A review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

This review is cross-posted from La Fleur Epuisee

This week, I finished this lovely book. I’m a bit behind on the bandwagon, but I’m glad I finally got around to it: finishing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle left me feeling challenged and alive and hopeful.

The book is Kingsolver’s account of a year’s experiment in local eating. She, along with her husband and two daughters, set out to fully occupy their Virginia land, gardening and raising animals, canning and freezing, cooking from scratch, and purchasing what they could not make (with a few exceptions) from sources as nearby as possible. It’s a beautifully written narrative, combining experience and research. Kingsolver’s husband Steven Hopp provides succinct (and sometimes zingy) sidebars on the politics and science of U.S. food economics, and her daughter Camille ends many of the chapters with a young person’s perspective and suggested recipes.

This is the sort of book that makes me long for a bit of land, a laundry line, a nice wide pantry, a chest freezer. Its compelling writing and solid argumentation leave me wondering how most of us continue to deceive ourselves that our participation in widespread profit-driven food practices has no lasting negative effects. The book doesn’t browbeat, but it certainly leaves me with a heavy sense of my responsibility–our responsibility–as well as our possibilities. Does our attachment to convenient, out-of-season, processed, cheap foods in the U.S. damage our own health, the health of soil, the health of local economies (in the States and across the globe), the health of global economies, the health of vulnerable migrant workers, and the health of the planet–thus the health of our children and theirs? Absolutely. Are we all free to up and leave our urban or suburban lives to go claim a bit of homestead? Not really. But are there things we can do? Absolutely.

My takeaway, at a time of year when snowy winds howl outside my third-floor windows, and I can’t exactly take up container gardening on my back fire escape or visit a bustling farmers market, is that I absolutely can

(1) seek to purchase foods from local sources (the Illinois or Wisconsin dairy products, the Michigan apples, bread from the local bakery instead of Target, even the canned goods processed nearby)
(2) seek to purchase foods that have been minimally processed (as these require the least fuel for processing and delivery) — dried beans rather than canned, for instance
(3) seek to purchase well-raised meats (which means, of course, that J and I eat far less of it on our limited budget–but we’ve been headed in this direction for a long time anyway).

During the summer, our options are broader: last year we participated in a CSA program, as well as a bit of back porch gardening (our most successful endeavor was basil, though we’ve had a some success with lettuce). Our neighborhood also now offers a Sunday farmers’ market during the warmer months.

The morning I finished the book, before the impending snow storm, I snow-booted my way over to the market for a few things: cabbage, carrots, parsnips, beets, onions, potatoes. I was proud of my choices of (mostly) cold-weather storage crops, all set to cook for the next few days. I practically patted myself on the back for passing up bananas, pineapples, and tomatoes.

But then, as I surveyed the produce section, my gaze was arrested by a woman whose caramel hands caressed first one avocado, gently pressing its pebbly skin, and then another. This woman knew her avocados. This woman was not from the blizzardy Midwestern United States: she was from somewhere further south, somewhere nearer the equator and the sun. An avocado in her hand whispered home. It meant grandmothers’ recipes and good memories and delicious soft familiarity.

One of Kingsolver’s strong points in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the importance of food culture linked to a particular place and people, the weather and land, the seasons and crops, the culture and life. She delivers a biting (and I think fair) critique of U.S. food culture as fast, convenient, and fake. Because we are a nation made up, in large part, of transplanted people, we have pockets of transplanted food culture (Italian, for instance, or Mexican), but very few strong and lasting traditions based on particular places in the U.S. Shouldn’t what one eats and how one cooks in Michigan be different from what one eats and how one cooks in southern California? (It really doesn’t help that we displaced and decimated those who had established food traditions related to these lands when we colonized them.)

I feel compelled, as the great-great-granddaughter of Polish and German and who-knows-what-all-else immigrants, as a woman with the privilege and leisure to research food sources and recipes, as a follower along a Way of peace and justice, to take responsibility–to whatever extent I can–for my participation in the messed up systems of eating and agriculture in the United States. I must follow my conscience with my meal planning, my grocery bags, and my wallet. But can I judge the immigrant who preserves her own food culture, her sense of identity and home, with goods transported from who-knows-where and grown under who-knows-what conditions? Can I raise my eyebrows at the refugee for whom vegetables from another hemisphere signify life and hope?

I cannot.

These are complicated issues, and complex questions, and long-distance produce transports are hardly the only question here. But as I’ve written about before, what about the extra time it takes to cook from scratch, or garden, or preserve food? How feasible is the move to increase our domestic labor loads within present social structures, and what other injustices might come about as a result (particularly gender work imbalance)? What thoughts do you, dear readers, have on these topics? What choices do you feel good about? What tips or resources can you recommend?

Cindy Wallace is a graduate student, a recovering fundamentalist, and a church-planting plotter with her red-goateed seminarian husband.

Comments (13)

  1. Tim Baer

    I like the thought of eating local. In Maryland we often bought local meat and local butter and local milk and local eggs. I love the idea of supporting my neighbor’s businesses. I liked that the meat was mostly organic (it wasn’t certified organic due to some bureaucratic BS). I like knowing where the stuff comes from. I dislike the thought of factory farmed, bleached meat. Or fruits ripened off the vine.

    Still, it’s not greener because it travels a shorter distance. If anything, local food likely travels a further distance. Even if it doesn’t, most of the energy is consumed in your home to freeze or cool it and to cook it. Local foods that are grown in greenhouses because they cannot grow outdoors use even more than outdoor grown food that comes half a world away.

    Reply
  2. Sam

    This was a great article! Thanks, and I look forward to whatever church planting plotting turns into.

    We also enjoy trying to eat local, and of course, going vegetarian is the most environmentally friendly thing most people can do. However, just to be clear, city living is very much more sustainable environmentally than living in rural environments, and the denser the better. Not having to transport people, water, electricity, sewer, etc. miles and miles is a really big deal, plus allows a lot more wilderness to be preserved. So, while some (even many) people need to live in the country for the whole farming thing, I’m beginning to wonder if lawns are in fact sinful, and watering and fertilizer are definitely suspect.

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  3. CindyW

    Thanks for the comments, Tim and Sam! I’m so happy to have a bit of conversation around these questions!

    Tim, could you say a bit more about how local food travels a further distance? Also, do you have stats on comparisons of energy use for greenhouse foods produced down the road vs. foods transported across the globe? I think you’re right on about attempts at growing things out of season/in zones not suited. This is the genius of Kingsolver’s project, which was to eat both locally and in season. The in season part makes for a bit more challenge.

    Do you have any thoughts on the ethics of the labor of home canning vs. factoring canning? I’m still trying to think through these things.

    And Sam, I’m with you questioning lawn-watering and fertilizer! Since living in the city, I’ve had new eyes for some practices that used to strike me as so normal. (Also: having four cars in one family? I was from the suburbs of the Motor City, but still…)

    I’m intrigued by these claims about city living vs. rural living. Do you think people can live in cities off of sustainably/ethically produced foods? Which is to say, do you think factory farming of foods and meats is better because it accomplishes more on less land? Is the goal of “environmentalism” simply to preserve as much “wilderness” as possible? Is city living good for humans? I have all these questions on the brain because I know an eco-critic in my lit department who has been posing similar ones to her class this semester.

    End 20 Questions Session.

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  4. Tim Baer

    How is it that I jump from ultra-conservative lunatic fringe conversations to ultra-liberal ones like this? How do I get stuck doing this? Oh yeah, I choose it. Why, God, why? Am I some sort of sadist?

    As an ex-city dweller the thought of one or several giant cities and few other settlements seems appealing. Everyone crammed into one giant space, coughing on each-other, and rats everywhere. Sounds appealing. Wait…didn’t someone write about this a while back? Oh yeah, razor kingpin Gillette did and called it “The Human Drift”. Sure, I can’t imagine anything horrible about centralizing power into a few urban areas. Nothing at all. We should all be the same: efficient meat automatons, creating goods and services in the name of monopolizing the human race. Sounds swell. Sign me up. /sarcasm

    I, for one, believe people are more than simple efficiency. They are human beings whose emotions can’t be boxed in to make life into someone else’s preconceived notions of “easier” or “friendlier” or whatever. But I’m a capitalist and a likely racist, and I eat babies, so what do I know? /SarcasmAgain.

    I’ll end my tirade about sprawl right here. My apologies to all the offended parties.

    Tim, could you say a bit more about how local food travels a further distance?

    Sure. It’s not really about how far your apple travels, it’s about how many miles per apple. Imagine a farmer’s market. Let’s say you have 50 vendors selling apples at a farmer’s market. Each vendor travels 30 miles each way (60 miles). And each vendor brings 500 apples. That’s 25,000 apples and 3,000 total miles. That means each apple travels .12 miles. In separate pickup trucks. If all the apples aren’t sold, they probably make the same trip the following weekend.

    Now let’s say you send half a million apples across the country in an 18 wheeler. It’s roughly the same amount of miles, lots more product, and the truck retuns with goods. The apples don’t make any second trip. Each apple actually travels a fraction of the distance.

    Do you have any thoughts on the ethics of the labor of home canning vs. factoring canning?

    Sure, factory canning allows a few people to can lots of stuff rather than lots of people canning a few things. If you can it yourself, awesome. If there’s some sort of labor disparity between the genders then I guess everyone’s eating.

    This is the genius of Kingsolver’s project, which was to eat both locally and in season. The in season part makes for a bit more challenge.

    If you’re talking about carbon footprint, season is all that matters. Locality is unimportant in regards to carbon emissions. As I mentioned, local foods increase carbon emissions. Taste and the local economy are other factors, however. Local foods are likely fresher. And if you’ve ever had a blueberry 5 seconds off the vine you know what I mean.

    Is city living good for humans?

    Probably not. As people pack in bad things tend to happen. Then those bad things get magnified in dense crowds. But that is a seperate topic altogether.

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  5. Sam

    Tim,
    you’re definitely a sadist! But I’m glad people are out there discussing, learning, and growing together. I think its great when we let the little ‘brainstorms’ we have out into the world, so that we can have them tempered by the spiritual community.

    Anyway, few thoughts. Surely there is a middle ground we can agree on-a lot of different sized human developments would be a good thing, to increase variety, and to fit different people’s needs. We could use more and better cities: better public transit, fewer suburbs, fewer cars, less crime, better education, things like that. But even with all of that, city property values are really high, because people want to live there. If we built more of them, prices would come down. I’m fine saying not everyone should live in cities, but since there’s evidence that there is an undersupply of high quality high density property, we should keep making more of it, since its definitely environmentally better on a per person basis.

    As to whether cities are good for humans-I think, on the whole yes, since they allow creativity, a host of different lifestyles, and a more sustainable future for our planet. I don’t really think bad happen because people pack in-I think ‘bad things happen’ when there are a lot of poor people in one place, and when really significant wealth differences exist, and cities are magnets for the poorest of the poor, because they offer opportunity, and the richest of the rich, for the same reason.

    In terms of local eating/factory farming, etc. I don’t know-I care about animal welfare, I worry about monoculture, I think King Corn and ethanol are looking more and more evil all the time, but I also think efficiency, while not the be all and end all value is pretty important when we’re talking about the numbers of people we need to feed in the world.

    What I’d really like is a nice carbon tax, so the most obvious environmental costs of my choices would get priced into what I was buying, an anti-car national structure that spent more on public transit and less on roads, increased the gas tax a lot, and improved the walkability of communities of all different sizes, as well as local municipalities that embraced denser building codes.

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  6. Tim Baer

    Anyway, few thoughts. Surely there is a middle ground we can agree on-a lot of different sized human developments would be a good thing, to increase variety, and to fit different people’s needs. We could use more and better cities: better public transit, fewer suburbs, fewer cars, less crime, better education, things like that. But even with all of that, city property values are really high, because people want to live there. If we built more of them, prices would come down. I’m fine saying not everyone should live in cities, but since there’s evidence that there is an undersupply of high quality high density property, we should keep making more of it, since its definitely environmentally better on a per person basis.

    I wouldn’t say prices are higher in the cities. Certainly you have New York and San Fransico and a few others with high property values. And certain parts of DC are real high. But Baltimore, Oakland, Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Jacksonville all buck that “trend”. The surrounding suburbs of those places have much higher values than the cities themselves. The argument that people want to live in cities is barely even debatable. When I lived in Baltimore lots of people moved into the city. Mostly young couples or singles. Then they had kids. Then they moved out. Certain types of people in certain stages of their life like cities. Most people don’t. For instance, Mattydale in Syracuse (where I live) is prolly the most family friendly neighborhood in the city. Median price? 85k. Cicero, the suburban neighborhood I live in, has a median price double that, 167k. The price reflects the preference.

    What I’d really like is a nice carbon tax, so the most obvious environmental costs of my choices would get priced into what I was buying, an anti-car national structure that spent more on public transit and less on roads, increased the gas tax a lot, and improved the walkability of communities of all different sizes, as well as local municipalities that embraced denser building codes.

    And that would simultaneously drive up the price of everything else. I deal with businesses EVERYDAY. Small business owners. I have hundreds and hundreds of them as customers. Nearly universally you know what they hate? Taxes. The government. I have customers who haven’t made a profit in YEARS. I have customers who don’t PAY THEMSELVES for months at a time. I have customers who have laid off half their workforce. Sure, a nice carbon tax could raise the price of all goods. Nothing could make us less viable on the world market then a nice new tax. China would have a field day, if they haven’t already. Prepare to ship even more jobs overseas. We could tax energy usage as it comes in on your electric bill. The employees could pay a tax for the gas they use to get to work, if they still have a job. They could move to Baltimore with it’s great public transit system, 4 different trains with four different routes and endless transfers and a bus system that drains millions from taxpayers every year (Did I mention the bus system in Baltimore is likely slower than a bicycle? That’s if you dare to bike York Road in rush hour traffic. Have fun with that). And we could rebuild the whole dang infrastructure to make it walkable through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the western hemisphere. Yeah, a carbon tax!

    How about this instead? How about cities get their rear in gear with what they think they can offer their citizens? Instead of building a completely useless infrastructure and telling us to use it, they build a decent infrastructure of public transit? Cities have shown an unwillingness to do this. How about good schools? Most cities have lousy schools so families leave. Offer vouchers. Encourage religious and secular private schools and give them the same cash per student that the public schools receive, not some partial parting gift. Cities have shown an unwillingness to do this. Instead of a carbon tax, offer vast tax incentives for each employee employed by a business in a city. If you’re concerned about the environment, and getting people to move to a city is how you think we could protect it, encouraging businesses to go there is the key, not taxing their profits where they exist now. Cities have shown an unwillingness to do this.

    Look at our President now. He wants a “high speed” train from Orlando to Tampa (The Japanese would laugh at our idea of “high speed”). The only place commuter trains are viable in the WHOLE COUNTRY is Boston to DC. But no, they want their pet project near Disney. Yeah, and I hate, hate, hate to be a partisan prick about this, but the Democrats, for all their talk about commuter rail and green transportation, decide to build a train in one of the least economically sane places to do so in the whole country. So, again, pardon me if I don’t trust centralized authority to make wise or sensible decisions. That’s prolly another reason why people don’t live in cities. They want to be left alone by do-gooder lunatics with high ideals that never pan out. With that in mind; a single wide trailer, 2 acres of land, $8 an hour, and a rifle look darn good.

    Reply
  7. Sam

    On this same topic,
    this guy is neat.
    http://www.ryanavent.com/blog/

    Just to be clear, most suburbs are clearly part of ‘cities’ in any economic sense of the word. City limits have nothing to do with it. And of course, you’re right, if you ignore a bunch of the largest cities in the country (NY, Chicago, LA, Philly, DC, Miami, San Fran, Seattle, Portland, Boston, etc.) there are a lot of midsized industrial cities in the Midwest where the city center is in a lot of trouble. I’m not unaware that cities can be broken and dangerous places.

    I can think of lots of ways for cities to get their act together, including using more money on public transit as you suggest. New York is the only internationally competitive public transit system in this country. I’m certainly not opposed to vouchers or charter schools. I’m all for making cities better, and am working to improve my own.

    There are high speed rail tracks being worked on all over-the NE corridor, through Illinois, down central California, as well as across Florida. I mean, of the suggested corridors, Florida is not the most ridiculous. Florida is a highly populated state, with a bunch of good sized cities reasonably close together. That’s exactly what you’re looking for in rail transit. And what does ‘viable’ mean? If it means ‘able to survive without government support’ well, yeah. Its not like the interstate highway system survives without government support either. Its just a question of what we spend our money on-roads or rails. Rails and other public transit options are obviously better for the planet.

    Finally, on taxes: I’m happy to trade a carbon tax for other types of taxes, that would be fine. We could decrease other types of business taxes instead. I’d also be happy to have a carbon tariff on countries that don’t equivalently price pollution (e.g., China) to encourage them to enact pollution controls. But I’m also willing to sacrifice some business growth to stop global warming. Yes, things would be more expensive. That’s because right now we’re not paying for the pollution we’re enjoying.

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  8. CindyW

    So, Tim and Sam: will you read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?

    Reply
  9. Joseph P

    Tim B, you outline some important (and for me, new) considerations regarding the environmental ethics of local food.

    I see two things that might lessen the strength of your argument against local foods. First, your rubric doesn’t calculate that the 18-wheeler uses more gas per mile than that farmers market trucks. Secondly, it assumes that the half-million apples were harvested from one farm and traveled zero miles to the truck. Is it more realistic to assume that multiple farmers drove many miles to a distribution center before the 18-wheeler was loaded with apples?

    Naturally, it goes without saying that if your local farmer only drove five miles to the market, you’re doing better than if they drove 30, as your rubric assumes.

    In any case, Tim, you’ve definitely challenged my thinking on that issues.

    CindyW, thanks for the article. I would like to read the book if I can find time. I like the idea of food being linked to culture, people, place, etc.

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  10. tim b

    First, your rubric doesn’t calculate that the 18-wheeler uses more gas per mile than that farmers market trucks.

    This is incorrect. What would be more efficient? One bus carrying 30 people that gets 8 miles to the gallon? Or 30 Prius’ carrying each carrying 1 person? Less MPG doesn’t necessarily mean much here.

    Secondly, it assumes that the half-million apples were harvested from one farm and traveled zero miles to the truck.

    For many farm operations a large conglomerate like comes to the farm to pick up the produce. So, yes, saying that they travel zero miles to the truck would be accurate.

    Naturally, it goes without saying that if your local farmer only drove five miles to the market, you’re doing better than if they drove 30, as your rubric assumes.

    Sure. At our market we have farmers that come from right around the corner. We have farmers that come from 45 miles to the south or East. We have Wineries that come from 75 miles away. It all depends. I was using an average. It was certainly not true of any sort of accurate mileage.

    Again, I’m not opposed to local foods. But the minute I heard arguments supporting local foods in regards to food miles I knew it sounded too simplistic to have any truth involved. Further research showed that the vast amount of natural resources used to make your food happen in your kitchen.

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  11. Joseph P

    Tim, in any case the mpg point makes a negligible difference in the equation (so I probably shouldn’t have bothered with it), but strictly speaking the total 3,000 miles driven by 50 small farmers would be in more fuel-efficient vehicles than the one semi that drives 3,000 by itself.

    Forgive my skepticism on the issue. I’ll come around slowly but I just need to look at it from every angle. It is counter-intuitive after all, right?

    I found the New York Times op-ed piece on this topic (“Math lessons for locavores”). Good food for thought.

    I’m skeptical that the apple I buy from a grocery store came directly on a semi-truck from the farm. It probably sat in cold-storage (another expense) at a distribution center or two.

    I guess the “food-mile” ideal is a big farm five miles from town that trucks half a million apples to the Kroger in the city center.

    Anyway, local food is yummy. Maybe it’s true that fretting over food miles is fighting the wrong battle.

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  12. tim b

    I can certainly agree with your last two sentences.

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  13. Bennie Links

    I was able to pay off a new 1992 Honda Accord within 6 months, and it was still going strong in the fall of 2008 with 252,000 miles when I hit a deer . While I had some high maintenance years (up to $2000 on a really bad year), all maintenance costs (including oil changes) averaged to less than $70/month for the life of the car. And my insurance was down to less than $50/month. And I did splurge on occasional detailing (~$130 and worth every penny I only did it 2 or 3 times over the 16 years), so the car didn’t quite have a new car smell, but it was close .

    Reply

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