Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Animal Vegetable Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver

I don't remember when I first heard about this book. I do know that it was not an unfamiliar title last summer when my mother was reading it and told me that she loved it. I made a mental note to get around to reading it sometime...
A month ago I saw it on the rental shelf at our little library (they have a program where they can rent recent or popular books for less than buying them, so there is a decent rotating collection there), so I snatched it up.

I should probably warn you that if you are pregnant and craving fresh fruit and vegetables (especially if you live in a rural corner of Alaska and cannot get them no matter how much you want them), and it's the end of a long winter where none of the produce is very good even if you could get it, and you haven't had your own garden in three years and you miss it terribly...then this book may leave you feeling very very hungry and dreaming about things like farmers markets and hoeing weeds and canning peaches. Of course, I still heartily recommend it.

Animal Vegetable Miracle follows a year in the life of Barbara Kingsolver, her husband, and two teenage daughters. They decided that they wanted to be 'locavores' for a year, as a sortof social experiment. They did make one exception per family member--dad got his coffee (organic and fair trade of course), one daughter got hot chocolate, mom got her spices...but other than that they ate locally. They planted a massive garden, raised their own chickens and turkeys, went to their farmers market religiously, and almost everything they consumed that year was produced within their own county (I think the most distant item came from two states away). The book tells not only their story of learning to eat locally (and in season!), but also includes several essays from Stephen Hopp (her husband, a professor of environmental studies), essays from the elder daughter Camille Kingsolver, and a mouthwatering collection of recipes that follow the 'in season' rule (in other words, nothing calls for mixing produce from one season with produce from another).

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:
"[O]ur vegetables have come to lack two features of interest: nutrition and flavor. Storage and transport take predictable tolls on the volatile plant compounds that subtly add up to taste and food value. Breeding to increase shelf life also has tended to decrease palatability. Bizarre as it seams, we've accepted a tradeoff that amounts to: 'Give me every vegetable in every season, even if it tastes like a cardboard picture of its former self.' You'd think we cared more about the idea of what we're eating than about what we're eating."
"Each plant part we eat must come in its turn--leaves, buds, flowers, green fruits, ripe fruits, hard fruits--because that is the necessary order of things for an annual plant. For the life of them, they can't do it differently...
"Waiting for [some foods] is harder. It's tempting to reach for melons, red peppers, tomatoes, and other late-summer delights before summer even arrives. But it's actually possible to wait, celebrating each season when it comes, not fretting about its being absent at all other times because something else good is at hand.
"If many of us would view this style of eating as deprevation [only getting foods when they are in season], that's only because we've grown accustomed to the botanically outrageious condition of having everything, always."
"Waiting for foods to come into season means tasting them when they're good, but waiting is also part of most value equasions...It's hard to reduce our modern complex of food choices into unifying principles, but this is one that generally works: 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...
"That's the sublime paradox of a food culture: restraint equals indulgence."
"It's interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains."

I found the book at once riveting, thought-provoking, and inspiring. It's not just about eating organic foods (though Kingsolver clearly feels strongly about that, and explains why); it's not just about eating local foods (though she obviously feels strongly about that too); it's not even wholly about eating in season (although that comes closer to the mark). No, Animal Vegetable Miracle is about mindful eating. About choosing our foods--and preparing them--with conscientiousness and thought.


Emily said...

I am aware of this book's existence, but have paid little attention to it before. Now that you describe it more clearly to me, I think this is exactly what I am looking to read. Will be next on my list!

Kelly said...

Thanks for this review! I've been meaning to read this book for a while, your review is giving me a push to get busy reading! Thanks!

Carolyn said...

This book changed the way I think about food and is the reason why I've expanded my garden so much this year.

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