Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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

Animal Vegetable Miracle 1ST Edition
Animal Vegetable Miracle has been on my to be read list for quite some time. I didn't get to it during the 2009 TBR Challenge, so when my "old" bookclub decided to read it in March, I decided it was time to dig in.

Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from Tuscon, AZ to rural Virginia in order to live closer to the sources of their food. Once they were settled on their small farm, they committed to eating locally grown food in season for one year. Much of this came from their own garden and barnyard, but they also frequented farmer's markets and had many connections with farmers for free-range meat and other products. They were not absolute purists, for they still bought coffee, flour, spices, and such things that simply don't grow in Virginia, but the vast majority of their food came from within a 100 mile radius of their home.

I found this book to be both inspiring and aggravating. I am somewhat more committed to growing my own garden, although I do not share the author's love of the soil. I would still rather be inside baking or reading than outside digging in the dirt. (I attribute this proclivity to the indoors to severe allergies which kept me inside most of my childhood - inside reading books, of course!) But since the home we moved into 7 months ago has an existing garden, I really have no excuse not to at least plant some essential vegetables that I know my family will use and enjoy.

If nothing else, the cost savings will motivate me to grow my own vegetables. Since I refuse to pay $1.25 per pound for butternut squash, I did without it most of last fall and winter (only splurging for Thanksgiving). I am really looking forward to spending a few dollars on seeds and, Lord willing, having a good supply of winter squash to store and enjoy next fall. Ditto for tomatoes which will be lined up in canning jars on my shelves by fall, I hope.

Barbara Kingsolver kept careful records of their expenditures throughout their year of locavore eating, and calculated that they spent an average of $6 per day for their family of four - that means a grocery budget of less than $200 per month! I find this to be astounding, since my grocery expenses are between 25-50% more than that, but we are not eating free-range meat or organic/locally grown grains and produce since those types of items generally cost much more. Sometimes, I feel the cost is worth it in health benefits, as in a cow share in order to have raw milk, but often I just can't bring myself to pay for these specialized foods.

Animal Vegetable Miracle reads more like a memoir than a gardening book, and Kingsolver often captures the humor and the wonder of farm life. It differs from a memoir, however, in that one does not just get a glimpse of another's life: there is a sublte - or sometimes not so subtle - agenda behind the story. She argues her case gently, in most cases, using experiential proofs more than documenting hard evidence. This didn't bother me since I approached it as a memoir, and I gleaned only those practical tidbits that I deemed useful. I did find it interesting that her numbers were sometimes presented in a way to dramatize the facts, as in this little tidbit: "...participating family farms collectively sold $236,000 worth of organic produce to retailers and supermarkets, which those markets, in turn, sold to consumers for nearly $0.3 million." (202) Now, if we were to compare apples to apples, that $0.3 million is really $333,333, which does not sound like quite such an astounding ripoff profit, though I must confess to ignorance of what the typical markup on produce is. So obviously, there is an agenda. For those who want more facts and the sources behind them, her husband Steven Hopp has written short pieces in many chapters which provide more of the socio-political and scientific background, and there are also references and resources listed in the back.

From the perspective of a Christian worldview, it is apparent that Kingsolver's desire to eat local produce and free-range meat coupled with her concern for the environment has become a new religion. On the subject of planting asparagus, she writes:

"I sweated to dig it into countless yards I was destined to leave behind, for no better reason than that I believe in vegetables in general, and this one in particular. Gardeners are widely known and mocked for this sort of fanaticism. But other people fast or walk long pilgrimages to honor the spirit of what they believer makes our world whole and lovely. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots, and then wait three years for an edible incarnation of the spring eqinox, who's to make the call between ridiculous and reverent?" (29, emphasis added; do you see the religious overtones?)

Similarly, she describes her approach to eating meat in these terms: "I take my gospel from Wendell Berry, who writes in What Are People For, 'I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me.'"  (221), emphasis added; however persuasive one might find Berry's argument, I wouldn't put it in terms of the gospel. Yes, I understand that she is using the term more generally than THE Gospel of Jesus Christ, but such terminology sets a tone of religiosity for her eating choices.)

Thanksgiving is stripped of any reference to the Pilgrim's faith and instead described as a day to "[w]ake up now, look alive, for here is a day off work just to praise Creation: the turkey, the squash, and the corn, these things that ate and drank sunshine, grass, muc, and rain, and then in the shortening days laid down their lives for our welfare and onward resolve. There's the miracle for you, the absolute sacrifice that still holds back seeds: a germ of promise to do the whole thing again, another time." (284, emphasis added; note again the Christian terms applied to creation.)

Although a self-proclaimed feminist, she has the courage to criticize the fallout of the feminist movement: "We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families' tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable. (Or worse, convenience-mart hot dogs and latchkey kids.) I consider it the great hoodwink of my generation." (127) Unfortunately, she still seems to advocate the "have-it-all" mentality that a woman can go to work, swing by the farmer's market at lunch or on her way home, and get the husband and kids to help make a fresh, home cooked meal when she gets home. Hmmmm...there's still something wrong with this picture.

In spite of these differences in philosophy, I do agree with Kingsolver's premise: "eating home-cooked meals from whole, in-season ingredients obtained from the most local source available is eating well, in every sense. Good for the habitat, good for the body." (31) Yes, that is a good-thing. But is it something I will shape my life around? No. I will, however, probably try some of the recipes that Barbara's daughter Camille included in the book and on the book's website.

I don't aspire to imitate the Hopp/Kingsolver family's food experiment, but I do want to incorporate more fresh/local food in our diet. My motivation, however, would be primarily for health reasons, not to reduce my environmental footprint, halt global warming, or limit my use of fossil fuels. There is an element of stewardship to consider, of course (except in the case of global warming, which is a crumbling myth), but my faith and family are the first priorities of my stewardship, not the earth. This is not to exclude good stewardship of the earth from my faith, but it does mean that my time, money, and other resources will be governed by more, much more, than simply the earth and my stomach.


Slow Reader said...

Hi Heather! Thanks for posting. I'm going to add a few comments on the Captive Thoughts blog.

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