Saturday, August 21, 2010

Locavore Limelight: Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal Vegetable Miracle"

Just finished "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" by Barbara Kingsolver. This food/memoir/local eating guide follows Kingsolver, her husband, Steven Hopp, and two daughters, Camille and Lily, on their quest to eat local for a full calendar year-- producing much of their food from their own garden and animals. Their venture is very successful and Kingsolver's literary voice is a pleasure to hear from about this hot topic. 

In 2005, when Kingsolver and her clan were moving from their Arizona home back to their farm in Virginia to begin a life of locavore eating this way of life had yet to become popular yet. By the end of their year of food locavore was a buzz word and trying to eat closer and closer to home was trending. They are largely successful and this books give great insights into the trials and tribulations of feeding oneself off one's own land. 

This book is an absolute pleasure to read. I learned so much from Kingsolver and her family's experiences as well as from her own experiences as a writer and a food-lover. You will learn about farming and animal husbandry but also about how to preserve your harvest (whether homegrown or from the farmers market). I have gotten a great deal of inspiration from reading this and a deeper desire than I had before to (someday) provide myself with a garden full of meals. In addition to growing their own vegetables the Kingsolver's raise their own eggs (this is the work of the youngest daughter, Lily), chickens and turkey, and even make their own cheese (which I will definitely do someday for myself)! They even take a family vacation and do a great job of eating locally on the road. Their work is impressive and sounds more like fun than work to me. 

The aspect of Kingsolver's story I find to be most respectable is the balance which with she and her family set out on this 365-day venture. Off the bat she explains the exceptions to local food which each family member is allowed: Steven cannot live without coffee, Barbara chooses spices, Camille dried fruit, and Lily chocolate. There is a flexibility to their plan-- all the food must be local, but not necessarily grown by themselves. When certain things weren't available locally-- such as whole wheat flour-- they try to get a good non-local alternative-- organic whole wheat flour from Vermont. There is no all-or-nothing attitude here, making their year even more successful. There are hardly any moments of genuine doubt or despair if the project will work once they get started. And hunger is certainly not a theme here. 

Kingsolver addresses how this project is seen by her friends at different points throughout the memoir. Both Camille and Barbara address a question which they are both posed frequently: "You're a vegetarian, right?" The answer to this is addressed by each woman in the book and is one of my favorite parts. I have a real issue with vegan/vegetarianism because of how vegs/vegas must feed themselves to get the right nutrients their bodies requires to be healthy; nutrients which one loses when one stops eating meat/dairy products. Why go to all the trouble of learning how to pair certain vitamin supplements with certain foods to get the right combo for absorption when nature takes care of it for you? Meat in moderation is definitely part of the Kingsolver's way of eating, and only eating free-range meat, as well. You can see from each of the meal plans Camille includes that in a typical week their dinners will include meat at about three of seven meals. 

This goes along with the balance I mentioned this book does so well. Vegetarianism and especially veganism are first world privileges. As Kingsolver points out many third world countries have meat as a primary food source-- they could not be vegetarians if they wanted to be. The vegetarian 'meats' that are produced in this country are entirely processed-- look at a pack of veggie burgers. The first ingredient?: Processed soy protein. How is eating processed veggie burgers better for you than drinking a can of HFCS? The processing issues remain. The chapter in the book that addresses these issues is "You Can't Run Away on Harvest Day" during which Kingsolver discusses her experiences harvesting (to be terse: slaughtering) her animals. I myself have never harvested any animals, but were I given the chance I think I would. I am a meat-lover and have been all my life, it would only be right that someday I can do it for myself. I would rather see vegans and vegetarians trying to eat locally first and maybe eliminating meat and dairy second.  

While Kingsolver is the main writer of the book, Camille and Steven both contribute great entries within most of the chapters. Lily's input comes through in Kingsolver's writing and dialogue with her but as she explains it she "was too young to sign a book contract." The additions from Camille and Steven round out the book. This year of local eating was a family's work, not just Barbara's, and these short inserts reflect this best. 

Camille Kingsolver contributes a section at the end some chapters where she highlights her personal experiences with food & local eating and gives recipes and meal plans her family enjoyed throughout the year. It is mentioned multiple times what a great cook she is; her recipes can be found on the book's website. I really enjoy these sections of the book for the recipes (see my picture of "Eggs in a Nest" the first recipe from the book) as well as for Camille's perspective as one of my peers. Midway through the year Camille leaves for college. Going away to school is the time when a lot of people start making their own dietary decisions. Their food dollars (even if they are in for the form of dining hall credit) are spent by that student. The fact of this matter for Camille?: eating on a college campus IS difficult when you expect fresh, local, preservative-free ingredients and produce. 

On my own campus the dining system tried to include some local produce occasionally but it was a rarity. During my time at SUNY Geneseo a Community Garden Project was started and is still going today. Ideally someday the food produced in the garden would be used to feed students in the dining hall. What I last heard about the relationship is that since the garden doesn't produce enough and since there are regulations to the food which can be served (it is a state school which likely causes some of these impediments) the gardens produce could not be used in the dining halls. Hopefully someday that will change the the garden will increase; either way it is a move in the right direction. 

Barbara Kingsolver touches on school gardens and food projects (mostly in primary-high school levels). They are great ways for students to relearn what food is and from where it really comes. Like so many movements in food, this was started primarily through Alice Water's Edible Schoolyard but has been taken up across the country. Another program I learned about during my time at Geneseo was Rochester Roots which does the same sort of thing for inner city schools in Rochester, NY. This is a great way to revolutionize the way Americans eat and teach a nation to become more self-sufficient in feeding themselves. 

Steven Hopp's sections in each chapter which give a more political/activist perspective relate to issues brought up by Kingsolver within the chapter.  As a professor in Environmental Studies at Emory & Henry College he also brings balance to this book by taking a look as the impact of processed food and reinforcing arguments as to why one should try to eat local whenever possible. He provides resources for how to start eating more locally yourself and the issues locavory faces and ways to help make changes.

The book itself serves as a wealth of resources for eating locally, finding places to get local food, and ways to connect with people who are leading the locavore movements across the country. The back of the book has pages of resources and organizations related to slow food, local food, and sustainable food. 

Since I began reading this my perspective of food has shifted. I began reading in June, just as every farmer's market in New York City was in full swing and local food was in its annual prime. I hardly ever go to the grocery store now, when I do it is mostly to get grains. I hope as the temperatures fall and crops go dormant that I will make an effort to keep trying to eat as local as I can. I have already started preserving my own harvest-- buying more than I need at the market then freezing for the winter. September's issue of Everyday Food has great ways to freeze and recipes for cooking main overflow crops like corn and tomatoes (yes, freezing WHOLE tomatoes, best idea ever!). Just this afternoon I froze corn kernels from fresh corn I bought for $2/5 ears today-- same cost as a bag of frozen corn from the super market but I know just where it came from (Migliorelli Farm). Fresh Direct is where I will be shopping when most of the markets are closed and fortunately for me they have increased their local food section! 

This book will change the way you see your food and help you to stop seeing processed foods as foods at all. A great book to pair with Animal Vegetable Miracle is Amy Cotler's The Locavore Way which serves as a handbook to eating locally. I plan to do a post about that when I have finished reading. In the meanwhile pick these books up for yourself and let me know what you think!! 

Happy eating & reading! 

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

What a beautiful review and gained insight on the availability of real food. Fresh direct would be your best bet for winter "good food".

Your passion is undeniable.
You have given a queens hallmark on any book, place or food that you have written about.
These places that you reference are lucky to have your insightful support.