Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm what you might call . . . indoorsy. That's a Jim Gaffigan line; I saw it on TV. But he's right about me; I operate on a simple premise: What if something's on TV and it's never on again?
That's a line from "The Outdoor Type" by the Lemonheads. I heard it on the radio when I was sitting around my house. But by now you get the point. I'm not the most likely person to read a three-hundred-page book about farming. But that's exactly what I did during this spring of my Year of Overdue Books. I was given Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver from an author-friend of mine several years ago; she had noticed that another author-friend of mine had given me a copy of Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and thought, Dave must be a foodie. In reality, he had given me Omnivore's Dilemma as an example of how he wanted to write. So I sort of got this book under false pretenses, and so I let it sit for a while.
In the meantime, I was also letting our garden plot sit for a while, and it wasn't very forgiving. Weeds everywhere, and not a single tomato to show for it. This year I resolved two things: to catch up on my reading and to recover our garden. So far I've accomplished goal number one; reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has been good motivation toward goal number two.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a family affair: Barbara Kingsolver writes the majority of the prose, walking us through a year of living off the food that they or their neighbors have grown. Her husband, Steven L. Hopp, writes sidebar articles about food justice; their daughter, Camille, writes reflections from young adulthood and shares seasonal family recipes. These are crops and animals that flourish in the temperate zone of southern Appalachia--asparagus in the spring, tomatoes all through the summer, potatoes in the fall, squash and whatever you've frozen all through the winter. Kingsolver writes beautifully, candidly, effectively about both the costs and the benefits of locavory (eating locally); I was almost made willing to plant asparagus after reading the first two chapters, even though my wife hates asparagus and you get nothing for your trouble for the first two years, and I'm a horrible gardener. She also makes a strong cautionary case for laying off the omnivory, citing our eating habits, and the industrial food industry that feeds us, as prime suspects in climate change and the decline of the west. It was hard to close Kingsolver's book and enjoy my daily breakfast of Peanut Butter Cheerios--Lord knows I tried.
As good as the book was, and as compelling as her case, I did find it harder to get through than Omnivore's Dilemma. I think it's a relatively simple reason, actually: Pollan's experiment in that book was more inquisitive, testing rival theories about food along the way to a final feast of food with remarkably local provenance. Kingsolver's experiment was less inquisitive and more resolute, more all-consuming. To call it an experiment is unfair to experiments; this was a family covenant made more marketable by use of the language of experimentation. Kingsolver and her family had, whether consciously or not, spent years preparing for this move across country, this decision to only eat what they could provide themselves or buy from neighbors. They had prior knowledge to draw on and established relationships to provide moral support. Me, I have a suburban home with a small plot and neighbors who couldn't care less whether I grow my green peppers or buy them off an eighteen-wheeler. I'm not predisposed to the life overhaul chronicled in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; I'm indoorsy, and I like it.
Nevertheless, I got some good ideas and some good nudging toward keeping my garden from weeding out. Further rewards will, presumably, come later this summer as my heirloom tomatoes and lettuce and whatnot start to deliver the goods. Next year I'll read something like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (an author-friend gave me a copy of Year of Plenty a few weeks ago) and try to keep myself motivated to give up the couch every now and then to do my part to save the planet. Till then, happy eating!
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