The book market is becoming
filled with tomes advising us how to save our planet (or more accurately, keep it habitable for humanity). Some
of these 'green reads' are earnest,
some are epicurean, all beat the environmental
drum, and most will only be read by those already
leaning towards that way of thinking. Animal,
Vegetable, Miracle stands out from the crowd
because it is a book that has the ability to appeal
to the crowd. It
is to food as Bill Bryson's books are to travel -
accessible and appealing to a far wider audience
than most of its genre. With input from her
biologist husband, Steven (who provides footnotes
relating to the food industry) and 19-year-old
daughter, Camille (who provides tasty recipes and
the voice of a younger generation) Barbara
Kingsolver chronicles a year in which her family
lived as close to the land as they could - buying
locally grown foods or growing it themselves, while
also maintaining their day jobs.
The result is an honest to goodness, often laugh-out-loud funny read which evangelizes without proselytizing, educates and inspires without berating. The reports of 9-year-old Lily's egg business, and the reproductive habits of turkeys who've forgotten how to reproduce naturally after generations of artificial insemination and incubators, are particularly entertaining.
Having said that, not all reviewers are inspired. Negative reviews come from those who feel that Kingsolver is promoting a la-la land idyll that isn't sustainable by real people on real budgets. These reviewers point to the fact that organic foods bought in the supermarket are almost always substantially more expensive than conventionally grown foods, and they get positively apoplectic about Kingsolver and her husband swanning off to Italy in a carbon-emitting jet propelled airplane for a two-week second honeymoon in the middle of their "locavore" year.
Admittedly, the international vacation is something of a red rag to a bull but Kingsolver is not setting herself up as a saint and the couple's observations of Italian life, where local foods are prized above all, does offer a valuable contrast to the USA, where few supermarket shoppers are interested to know where their food has come from.
However, the reviewers who write-off Animal, Vegetable, Miracle because organic foods in the supermarket are too expensive seem to have substantially missed the point of Kingsolver's book, to the point that it's questionable if they actually read it! First of all, the Kingsolvers were following a local diet, not an organic one! Not once in the year do they buy a bijou package of overpriced organic vegetables from a supermarket. Instead they eschew the supermarket in favor of seeking out locally grown foods usually grown themselves or bought from local farmers' markets - and save money in the process.
Although the family's aim was to buy local not organic, the reality is that much of the food they bought (and all that they produced) was as good as, if not better, than a food labeled 'organic', even though it may not have been labeled as such. This is because many small farms, even if they adhere to organic standards, cannot afford to label themselves organic because of the cost and time involved in paperwork. Added to which, the 'organic label is being tarnished by big industrial farms who hold to the letter of the regulations but not to the spirit. For example, a chicken can be sold as "free range" if the house in which it's confined with 20,000 others has a doorway leading out to a tiny yard, even though that doorway remains shut for much of the chicken's life.
At the end of the day, what could be more important than the food we eat? On average, US consumers spend a lower proportion of their income on food than people from any other country and less than any previous generation. Kingsolver makes a good case that buying locally grown food is not just for the rich elite. Her calculations of buying food locally add up to substantial savings for her family during the year, and that is without factoring in the hidden costs in the form of the subsidies that we pay for conventionally farmed foods (about $80 billion per year, or $725 per household).
Kingsolver is not suggesting that we all abandon the cities to go back to life on the land, but she does illustrate how profoundly out of touch with our roots our culture has become when the ability to solve quadratic equations is prized far higher than the knowledge of how to grow a meal!
About the Author
Barbara Kingsolver is the author of novels such as The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees and Prodigal Summer. She was born in 1955 and grew up "in the middle of an alfalfa field," in the part of eastern Kentucky that lies between the opulent horse farms and the impoverished coal fields. She left Kentucky to attend DePauw University in Indiana, where she majored in biology. She and her family used to live outside Tucson but now live in Southern Appalachia.
"Human manners are wildly inconsistent ... but this one takes the cake: the manner in which we're allowed to steal from future generations, while commanding them not to do that to us, and rolling our eyes at anyone who is tediously PC enough to point this out. The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners." - Barbara Kingsolver.
Animalvegetablemiracle.com with plentiful links to additional resources including:
This review was originally published in May 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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