Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver,  Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 2007)

When we were visiting Janet, a friend of hers was reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  The friend wasn’t totally happy with it, but it sounded intriguing enough that I borrowed it from the library when we returned.

I’m not totally happy with it either.  Kingsolver apparently doesn't know much about capitalism and corporations other than the standard leftist line, so every time she ventures into politics she becomes more annoying than enlightening.  She also seems to have a vendetta against anyone who doesn't believe in evolution (she has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology, which may explain a lot) and can't resist making totally unnecessary snide comments in which she reveals how little she really knows about most people who don’t accept the entire package of evolutionary theory.  She likes to point to microevolutionary changes and say, in effect, "See, take that! You ignorant creationists!" when in fact that is not a part of the theory creationists generally have a problem with.  She also misquotes the Bible at one point, which ought to have been caught by a proofreader, but that merely rankles; it doesn’t affect any of her arguments.

Be that as it may, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is well worth reading.  As a writer, Barbara Kingsolver combines a poet’s ear for language with an entertainer’s sense of presentation.  Even if I had found the subject dull, I believe I would have enjoyed reading this book.

The subject is by no means dull.  Kingsolver, her husband, and her two daughters decided to move to rural Virginia and dedicate a year to eating only what they grew themselves or that was grown nearby (with a very few exceptions, such as coffee and some spices).  In the process of following the family’s adventures, the reader learns too much for comfort about the sad state of eating in this most food-wealthy of nations.

For quite a while now I’ve been becoming increasingly uncomfortable with our “factory farming” methods of producing food, but my concerns were generally limited to two:  Cruelty to the animals and the associated pollution of their meat and milk with stress hormones, not to mention antibiotics and other unwanted chemicals; and the loss of flavor in our food.

These are certainly important issues, but there are many, many more.  I’ll mention here only one, perhaps the most frightening, though the book doesn’t give it as much prominence as I think it deserves:  Our food supply is no longer self-sustainable.  Plants and animals have for years been bred for many characteristics, but those which encourage reproduction, by seed or by sex, are not among them.  Those who sell seeds have little interest in plants that will allow the farmer to save seeds from his current crop rather than purchasing new seeds for the next year.  Characteristics that make animals successful reproducers are not generally compatible with the technique of keeping animals in close confinement, and besides, artificial insemination is more reliable and predictable, so that’s the way our agricultural animals are reproduced.  I find the idea of a food supply that can’t last beyond the current generation without artificial intervention to be very, very scary.  Closely related is the way we have bred variety out of our food plants and animals.  Ninety-nine percent of the turkeys we eat, for example, are of a single breed, the Broad-Breasted White.  All I can think of when I hear numbers like that is the Irish Potato Famine.  We may end up owing our lives to heritage and heirloom plant and animal breeders like our friend at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm.

This family’s year-long experiment could be considered a time of deprivation, but it was a time of abundance and joy.  They would be the first to say it would not have been so joyful had they been trying to earn their living as farmers.  With their living secured by outside employment, their farm work, onerous and time-consuming as it was, was more in the nature of a hobby—albeit one that bore primary responsibility for putting food on the table—than a job.  They only had to feed themselves, not figure out how to sell food to others.  The work of raising, harvesting, and preserving their plant and animal crops was hard, but also worthwhile, meditative, and restorative.

I don’t believe the author would recommend their course for everyone, but she rightfully and strongly believes everyone should know a lot more than we do about where our food comes from, how it grows, and how it gets to us.  Most of us could benefit from planting small gardens of our own, be it only a window box-full.  Buying whatever we can from local farmers’ markets would improve our eating while supporting small farmers, and some of us might even consider encouraging our political leaders to transfer some of the government’s farm subsidies from mega-conglomerates to small-scale farms and individual farmers, as an investment in a more sustainable (not to mention flavorful) future.
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Edit
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Dear Linda,
You too are a very good writer, and I have enjoyed both the contents and the style of your email. (I personally prefer this to the mails which seem to be someone's scribbled post -it notes tacke on the refrigerator. (If it is appropriate, you may use excerpts from this letter for your blog.)

As I already returned my copy of the book, I cannot make direct quotes, but I will give you my feed-back-both positve and negative. It is always refreshing to read of a family that cooperates together for the good of the whole, and that sees itself a s more than an island in a sea of neighbors with whom they have and wish no contact. There has got to be some happy medium between people in the world who seem ready to swallow whatever the current politically and socially correct notions are (swallow whole and without thinking) and those serious families (maybe we are one of them) that are sometimes so astounded and horrified at what is going on out there that we want to hide in our own little bubble.
As you mentioned, the book is not realistic, as the experiment was not only their sole source of income; a cynic could say they used the farming experiment to (have book material and) make money. Uggh. The tone came across to me as extremely preachy and condescending. But then I may be influenced by the one previous bokk I have read of Kingsolver's.
My relatives are dairy farmers in WI, and not only raised 6 children, but took in up to 6 juvenile delinquents from cities, giving them worthwhile work and a safer, definitely warmer environment. Two of these children, they adopted. This particular couple I have always loved and admired, but I see now that part of their motivation must have been that of a strapped financial position. They never complained, but I do remember the astronomical costs of farm equipment, which they would never own, but would simply pay off, and I remember their barn being burned to the ground by one of the boys who was also a pyromaniac. I remember the time Uncle fell off the roof and broke several bones, preventing most of his work for awhile. And I recall the startling news of the eldest son, who decided to study law (big expense) instead of taking over the farm. Now that they are older, they still work like dogs. Their children may do most of the farming, but they have a number of old people who are still mostly well, but who need someone to help them. As a child ,I remember the very first time they explained insemination of the animals to us, and it was thought a great help. (Actually, the most fascinating part for me was the tanks of COLD liquid nitrogen.) Anyways, I see Kingsolver's appreciation for the family farmer as incomplete. Though one may be able to raise enough for one's own small family on a farm, one cannot send one's child to college on 1400 dollars per acre. One cannot eat the profits and sell them at the same time. It is like pouring salt in a wound to say the farmers shouln'd sell out and do things to increase their profits. The whole system must be re-thought, and what politicians are spending time and effort on these life issues when they can attract more TV time by talking about homosexual rights or what everyone else has "done wrong".

In Switzerland, there are still farmers with less than ten cows, and a field that would better be used as a ski slope. To keep these hard-workers from starving, the price of dairy and meat are artificially made quite high. Of course there are flatland farmers who make a mint on this , but I think it is not a bad idea. Even for the consumer, one thinks twice before indulging in meat, butter and cream. They are luxuries. I am not a politician, and I don't know what the best solution is for America, but I do know, from books like More With Less, that Europeans consume considerably less than Americans. I have learned to make and enjoy meat, potato and veg meals without the meat. Whereas we learned to eat meat twice a day in the States, the pediatrician here told me twice a week was sufficient. The recipes in Kingsolvers book are good. People need to "taste and see" for themselves that there really is nothing like a home-grown tomato, and that shopping from the local farmer when possible is a taste of heaven (great produce without the thistles and sweat). Yet, onemust remember that there are no local farmers in the desert, and not everyone has the good fortune of having a piece of farming land in the family.

For some melancholics, reading such a book as Kingsolvers makes all possible change seem impossible and all effort like a drop of water on the proverbial hot stone. On the more positve side, it has made me feel glad that I am able to live in such a way that I have the time and possibility to shop at an open farmers market three times a week all year round. The grocery store is a five-minute bike ride away, so I don't have to depend on frozen, packaged things. But I also realize this is a kind of luxury; many in the States only shop once every two weeks. My mom was at home, and taught us directly and indirectly the benefits of home-made bread and fresh, simple food. But how many children even know what the possibilities are for a zucchini, besides being dumped in a chocolate cake.
There is so much pressure today to make money and get things, and so this is not just about food. Ironically, one of the ways that Kingsolver learned to appreciate natural products was as a result of her trip to Italy. Not everyone has that luxury. And friends of ours who lived for a time in an Italian city, made it abundantly clear that there are just as many stressed-out city dwellers in the land of mama's good cooking that cut open a cardboard box of pre-prepared tomato sauce to put on their pasta. This is still a vast improvement over potato chips and canned hotdogs with jello, but it is a myth to imagine that you can live a fast-paced two-career life in the city and eat in the way she describes in the book.
One of the things that made me sadest (and angriest) was the lost opportunity of learning from her own child. The young girl asked a very natural question while they were working in the garden--Where do we come from? Kingsolver went into her evolution story, and the girl then asked her second question--So did you come from a monkey or were you born? Kingsolver interprets this deep questioning as a failure on her part to explain evolution adequately. Pity that she did not see deeper to her own need. Children have real questions, and they only learn to be content with false or partial answers. Which brings us back to the problem of people who simply live on the surface and for themselves. Hopefully Christians will learn to be a good example in not only their religious beliefs, but in their daily decisions and activities.

With kind regards,

Posted by mb on Monday, March 17, 2008 at 9:25 am

Thank you, Mary, for such a long thoughtful comment. It's good to hear something from the farmer's side. My great-grandparents were dairy farmers in the state of Washington, but I never knew them. I agree Kingsolver doesn't seem to have a clue about the real human beings behind the corporations she despises. She does reveal a soft spot for individuals whose situations she understands, even when they're contributing to an industry known to be harmful and with no redeeming value that I can see, by her sympathy for the small tobacco farmers who have no other way to make a living. I think she could apply this to farmers who "sell out" to factory farming methods.

I found it inspiring rather than depressing, perhaps because I still believe enough drops of water will eventually cool the hot stone. Not everyone can or will want to take the same steps that others find essential; that's why I so strongly believe in freedom of choice. To pick two areas close to my heart, I wouldn't push home birth or home education on anyone, but very much resent the efforts of others to make them difficult or impossible for those who believe them to be the best choices for their families. Anything that narrows our choices and pushes us all into sameness scares me.

I say hooray for the Swiss for supporting the 10-cow farmers! I'm a strong believer in the free market, but the Invisible Hand isn't all-knowing, and some things are worth supporting even if they make no economic sense. Japan has decided that preserving the way of life of the small farmer is one of those things; apparently Switzerland agrees. I worry about France, which as I understand it is under great pressure from the EU to stop subsidizing its small farmers.

Thanks again, Mary. Please feel free to comment more, on this or any post. :)

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, March 17, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Just a comment on the frequency of meat eating. During college, my mom was concerned about me becoming a vegetarian and pushed me to ask our doctor about it.

He asked what things I ate, and I think basically he was checking to see if I said only macrobiotic or vegan or something along those lines. (I see that wikipedia's definition of macrobiotic more liberal than I had previously heard, so perhaps I am using the wrong term).

The quote I came away with was something like, "as an American [eating lots, like a good fat American], particularly if you eat eggs and dairy, there isn't any concern about getting enough protein".

I recently purchased a book called "Extending the Table", which has all sorts of different foods from around the world, and I am quite interested to try them out. I made an African ginger tea the other day, and I think we all liked it. The cookbook has more grains than I am used to eating, but we will see what things we like.

Posted by Jon Daley on Monday, March 17, 2008 at 3:33 pm
Food Monopoly, Food Contamination
Excerpt: Jon shared Controlling Our Food on Facebook, but as that leaves out most of my readers, I'll post it here.  I almost didn't, because whoever put it up on Google Video is some sort of anti-semitic conspiracy theorist.  That doesn't negate the ...
Weblog: Lift Up Your Hearts!
Date: February 24, 2009, 10:10 am
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