Friday, September 11, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

It's pretty rare for me to take a really long time to read a book, unless it's painfully dull or tedious and I feel obligated to read it for some reason so I just keep plugging through it instead of returning it to the library. If a book is interesting, I'll dive in and ignore the housework until I finish it. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A year of food life by Barbara Kingsolver was a rare book for me since it took me weeks to finish reading but was one of the fascinating reads I've encountered in a long time. Why it took me so long to read probably had something to do with the fact that I would read two or three pages and then have to sit and think about it, or hunt down my husband and demand he talk to me about whatever it was that I just read. Takes a long time to get through a 300+ page book when you stop that often.

This book documents the year that Barbara Kingsolver, her husband and two girls spent feeding themselves entirely on food they had grown or acquired within 120 miles of their Virginia farm. The project started and ended in March, which if you've ever grown even so much as a tomato plant, you know that gardens don't really produce anything to eat until late July or August. This fact doesn't stop them and they are very clever in their acquisition of food. The exceptions to their rules include coffee, olive oil and some spices, but they took great measures to make sure they bought these through fair trade sellers, which means the grower received the greater portion of the profit instead of some huge corporation taking the bulk of the money while some South American farmer gets a few pennies. They also eat completely organically, which really isn't all that hard when all your food comes from farmer's markets and your own soil.

Kingsolver's descriptions of how they grew their own food, including chickens and turkeys was fascinating to me, but that was just half of the book. She fills the book with facts about how farming has changed in our country, how narrow our diets have become because of the lack of variety in big, industrialized farms, our national health issues related to additives in food, how the use of pesticides has done more harm to the land than good, the extinction of heirloom plants and animals, and so much more. I found it all absolutely riveting. I would drop the book and feel desperate to talk to someone about it. But most people that I approached, beside my husband, found the topic baffling or weird or incomprehensible. A couple of people gave me blank stares. "What's wrong with eating bananas?" was the general attitude. Even if I started a discussion based on the concept of feeding a family only on food that was available nearby, it was treated as a lunatic's mission, like I wanted to start a compound in Idaho and stop paying taxes.

I was already primed for a book like this, I have to say. A few years ago I had several allergic reactions to the most random assortment of food. When I narrowed it down, it was food dyes. I soon discovered that food dye is in everything. As is high fructose corn syrup and soy products. I became an avid label reader out of necessity because it's no fun to have your eyes swell shut, but soon realized that I didn't know what half the ingredients were in my jar of spaghetti sauce. Everything was packed with additives, chemicals and preservatives. It started to worry me what I was putting in my family's bodies. Then, when I kept having little girls, I started to think about the hormones in milk. My kids were milk guzzlers and I wondered if all that gossip about early puberty due to milk consumption might have some merit. When I became a fairly competent gardener last year, I decided that I wasn't going to use MiracleGro or pesticides in my garden, even taking care to avoid using treated wood in my raised boxes and hand-pulling weeds instead of using chemicals to kill them for me. I make my own bread, have experimented with making my own yogurt and cheese, I don't use boxed mixes for baking, bought 1/4 of a pig from a farmer and over 100 pounds of fruit from local growers last year, and have a subscription to Mother Earth News. So you can see that I'm a bit fruity, as my mom would kindly say.

I also live in Colorado which is rich with local produce, meat and dairy products. This is the first time I have ever had milk delivery to my home out of the three different states I've lived in. Walking into the produce section of a grocery store you can find signs everywhere that say, "Grown in Colorado". Farmers' markets are accessible, along with pick your own farms and free range meat. If I wanted to undertake the same project that Kingsolver did, it wouldn't be that hard for me. I live in the suburbs, so I don't know think raising turkeys would fly, but my husband and I have seriously considered moving to a farm some day in the near future to do that exact thing: raise and eat our own food. But we are very unusual Americans that way. I could give up bananas, oranges, kiwis and mangos to know that my food wasn't using fossil fuels by being shipped from Chile. Or I would spend the extra money to know it was coming from a fair trade farmer, not some huge corporation.

Most of that is my ideal, though. I don't buy organic produce or dairy products (other than my milk delivery) because it feels like I can't afford it. I'd rather grow or cultivate it myself than pay $4 for a container of organic sour cream. But I don't do either at this point. Kingsolver and her family were much purer disciples of their ideals than I am. I still have a long way to go.

The point of this very long post is that Kingsolver's book opened by eyes. She did a ton of research to support her opinions, but a book about the virtues of industrialized, government-subsidized corn farms could accomplish the same goal. I'm saying that I'm not naive, anybody can support their opinions with well-researched facts from any angle of any topic. But it would do our country a great deal of good to examine where our food is coming from and how it was grown. Kingsolver's book is a pretty interesting place to start.


  1. My mom told me about this book, and when she did, I began looking around at the grocery store to see what kind of local produce there was. It was a bit bleak, but there were a lot of apples and peaches. I like the concept, though. I was told that the bulk of the tomatoes we buy in the store were grown next to a nuclear plant in California. Which is why we will continue to grow our own. Farmers' markets are few and far between in our area, but I'm hopeful that more will be established. There is dairy delivery in our area, and I have considered starting that, although it's outrageously expensive. I guess the point I'm making is that I totally agree with you, and I think reading that book might be a good idea for me, although those kinds of books stress me out a little.

  2. Great post! We have worked only a little at trying to eat locally, but have worked at trying to plant fruit and berries rather than ornamental trees and shrubs, and using all of our yard in some productive way. It is really surprising how much we have put into storage in this way.

    Good for you for watching out what is in the food you eat. I used to think that I wanted to farm and be in agriculture, but it has become industrialized, and I'm glad to be working at a power plant.

  3. I love this concept and idea. Michael Pollan's books are also incredibly fascinating. Food is much more flavorful when it is eaten in season not to mention healthier. It does take what seems to be a tremendous amount of effort to ascribe to this diet though. We used to have our milk delivered, but it did get a bit expensive. However, I do pay a little more at the store and get the hormone free milk from the local dairy. It tasts so much better I think and we are slowly working on building our garden and fruit trees. So there's hope for us after all!

  4. Great post...Now I want to pick your brain for more information! Know of any farms for sale?

  5. Very interesting topic, Jenny. I wish that it wasn't so expensive to go the organic and local routes. Does she address cost in her book? I'm also curious about how she fulfilled all of her family's nutritional needs that way. I believe in the value of variety in my diet, and I just don't think I could give up oranges and bananas!

  6. The author broke down her costs at the end of the year and she saved thousands of dollars. But she was raising her own meat and growing her own food for the majority of their diet. That's a huge cut in costs, as opposed to buying organic, which is fairly expensive. They chose lots of varieties of food and made good use of their farmer's market and local growers specialties so their diet was pretty varied and tasty. There's a bunch of recipes included and a website to download them from.

    I've noticed that buying locally here is really cheap, other than the organic milk I buy from a dairy. I'm trying to learn to make my own milk products, like cheese and yogurt, so I can get more out of my milk delivery and cut costs by making those things myself. It's a learning process, that's for sure.