Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

If you’ve never read Kingsolver’s writing, you are missing out on brilliance. The only other book I’ve read by her is Animal Dreams, but The Poisonwood Bible is waiting on my shelf. Those two are fictional (and full of symbols and epic family story lines), but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a non-fiction work about Kingsolver’s journey, along with her biology professor spouse and two daughters, to live off the land for a year–to be a locavore. They vowed to only purchase foods grown within a 120-mile radius and from people they knew; in turn, they ended up growing most of their own food.

The thought of no Coca-Cola for a year is not appealing to me, and if my little sister had to go without a bag a Lay’s for a year, she might die. However, the way Kingsolver describes this journey, with its emphasis on getting satisfaction out of manual labor on your own soil, reaping surprise after surprise from your garden, and taking care to plant and grow completely natural plants and animals really spoke to this farm girl’s heart. It also deepened my commitment to learning how to cook with less processed foods, more diverse vegetables and in a way that is friendly to the earth. (One example: the carbon footprint of bananas is ridiculous. Why let the great fruits that are local and in season go to waste while you eat bananas from another continent?) Finding local, farm-fresh meat and dairy is something I hope to accomplish this year. My good friend from too far away, Andi has a farm that sells grass-finished beef, poultry, and pork, among other things, and I truly miss being close enough to support their farm regularly. But, why can’t I find something around here?

As for the style of the writing, I found myself stopping often to sit and digest the metaphorically dripping sentence I’d just read. Sometimes, my reflection ended with a chuckle or a smile. A few parts I had to read aloud to my family, underline for myself, or dogear to copy later for composition class as an example of good essay writing. Kingsolver can make the most simple vegetable sound like an epic hero. Her blend of literary allusion with pop culture references made my mind reel at her talent with the pen. She spoke of food, cooking, home, and family with passion. (That is certainly something that is missing from all the adolescent literature I read!). Here’s just one excerpt for you:

“Some of my neighbors grumble about the trouble of growing potatoes when a giant bag at the store costs less than a Sunday newspaper. And still, every spring, we are all out there fighting with the cold, mucky late-winter soil, trying to get our potatoes on schedule. We’re not doing it for the dimes we’ll save. We know the fifty-pound bag from the store tastes about like a Sunday newspaper, compared with what we can grow. A batch of tender new Carolas or Red Golds freshly dug in early summer is its own vegetable: waxy, nutty, and sweet. Peruvian Blues, Russian Banana fingerlings, Yukon Golds: the waxy ones hold together when boiled and cut up for potato salad; others get fluffy and butter-colored when baked; still others are ideal for over-roasting. A potatophile needs them all.”

Articles from her husband, dealing with each of the abounding political issues Kingsolver’s chapters brought to light encourage the reader to stop for a moment to evaluate how an individual’s food choices can affect the global economy. This format makes the book best read a chapter at a time. So many issues to think about, research further, and discuss with your friends and family! Along with the short essays, Kingsolver’s daughter Camille writes at the end of each chapter from the perspective of a teenager preparing to head to college. She provides recipes and meal planning, based on what is in season in that chapter.

Some would call Kingsolver idealistic. The thought that everyone could live off the land and eat locally is just ludicrous in our fast-paced, global, corporate-driven economy, right? I was a bit skeptical, too. It certainly is a stretch of the mind for people from my area of the state. But, I came away from the book feeling even more strongly that small farms are better than huge farms; local is better than distant; do-it-yourself is better than processed by someone else; and family is something that needs to be nurtured in the best way possible. I think my grandparents and my great-grandparents had the system working quite well. Isn’t that the way America should be? There is a local food movement that is growing, and I hope it will continue to grow. Farmers today would be wise to start planning to cater to those who have the foresight, hindsight, wisdom, and knowledge to see that our food system needs to be changed.

You should read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for any one of these reasons:
1. You grew up on or currently live on a farm.
2. You like to garden.
3. You care about where your food comes from.
4. You appreciate good writing.
5. You care about the sustainability of the earth as we use it today.
6. You think you might like to garden.
7. You appreciate the simple life (but are willing to work hard!).

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Sometimes . . .

I like to go into the grocery store and buy a baguette, some cheese, and dark purple grapes or grape juice.

Then, if it happens to be a day when I went grocery shopping on an empty stomach (never a good idea), I’ll eat these items on the way home and pretend I’m a French maiden living in a quaint, provincial village, prancing around saying, “Bonjour!” to everyone I meet and spontaneously breaking out into song, “There goes the baker with his tray like always. A lot of bread and loaves to sell!”

Sorry. Got a little carried away with the Disney movie there. (But that is my favorite Disney movie).

Really, this post is about food. I’ve been a bit of a health nut (just a bit) ever since high school when Coach Evans made us write down everything we ate every day during volleyball camp. I’m not sure why he did that, but I know it was really good for me. It made me think twice about eating junk food, drinking pop, and not getting enough water. Then, in college, Coach Mary included information about healthy food choices in our summer workout book, and taught us about it during the season.

I’ve always wanted to stay in good shape, but until I moved out on my own (several years ago), I wasn’t forced to consciously eat healthful foods. Cooking for oneself can easily turn into a smorgasbord of frozen pizzas, TV dinners, Lean Cuisines, and cups of soup, and sometimes it did (particularly because I lived an hour from a good produce section in any direction). Lately, however, I’ve chosen to turn cooking for myself into a more healthful adventure. I’ve been drawn to whole foods, different fruits and veggies, and less processed foods.

I have never purchased white bread for myself. I’ve started baking and cooking with whole wheat flour. I rarely buy beef from the store (since I’m spoiled by my upbringing munching on Walter or whichever homegrown cow we were devouring for the year); in fact, I don’t even eat meat all that often. I’ve found that protein sources like black beans, certain veggies, eggs, tuna, and dairy products give me plenty of protein without as much saturated fat and with much less preparation time.

My sister-in-law is a vegan, and this Christmas, she prepared several vegan dishes for us. The lasagne she made using squash for the noodles and cashew paste for the cheese was delicious, filling, and inspired me to try more vegetables. I’ve recently made a broccoli and leek soup, cream of carrot soup, and a rice dish with nothing more than butternut squash and peas. A dish like that will fill me up, and it won’t leave me hungry two hours later! I varied the broccoli soup one day by blending in some avocado, which gave it this rich, creamy taste.

A silly experiment I tried came from my BH&G magazine–using a can of black beans instead of the eggs and oil in brownies. As usual, I tried my experiment out on other people (why do I always do that?) and took the healthyish treats to FCA. The seven kids there only ate 3.5 brownies. They had a good flavor, but the texture was undesirable. I think it might be because I used my mom’s made-from-scratch brownie recipe. I’m going to try again with a brownie mix because, really, who makes brownies from scratch anyway? I’m sure that’s what BH&G meant in the first place.

Those are just a few of my adventures in the kitchen. What new foods have you tried lately?