foods that were produced within an hour's drive of their farm in Virginia (if not directly on the premises). This book is more than that, though - it's a clarion call for more sensible eating practices, an ode to cooking/canning/gardening, and a nicely-written account of an agricultural year (in Virginia, at least). Kinsolver's simple, humorous style lends itself well to this book, which could easily have turned sour under a different pen.

The narrative of planning, gardening, tending, preserving and cooking a year's worth of locally-grown vegetables, fruits, meats &c. is interspersed with trenchant commentary on American food culture, both within the text by Kingsolver herself, and in factual 'sidebars' by her husband and partner-in-locavorism, Steven Hopp. A few of the more frightening facts they include: "each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1500 miles" (pg. 5), today's children "are predicted to be this country's first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents" (pg. 18), and "transporting a single calorie of a perishable fresh fruit from California to New York takes about 87 calories worth of fuel" (pg. 68).

Kingsolver realizes - thankfully - that we can't all have 3,500-square foot gardens or flocks of chickens and turkeys for eggs and meat (or time to tend them), and that we don't all live in Virginia, where growing seasons last a bit longer than up here in Massachusetts, for example. But as she and Hopp point out, there are some easy things that we can do to eat more carefully. Skip the bananas, don't eat tomatoes in January, ask for local produce and shop at the farmers' market ... try to avoid factory-farmed meats and so forth. Not all feasible for everyone, but there is at the very least something to think about in what they have to say. It might not change the way you eat, at least right away, but it will almost definitely change the way you think about what you're eating.

A warning: this is a book that will make you very, very hungry. Especially for fresh fruits and vegetables, tomato sauce and pickles. I had to stop reading it in the evenings after dinner since it made me want to get up and make another meal. It takes some imagination to eat locally, and thankfully the book includes some recipes for many of the tasty-sounding dishes mentioned in the text; the recipes accompany short essays by Camille, Kingsolver's college-age daughter. These come handily at the ends of chapters, which keeps them from disrupting the narrative and enables the reader to jot down the recipes for future reference.

There will be critics of this book, but for anyone who's ever had a bite of a disgusting supermarket tomato, spat it out and yearned to go back to the days when they came from the backyard instead of Mexico, were red inside instead of whitish-pink and tasted like a tomato instead of bland nothingness - or who'd rather not eat meat from an animal who lived its entire life without eating anything green or caught a glimpse of sunshine, this book is certainly worth a read. It's funny, poignant, and well-meaning. Incidentally, I heard Kingsolver and her daughter discuss this book last month in Cambridge (to a packed house), and can also recommend her readings if you have a chance to attend one - she did a nice job previewing the book.

More information at the book's website,, which has more recipes, links to local food organizations, farmers' markets, &c. (I even found a local food store just a couple T-stops away that I'd never heard of before, but will definitely plan to check out now).