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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2007
Category: Food and Wine

Just as Barbara Kingsolver and her family were leaving their beloved Arizona home, the local authorities made an announcement. It was fine to drink the water, they said. Just don’t put it in an aquarium — it will kill your fish.

“Drink it we did,” Kingsolver reports. ”Filled our coffee makers too, and mixed our children’s juice concentrate with fluid that would gag a guppy. Oh, America the Beautiful, where are our standards?”

That question is at the heart of “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, Kingsolver’s account — with her husband and 19-year-old daughter — of a year trying to live up to a very high standard indeed.

To wit: On a hundred-acre farm in Virginia, her family “made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew…to get our food so close to home we’d know the person who grew it.”

That means — if you live in the mountains of Virginia — no seafood. No peaches out of season. No candy. And no “industrial” food that has been shot full of chemicals and manufactured in a factory so far from anywhere that the energy cost of delivering it is cringeworthy.

Why would anyone go to such ridiculous lengths to feed her family?

Especially: Why would Barbara Kingsolver? She is, after all, one of America’s most successful novelists. The Poisonwood Bible was a bestseller before Oprah chose it for her book club. She’s regularly nominated for literary awards. And conservative media commentator Bernard Goldberg named her the 74th most dangerous person in America.

So why would Barbara Kingsolver and her brood struggle to cultivate 4,000 square feet on a Virginia hillside? Slaughter chickens and turkeys? Spend August in a permanent sweat as they harvested and canned?

Start with Kingsolver’s understanding that everything begins with food. (“You are what you eat.”) And that our federal government is not only failing to protect the safety of our food, it’s working with large corporations to make our food less safe. The solution: “reaching down inside ourselves and pulling out a new kind of person.”

Others have covered this ground, most notably Michael Pollan (reviewed here and here) and Nina Planck. But Barbara Kingsolver writes as a wife and mother of two daughters. She not only has a Master’s Degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology — betcha even the Kingsolver fans among you didn’t know that — she’s spunky, funny, personable. If you’ve read the other books, you’ll still find this a pleasure; if you haven’t, read this first.

For one thing, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” delivers the harsh facts with quick, non-judgmental efficiency:

– Seventy percent of all supermarket chickens in America carry campylobacter and/or salmonella bacteria. (Ninety-eight percent of all US chickens are produced by large corporations.)

– Twenty-three percent of the pesticides approved for agricultural use are listed by the EPA as carcinogenic in humans.

– The National Uniformity for Food Act [a federal statute] eliminates 200 state-initiated food safety laws that differ — read: have more teeth — from federal laws. (Who supported this bill: the American Frozen Food Institute, ConAgra, Cargill, Dean Foods, Hormel, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Quite the group.)

But it’s not just the way our federal government sides, every time, with Big Agra that drives Kingsolver nuts. It’s also the energy cost of transporting food:

Transporting a single calorie of a perishable fresh fruit from California to New York takes about 87 calories worth of fuel. That’s as efficient as driving from Philadelphia to Annapolis, and back, in order to walk three miles on a treadmill in a Maryland gym.

Her husband notes:

If every American ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels.

But enough of the fire-and-brimstone. The good news is that 3 per cent of all American food now moves directly from the farmer to the consumer. That happens in farmer’s markets. And it’s there that we learn just what “organic” means. (Don’t, for a minute, think a government definition will offer much protection.) And what it’s like to step into what might be called New 21st Century Consciousness.

In this new consciousness, we’re not victims. We don’t look to blame others. We think for ourselves. We rely on ourselves. We find our place in a community. And we understand where we fit in the natural order. Which can be quite comical. You’ll laugh out loud at Kingsolver slaughtering chickens and the feathers that follow the killers around, “post-it notes from the chicken hereafter.” You’ll thrill to her account of turkey sex. (Well, you’ll be appalled, but that’s not to say you’ll turn away.) You’ll cheer her kids as they’re weaned of all foods containing the single worst product of all — High Fructose Corn Syrup. And you’ll envy Kingsolver as her family and friends gather on Friday nights for homemade pizza.

Kingsolver’s year of living righteously had no ill effects. A family learned what it needed and what it could do without. No one starved. Money was saved. And four people treated the planet with a lot more kindness — and consciousness — than most of us do, amd had fun along the way.

Did I say that this book is full of great recipes that are light years from granola? That the index is rich in resources that will help you take the next step? And that Kingsolver’s no moralist?

That last is key. Kingsolver knows you don’t live on a farm, or perhaps not even near one. All she hopes is that you’ll start thinking about these questions. And making even the smallest change. How high you set the bar — that’s up to you. “If a friend had a coronary scare and finally started exercising three days a week,” she writes, “who would hound him about the other four days?”

I once lived on a farm. I’ve weeded, harvested, canned. It’s not for me. I doubt it’s for you. But a flat of raspberries jetted up from Chile in January — what about that? Is that for you?

I believe, with Barbara Kingsolver, that a great many things will start to change if more of us say no to those berries.

To buy “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” from Amazon.com, click here.

To buy “The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel” from Amazon.com, click here.

To buy “Small Wonder: Essays” from Amazon.com, click here.

To buy “The Bean Trees" from Amazon.com, click here.

To buy “Pigs in Heaven” from Amazon.com, click here.