Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reflections on "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"

Several months ago, over a potluck meal for two of quinoa, roasted root veggies and Brussels sprouts, my journalist friend had recommended Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I was keen to crack open the novelist's memoir of the year her family spent raising, harvesting and eating foods from their 40-acre farm in Appalachia in an attempt to quell guilt about America's unethical eating habits, but my nightstand was already stacked with a pile of books. So I declined her generous offer to lend me her copy, and promised I'd check it out from the library. I'm so glad I kept my promise; this was an entertaining, illuminating, affirming, appetizing and challenging read.

Picking up this book, I didn't really want to be converted to a new way of thinking. I'm already a fair-weather fan of farmers markets; they offer tasty heirloom produce sold by familiar faces amid the colorful bustle of my small town's downtown.  But I must confess I still do the bulk of my shopping at Aldi and Kroger for expediency's sake. Limiting my cosmopolitan taste buds to a 100-mile food radius also seemed unlikely. Growing my own food seemed even less likely. I'm a city girl with brown thumbs, inadvertently and absentmindedly killing nearly every plant I buy. Add to that my aversion to food aversions. Apart from my three-month stint with gestational diabetes, I don't bite at popular restrictive diets. My dietary philosophy, if I have one at all, is to eat lots of fresh vegetables, explore ethnic cuisines and make stuff from scratch when it's not cost- or time-prohibitive. My contribution to promoting healthful eating in the deep fried South is to sneak flax seed meal into church potlucks the way Seinfeld's wife gets her kids to eat carrot puree in their mac and cheese. All that to say I've sympathized with the slow foods, local foods, organic foods movements for quite some time, but I'm not a faithful adherent.

I found in Kingsolver's memoir just the right mix of personal narrative, ethical reflection and factual sidebars to cause me to reevaluate some of my spending and eating habits. Essentially, her choice was a matter of conscience. She and her family no longer felt justified consuming gratuitous amounts of fossil fuel or support inequitable economies just to enjoy a Costa Rican banana with breakfast. Having dabbled in raising chickens and turkeys before, Kingsolver couldn't in good conscience support industrial agriculture that dooms livestock to a cramped, sunless existence, gorging on corn mixed with their own excrement until their death. Yeah. Pretty gross. I haven't been able to buy my usual Valu-Pak chicken breasts from Kroger since. And because, as Kingsolver observes, even chicken labeled as “free range” might live confined with 20,000 others as long as the building "has a doorway leading out to a tiny yard, even though that doorway remains shut for so much of the chickens’ lives, they never learn to go outside" (122) I found it hard to buy any meat after spending several minutes squinting at the packaging.

In fact, this quote from the opening chapter describes perfectly my weekly quandary at the grocery store:
"Knowing how foods grow is to know how and when to look for them; such expertise is useful for certain kinds of people, namely, the ones who eat, no matter where they live or grocery shop. Absence of that knowledge has rendered us a nation of wary label-readers, oddly uneasy in our obligate relationship with the things we eat." (10)
And here, in a nutshell, is Kingsolver's thesis:

"The best and only defense, for both growers and the consumers who care, is a commitment to more local food economies. It may not be possible to prevent the corruption of codified organic standards when they are so broadly applied." (122)

She also talks truth about our insistence on having the world's foods at our fingertips at all times and our bemoaning the higher price of organic foods:
Bizarre as it seems, we’ve accepted the tradeoff that amounts to: “Give me every vegetable in every season, even if it tastes like a cardboard picture of its former self.” 54
"It’s interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains." 115
Beyond reminding me of my priorities, Kingsolver did something else unexpected by winning me over to the wonderment of farming. I mentioned that I'm no country girl; I'm not into farms, or allergy-inducing animal dander, or the shoe-staining rust red Southern dirt, but I seriously began picturing myself (or my sons) some day raising some chickens for eggs after reading this particularly adorable description of Kingsolver's daughter's brood of baby chicks:

"From time to time one of the babies would be overtaken by the urge for a power nap. Staggering like a drunk under the warm glow of the brooder lamp, it would shut its eyes and keel over, feet and tiny winglets sprawled out flat. More siblings keeled onto the pile, while others climbed over the fuzzy tumble in a frantic race to nowhere." (89)
And even plants become people in this poetic passage:

"This is why we do it all again every year. It’s the visible daily growth, the marvelous and unaccountable accumulation of biomass that makes for the hallelujah of a July garden. Fueled by only the stuff they drink from air and earth, the bush beans fill out their rows, the okra booms, the corn stretches eagerly toward the sky like a toddler reaching up to put on a shirt." (174) 

Other enjoyable and envy-inducing adventures included an anniversary jaunt through the farms of Tuscany where every meal is apparently the best you've ever eaten, a cheese-making workshop in New England and a series of beautiful food-centric celebrations that brought family and friends together in real community.

The author's teenage daughter, Camille, offers recipes at the end of each chapter. I'm keen to try her Grated Zucchini Orzo on my kids. Kingsolver also promotes the gorgeous vegetable-rich cookbooks by Deborah Madison. (I've already checked one out from my library and have been drooling over it.) Despite the romance of laboring over luxurious slow-food cuisine, the author admitted to a less fussy approach to daily putting food on the table. She describes her go-to dishes for using up their local produce as frittatas, pastas with meat and seasonal veggies, homemade pizzas, stir-fries and Crock-Pot soups "in endless variations," which made her family's diet sound an awful lot like ours. And her assertion that "cooking is the great divide between good eating and bad" is something I often think to myself after eating a disappointing restaurant meal.

Ultimately, what most won me over to Kingsolver's raise-it-yourself mindset is her desire to make consumer choices with true, lasting positive impact on her family and society. It's planted in me a vision for my own family: Growing a garden, teaching my boys to cook and making a habit of sitting down together for home-cooked meals that enrich our community without taking away from others.

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