Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"

by Katherine Rossmoore

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

by Barbara Kingsolver

The subtitle of this delightful book about one family’s decision to move to the proverbial family farm and to eat only local foods is “A Year of Food Life”. She does in fact go through each month of the year, describing their lives, by season, on the farm. Ms. Kingsolver, who had previously lived in Tucson, Arizona (where nothing grows) with her husband and two daughters, is an accomplished novelist (The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, Prodigal Summer) and nonfiction writer.

Let’s be honest: not everyone who makes the effort to eat locally grown and produced food is lucky enough to own a family farm in the Southern United States (southwest Virginia), have a husband who is a botanist and who bakes homemade breads every week! But, this book certainly makes the case for anyone thinking of trying to practice locavore eating. For me, this book was a life-changer, as promised by Rick Hass of the Boston Sunday Globe in his blurb on the cover. Even if one is not able to entirely give up everything that’s imported and consume only locally grown and produced food, it certainly gives one a sense of the possibility and gets us thinking about the habits we cling to, like raspberries in the winter and avocados year-round.And Kingsolver has the guts, in pointing out the hypocrisy of our modern society, (after being told at a New York City dinner party that the hostess, who was serving fresh raspberries in winter, “can get anything in the world here.”) to say that she is appalled by “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 tediously PC enough to point this out. The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.”

The book goes through the seasons, starting when they arrive at the farm in March and she realizes the gravity of their commitment to the grocery list: the kids love eggs: easy! Fresh fruit and gummy worms: no way. They recognize that certain compromises have to be made for staples that have no local sustainable source, like grains, oils and coffee. As the year “springs forward,” they plant seeds and we are introduced to the concept of seed banks for plants that have been made unavailable by the corporate control of agriculture. We get an interesting lesson in botany when she talks about the plant’s life of flower to fruit to seed to plant. As they move through the seasons, the book illustrates how living this way, with a farm-based food supply, has the effect of providing a greater connection to the seasons.

In April, Kingsolver’s daughter Lilly receives baby chicks at the local post office, (mom is already raising ten tom turkeys) providing fun fodder for the local postmistress and the reader. In May, we experience the challenge of hosting a large party with only local products. In June, the family takes a vacation, visiting a farm in Ashfield, Ma, which practices organic methods but isn’t certified organic due to the costs. They also visit New England cheese maker, Ricki Carroll, and we are provided with a mozzarella recipe on page 144. They also visit a Farmers’ Diner in Vermont, where all food served is from a 100-mile radius. Naturally, without the use of herbicides, they come home to weeds but also days of plenty, including carrots, onions, garlic, and new potatoes.

August is dominated by tomatoes, and we learn about the harsh economic reality for organic farmers trying to sell their truckloads of tomatoes before they rot.

For the squeamish, don’t read the chapter on harvesting turkeys and roosters in September. We next discover, in the fall, that “root crops are the deliverance of the home-food devotee”. What to eat in January? Of course, they froze and canned and made sauces in the summer.

While I enjoyed Ms. Kingsolver’s narrative about being “Called Home”, “Waiting for Asparagus” (late March), “Eating Neighborly” (late June), “Life in a Red State” (August) and so forth, I especially enjoyed the sidebars written by her husband, Stephen Hopp, which contain gems of information about the environmental impact of our current food production methods. For example, we learn what it means to buy coffee that is “fair trade certified”, and that by paying a fair wage to the farmers who grow what we consume, we are supporting the same principles that cause us to choose to eat locally: environmental responsibility, agricultural sustainability and fair wages. We learn about “the Strange Case of Percy Schmeiser” a real life farmer from Sasketchewan who was sued by Monsanto for having some of their patented (and, yes, genetically-modified) canola seeds on his farm land. Did he actually plant the seeds? No, they got there by the natural pollination process and yet a
Canadian Court deemed it illegal for Percy’s farm to have them, since they were patented.

Ms. Kingsolver herself informs us in detail about the history of genetic modification (GM) of seeds and plants, and hybridized plants, which involves the effort to take away all control from the small farmers and keep it in the hands of the big seed companies like Monsanto and Dupont. While heirloom varieties of plants and their seeds (which are “open-pollinated” and naturally able to reproduce) became scarcer and costlier, these big companies even created a “terminator gene” that causes the plant to kill itself after one life cycle so it can’t reproduce. That way, farmers and even home gardeners, are forced to re-purchase their supply of seeds year after year. Unless. Unless one pays the extra money and goes through the extra care of handling heirloom varieties that reproduce for the sake of taste and not transportability. The author makes a convincing case that it’s worth it.

The book describes a similar, disturbing trend with the hens and roosters they bought for their farm: the ability and instinct to breed has been bred out of them. When the Kingsolver family gets around this obstacle, it’s quite funny. She warns parents, however, not to name the chicks: they are not pets if they’re being raised for meat!

Another charming aspect of this book is that their college bound daughter Camille contributes anecdotes and recipes from their year on the farm. Clearly she shares her parents’ love of vegetables, and passes some fine recipes on to us.

As the author states in the beginning of this charming book, “The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local food culture is not price but attitude”: Patience and restraint are required. Are we up to the challenge?

1 comment:

  1. Katherine,
    great review. I have not read this one yet. But now I know I have to. We recently watched the documentary "The Future of Food". Not the best film, but it does get into a lot of detail about the Monsanto seed patents. Pretty scary stuff.