Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Review

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It has begun! The first of many book reviews that should take us almost all the way through the summer. Yay Books! We have two reviewers weighing in on their experiences reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (A Year of Food Life) by Barbara Kingslover – plus some commentary by me.

Claire is one of my best friends, who also happens to have been vegetarian for the last few years. She can speak (possibly) to her current state of foodness in comments.

me

Soleil has been a long, looonnnggg time reader of this blog and a long time fairly frequent commentor. I had the opportunity of meeting her a few weekends ago when she was up in Seattle for her birthday. Yay!

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(Soleil, in the middle, with Liz F. and me!)

So first, I’m just going to start off by saying this book is about food and how our relationships with food affect our nutrition and our world. But also, I couldn’t stop thinking about water and where we get it from and how a lot of people don’t have access to enough water like we do in the US. And at a certain point I definitely had a panic attack, standing in my kitchen, telling Kamel how I’m totally freaked out that there isn’t enough water in the world and we are WASTING IT why are we even FLUSHING TOILETS, what are we going to DO about the WATER. 

So, that happened. Let’s here from Claire and Soleil.

Claire: It was a funny thing, being assigned this book, because I had recently made an intentional mental note to read more fiction this year. In life, I generally lean towards educational stuff, current events, sociology, politics, history, research, etc – and realized that even though I devour the knowledge of those types of books, I truly miss the characters and plot of fiction, the pure joy of loving a story, and also probably knowing that it isn’t real life. Some of the nonfiction recently was making me a little bit sour to the world.

But I instantly switched back to my nonfiction ways when assigned this book, having heard so many great things about this book, and that the topic would have me hooked. I care very strongly about where my food comes from, although in practice I am not anywhere near perfect, so I knew it would resonate with me. The “food and farming story” that it tells, about our country, our habits, our industries, and our food – was set amongst a family and their journey – and that is the part of the book that I was anticipating would set it apart from all the other (equally well meaning and probably very good) books on eating locally, intentionally, nonprocessed, organic foods while supporting small farms. That second layer is what I was most looking forward to. The “should” versus “this is how it was for us” is a missing piece in a lot of health and ‘good for our community” centric stories.  

Soleil: I was very excited to get assigned this book. It has been on my reading list FOREVER, so I was stoked to finally have a reason to pick up the damn book and read it already!! Honestly, I had forgotten what it was supposed to be about, I just remembered having a very strong desire to read it. Within the first few sentences, I knew my excitement and long wait were justified.

 Is the story of bread, from tilled ground to our table, less relevant to our lives than the history of the thirteen colonies? Couldn’t one make a case for the relevance of a subject that informs choices we make daily – as in, What’s for dinner? Isn’t ignorance of our food sources causing problems as diverse as over dependence on petroleum, and an epidemic of diet-related diseases?

Claire: This book is about a family that moves across the country (from Tuscon) to live full time in their Appalachian foot hills farm house and makes a pact to grow their own food, eat only seasonal items, buy from only local neighbors and farmers – and start a new life. They put their entire lives into their farm, embark on year round work and planning, educating themselves on issues, produce, the food industry, and self-made food (in all its manifestations, think: canning!). 

Soleil: On first glance it appears to be another one of those ‘a year of’ books, but it is so so much more than that. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in one sentence: One family’s mission to eat as ethically as possible, which includes: growing their own food, only buying organic, locally sourced produce, and eating only things that are in season.

Lauren: One of the questions I’m asking everyone who does this little book report assignment is about themes. I’m a sucker for hidden themes, subtleties throughout a narrative – whether that is a fiction or non-fiction one, and I wanted to hear how other people read. 

Claire: I’m not sure it counts as a theme, but the book was organized into chapters corresponding to months of the year and what their family focused on that month and I really loved the connection that pattern has to the earth. What is going on in that time of year? what is sprouting, what are they prepping for, what are they struggling with? She was quick to be honest about their doubts, or how much they just wanted a piece of fruit or shrimp or licorice – but they couldn’t and ‘why did they decided to do this!?”. I appreciated the insights into how they had no idea what/ they were doing sometimes, like realizing that the tomato season would completely ruin their towels with red stain. The other aspect of the book that really sucked me in was the stories of their hands on work.

I would sometimes put down my book and find the spot on the audible book-on-tape version and listen to it with my eyes closed. She would be telling a story about the early morning soil work or the disaster presentation of her otherwise tasty pumpkin soup – and they were almost like mini-essays, or this American life podcasts. She had an absolutely beautiful way of writing, very romantic and nostalgic, and the book on tape even more so (as it was narrated by the author). 

Soleil: I really loved how thoughtful the book is. This family did a ton of research and a lot of prep before they actually embarked on their one year experiment. A lot of the motivation behind it was to lessen their carbon footprint. The author talks a lot in the beginning about how much fossil fuels are expended, how much *energy* is used to transport food all over the place so we can eat whatever we want whenever we want. She also delves into the farming economy, the impacts of our insistence upon food being cheap, how organic farming is better for the environment. Her exploration of each of these angles is thorough and well researched. Also, I love the real world stories of the people she interviews and meets along the way. I also really enjoyed that her husband and children contributed sidebars throughout the book. It truly was a family project.

One little nitpick is Camille’s essay about vegetarianism. I can appreciate that not everyone feels the same way I do about not eating animals; however, as a vegetarian I do appreciate the stance Kingsolver’s family took in only eating animals that they raised or were raised by local farmers in a similar, free-range manner devoid of cruelty and antibiotics. If I were interested in eating meat, this is the route that I would take. Having said that, it really bothered me that Camille felt she had to justify her eating of animals by putting down the vegetarian diet for lacking nutrition.  It has been well-researched that vegetarians do not lack nutrition, and can find all the vitamins and minerals they need without relying on processed food (with the exception of B12). The Kingsolver way of eating is not prohibited to vegetarians (save for the meat part), but it is certainly possible to eat organic, local produce as a vegetarian and maintain one’s health.

Food culture in the United States has long been cast as the property of a privileged class. It is nothing of the kind. Culture is the property of a species.

Claire: I very much think the author told a great story. I think it was likely easier for her to tell, because it was nonfiction and it was her life for a year, but maybe it wasn’t. Despite loving her rich commentary, heavily research short essays on various topics, etc etc – I think, at times, it was a bit too “wrapped up nicely” and a little bit of cliché or overly-nostalgic at times with some of its imagery or humor. I am not sure how to pinpoint it, and it could be that I really really wanted to know more about the nitty gritty. Were there fights over their family’s decision? Were any of the kids resentful for being uprooted? Seemingly they were honest and straightforward about their doubts, but the “we loved it” outcome seemed a bit too easy. Maybe I am cynical or just a voyeur – but I wanted a bit more. 

Soleil: I do think the writer succeeded in telling the story. I will be honest, and state that I have not quite finished this book at the time of submitting these questions; so I can’t fully answer the second question. However, I am two-thirds of the way through and I am curious to discover if the family maintained this lifestyle after their year is up. It would seem from the essays that they did. I look forward to reading their final thoughts and discoveries upon completion of this one year experiment.

Lauren: I had some issues with the privileged part of the book. These people owned land, in a place where farming can happen, with access to pretty great farmer’s markets. And though the issues of an urban culture + agriculture are addressed, I found the bulk of what the characters (for lack of a better term?) went through to be completely unreachable for me, apartment dweller, in a city. This quote followed the next quote are exactly what I’m talking about: 

Labors like this help a person appreciate why good food costs what it does. It ought to cost more.
and…
It’s interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains. The majority of Americans buy bottled drinking water, for example, even though water runs from the faucets at home for a fraction of the cost, and government quality standards are stricter for tap water than for bottled.

Money + access to good food is complicated. Though, I’ll add that eating fresh produce and having that be the bulk of our diets has saved us an immense amount of money. And yes, meals at KFC and McDonalds may cost less  in time, some broccoli and rice may cost the same per person and benefit anyone about a thousand times more. Ok, that was my soap box moment. I’m done now.

Claire: So much about the industry side, the politics, history of seed-monopolies, etc etc – those things surprised me big time. I consider myself fairly versed in these areas, have read “omnivores dilemma”, read a lot about it, keep on the Monsanto stuff — but the thorough and well researched information (that was also not too science-y that the average person couldn’t understand it) – I gobbled it up. There were several times my jaw hung open. 

Soleil: I went in without any expectations so I wasn’t really surprised by anything.

Claire: I honestly think every American should read this. It provides substance and fact to so many giant generalizations that plague movements that overlap with these topics like “eat ;local” and “home-style cooking” etc etc etc/. Also, it is like a history of our country in a way, our relationship to food, farming, and our economic habits – and there is something for everyone. It is enjoyable and easy to read. The way it is broken up is also good for someone who doesn’t have the full steam ahead to get through a huge book of nonfiction. You can pick it up and ready some, or one of the short stories, go over the meal plans, or a small chapter – and then put it down for later feeling like you got a succinct satisfying glimpse into a day in the life of their family. Read it! 

Soleil: Despite not having fully finished it, I am enjoying it immensely and would definitely recommend it. I honestly think that anyone and everyone should read this book as it has so much great information about what we are actually eating, the history of food, and how our food economy has devolved. Of course not everyone is interested in these matters, so this book is definitely people who are: open to learning new things; that already love all food books; that may be interested in changing their way of eating and thinking about food.

Lauren: This book changed the way I want to spend my money. Do I want to spend it all at Safeway, benefiting only big business Safeway? Or do I want to actually support my local economy, supporting local farmers fighting against big agriculture? I took notes in the pages of things I want to do: Learn how to cook an entire chicken and make chicken stock, Claire and I have already decided on taking a canning class, I want my grandmother to teach me to make jam, and Kamel and I are off to the farmer’s market after work today.

I agree with Claire and Soleil – everyone should read this book. This isn’t hippy dippy BS, this is normal human stuff that most of us have totally forgotten or have never ever been taught. 

31 thoughts on “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Review”

  1. I loved these book reports. This book was my first entry into reading about food politics and economics about 8 or so years ago. Since then I have read dozens more books on the topic, met and volunteered at our local farm, joined a CSA…I guess the point is, it helped to shape my own relationship with food.

    I do agree with Lauren’s comment about privilege. Not all of us have access to many acres to farm; however I do think most of us can make better choices at least some of the time. Perhaps eating more seasonally (e.g. squash and apples are cheap and abundant in the fall), ethically, or locally. I certainly do my fair share of grocery shopping at the convenient big box store down the street, but I try to push myself to make better choices when I can. I also try to teach my son about the food we consume by visiting farms or pick your own stands and cooking together. Beyond the politics of the book, I liked how the whole family worked together towards their goal.

    And Ms. Kingsolvers’s writing is outstanding. I hope you’ll read some of her fiction works as well.

  2. Ohh, I read this book a few years ago when I got serious about food. I enjoyed it very much, but enjoyed Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma more. I’ve read many, many books and watched a lot of documentaries about the food industry, local food, organic food, small farms, etc.

    We are members of a small, local grocery cooperative, and we shop there and at the farmers market almost exclusively for our food. About 90% of what we buy is organic and 70% of it is local. We buy whole chickens, break them down, make stock, etc. David hunts for deer every winter, and he butchers the kill himself. We cut it down into steaks, make our own sausages and jerky, and store it all in a large chest freezer so we can eat venison throughout the year. I’ve dabbled with canning and preserving food, and would like to do it more often. We actually are fortunate enough to have access to several acres of land up in the country, and have considered moving up there, building a house, and growing all our own food. Raising chickens. Keeping bees. But. The money. Where would the money come from? We haven’t got any. And we enjoy living in an urban area. We struggle with this several times a year. What life do we want to live?

    Eating this way is expensive. Food costs are a very large percentage of our budget. And we could do it cheaper, for sure. But we love to cook. It is our entertainment, it is one of our joys, and it’s something that we do together. So, at least for now, we are willing to make that investment.

    Back to the book, though, I read it at the very beginning of my food journey. I have a very emotional, complicated relationship with food. When we first, first started dating in 2007 David casually mentioned an article he read in a magazine (he is nutso for periodicals) about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup. And although he was talking about the article, and not about me or my life or my choices OH MY GOD JUST STOP JUDGING ME–I totally freaked the fuck out, went down into my little mental bunker and fired like my life was under attack: “You will have to pry to Diet Coke out of my COLD, DEAD HANDS!” That is a thing I actually said. Out loud. To my poor, confused then-boyfriend.

    I really liked not knowing. Not knowing how horrible the food industry was. Not knowing what happened to my boneless, skinless chicken breasts before they magically appeared on the shelf at the grocery store, cleanly wrapped in plastic. I didn’t want to know, because once I KNEW I could never NOT KNOW again.

    I went down the rabbit hole, though.

    When I read this book I had just left behind everything and everyone I loved and moved to Minnesota with David. We were living together but our finances were separate, and I was poor. I had nothing. And I knew no one except David.The privilege in the book stuck out to me, too, at the time. It feels strange to say that now, given everything I’ve just detailed about our current life above. Right now, I am privileged in a lot of ways that I wasn’t at that time. My life has improved greatly in the four years since I’ve read that book. Things that we are doing now, that we take for granted now, would have been unfathomable to me, then. And while I still can’t imagine every being able to just pick up and go live on our land for a year (how would we pay our student loans?!) I am a lot closer to that end of the spectrum now than I was then.

    To end on a light note, though, here’s a quote from a blog post I wrote just after finishing this book:

    –I just recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE, and was telling David about it on a long car ride. In the book, Barbara is having a phone conversation with a friend of hers who happens to be a gourmet chef. They are discussing Barbara’s garden, and she mentions that the potatoes have recently come up. Wait, says the chef. What do you mean ‘up?’ What part of a potato comes ‘up?’ Barbara answers somewhat incredulously, the plant part. Hold on, says the chef. What are you talking about? Potatoes have a plant part?

    The gourmet chef and I have that in common. Potatoes grow under ground. They sprout little eyes that take root and, you know, that’s it. The fact that potatoes have a plant part that grows up above the ground astonished me.

    “Can you believe it?” I said to David in the car. “A plant part? I never knew that! Did you?”

    “Um, yes,” he said, this man who claims that the corn fields where he grew up count as the suburbs. “We drive past potato fields all the time.”–

    1. Kelly, I had no idea that this was such a huge part of your life, and I’ve loved this little insiders glimpse. I’d be curious to know how that is changing, or will change, now that you have a baby. Or if it will change at all. Thanks for sharing! (If I ate meat, I think that’s exactly how I would want to go about it!)

      1. Kinzie, it’s interesting–we’re only just beginning to introduce our daughter to our food lifestyle; she’s still on a strictly liquid diet for the moment. But we do discuss it. She’s already been on her first farmers market trip, and we try to take her to the co-op with us, too, though food shopping is much swifter without her. We wear her in the kitchen while we cook and narrate what we’re doing and eating for her. When she’s older, she’ll go through a gun safety course and David will invite her to go hunting with him (it’s her choice whether or not to do so).

        When she moves on to eating solids we’re hoping to try Baby Led Weaning, which basically means we’ll give her real food (in appropriate sizes and textures) right off the bat and skip purees. If that works out, then we hope to feed her a little bit of whatever we’re eating for dinner that night, deconstructed. If that doesn’t work out for whatever reason, I’d plan to make the purees myself.

        Basically when it comes to Penelope, we’re trying to make room to include her in the life we’ve already created. To some extent things have to change now that we’ve got a kid, but in the big picture we want to welcome her into our life, not rearrange our life to accommodate her. This pretty much extends to our food philosophies, too. Again, a LOT of this is hypothetical at this point. Reality may have very different things in store for us.

    2. I love that you have access to land. When the apocalypse hits I now have somewhere to go. I’ll need an address so i can program it into my GPS. 😛

      Jokes (Except sort of not jokes) aside: We have very similar food outlooks you and I. When I watched forks over knives I had a total panic attack and actually had to call in sick to work the next day. I couldn’t digest (pun!) everything I had seen.

      1. Oh man, you have NO IDEA. The land has been in David’s family for a while, and his mother never did anything with her acreage, so David is going to inherit it. His aunts and uncles have all built houses on theirs, and there’s horses, an apple orchard, a huge huge huge garden, and a huge forest with a river and things. Bee hives are being added this spring, too. David’s uncle (a police detective) build a huge shop there and has ever kind of tool or weapon imaginable and does all his own welding and woodworking and stuff. It’s ridiculous.

        When the zombies come we are heading up there ASAP. Totally our best chance for survival.

  3. This book sounds really interesting, it definitely goes to my to-read list. I have very complicated feelings towards all of this, I don’t even know how to describe our diet. Pseudo-vegetarian? Fake-vegetarian? Flexitarian? To be honest a lot of the time I feel like a huge hypocrite because one part of me thinks I should be vegan, another one fights it.
    And I love dairy, and a good steak as well. There have been periods in my life when I was fully vegan, but it did not last long. I ended up craving cheese, milk, eggs…

    Nowadays, we eat vegetarian stuff 70-90 % of the time. We do not buy meat or chicken with our regular groceries, but we do eat chicken or meat every now and then. When we do we try to make sure it is grass-fed, etc…
    As a biologist and veterinarian I understand that life is about cycles of energy. Even “harmless” microorganisms like protozoa eat smaller organisms like bacteria. And innocent herbivore cows have a stock of tiny little living beings in their digestive systems that process food for them, synthetize nutrients for them, and when that is done, pass to another compartment to be digested as a protein source. So I don’t buy the whole “eating animals is harming the universe” argument because I can strongly argue that plants do feel as well (and in fact have all kinds of defense mechanisms against herbivores. Eg. nicotine, anti-tripsine, etc, etc, etc. ). If you study plant physiology the “feelings of plants” have been well researched and so I don’t really see how eating animals is harming the universe but eating plants isn’t.

    That said I care deeply and strongly for animal welfare, and for animals been raised in a “natural” / “biological” / “organic” way (without antibiotics and or hormones as growth enhancers (etc). In Europe the regulations are a lot stronger than in the US or Mexico, so things like clembuterol, growth hormone, etc are illegal. And the regulations are constantly changing to give animals more space, minimize mutilations… When I see the animals in farms and in the field, I do not think they suffer and farmers do care about their animals (with the exception of the pig, poultry and fish industries, which are very intense, factory-like and just downright cruel, and difficult to make otherwise, unless like the people in the book seem to have done, you raise your own food).

    But, eating everything local, organic, non processed is so expensive (at least here) that it is kind of a luxury. For example, 400 gr of quinoa (good for maybe 2 meals) is EUR 5. If you compare to 1 EUR for 1 kg of rice (which lasts at least 4 meals, maybe more) it is just not possible to substitute one for the other unless you really are not on a budget at all. Or if you want to replace milk with almond milk, it’s just really hard. We pay 0.6 EUR for a Liter of milk, however you pay around 1.5-2 EURr for vegetable milks or around 3-4 EUR for a bag of almonds with which you can make the milk yourself. (Of course I could just stop drinking all milk and dairy products, but cheese!) Rice and Oat milks are an option, but their nutritional value is not comparable (they are both kind of low in protein).

    Don’t get me started on the soy, because that is a whole other rant (in short it is really difficult to know where it comes from, because the packaging does not indicate it ,but it is most probably transgenic. And processed, non-fermented soy products (pretty much everything that is marketed to vegetarians: such as fake meats, milks, tofu, etc) are full of compounds that act as endocrine disruptors. It is yet another case of huge companies noticing a gap in the market and filling us with propaganda of the supposed health benefits of a monoculture… (Only traditional
    Soy products from Asian cultures, like tempeh, are “safe” because they are processed in such a way that anti-nutritional factors are eliminated / deactivated).

    Anyhow, all this is to say that it is really hard to eat consequently. But we do what you do I think: eat a lot of vegetables and fruits of all the colors, some grains, and when we do eat animal products make sure it is local and comes from ethical sources.

    It is nice though that people in The Netherlands are very progressive in that sense , and for example in Amsterdam you have communities of urban people who share a patch, grow stuff together and then divide the crops, or it is fairly easy to buy eggs directly from a farm. And the animal party / associations are kind of strong and pushy.

  4. Oh GOD THE WATER. This is my number one, apocalyptic, we’re-so-screwed fear fixation. Probably once a week, while taking a shower, I’ll think: what if my (hypothetical) kids don’t know the luxury of hot water showers on demand, because we’ve totally fucked up our water supply? The West Virginia water contamination freaks me out.

    (But: funny story. I was talking to Vanessa about how I’m really scared of the water thing and she pointed out that I shouldn’t be, because we live in the state of 10,000 lakes. So we’re really close to a lot of freshwater! This actually made me feel a lot better. Her biggest fear is the zombie apocalypse, but I pointed out that we also live in the land of seriously-cold-snowy winters and I’m pretty sure if living flesh would freeze at certain temps, so would zombie flesh. Plus, zombies move too slow not to get stuck in the snow. So… Minnesota: an ok place to be when disaster strikes.)

    I think the farming/growing your own food thing is really interesting. My uncle is a farmer, as was my grandfather, and visiting my grandparents was always a “trip to the farm.” But farming, as a profession and money making enterprise, has changed A LOT in the last 50 years. My uncle has GPS and sophisticated tractors that drive themselves to the exact inch in his fields. He owns a ton of land, and needs to in order to make enough to support his family, which is quite different from the amount of land my grandfather had to farm.

    And, of course, they don’t really grow much of their own food. They go to town and shop like everyone else, which I think surprises some people when I mention they live on a farm. (Farms/farm life comes in a lot of varieties!)

  5. “Money + access to good food is complicated.”

    Yes. Thank you. I admittedly have not read this book, so can’t comment on that — but I have a lot of friends who talk about how “everyone should be eating local and organic,” and imply that you’re an immoral a-hole if you don’t. But it’s SO MUCH MORE COMPLICATED than that. Farmer’s markets aren’t readily available in all parts of the country. Organic food IS more expensive. In order for *everyone* to be able to eat in a healthy and sustainable manner, there needs to be MAJOR systemic change.

    “Learn how to cook an entire chicken and make chicken stock”

    So easy, and so satisfying. You’ll love it. Also, buying a whole organic chicken is SO MUCH CHEAPER than buying organic chicken in parts.

    1. I want to buy chicken at the farmer’s market, but for some reason this SUPER intimidates me. Does anyone have any tips/tricks/hand holding advice? (aside from: JUST DO IT)

      1. The one and only time I’ve done it, I just went up to the chicken lady and said I wanted a whole chicken. Then she handed me one. Sooo… I’m maybe not the best person to ask 😉

    2. Yes! I am loving reading everyone’s experiences, especially understanding the different opinions around vegetarianism and also the pricing issue for so many. I am a vegetarian for health and ethical reasons, but mostly around the icky-ness of factory farming and not because I don’t think we should be eating animals. I think we should be eating ethically raised animals and eating them a whole lot less than the average america. Once I have access to grass fed beef and truly cage free chickens – I think I am going to be a twice a month meat eater.

      The money issue: I definitely think it is more expensive to live this way. It is not as expensive as most people think it is, but definitely a step up in terms of monthly grocery budget. ALSO – getting and seeking out local/organic/seasonal food is also time-consuming. Going to the market or having a car to drive to local farmers to seek our their meat, eggs, cheese etc – (ie in Seattle, that’s at last 30-45 mins outside of town) – all of that takes time and energy that not every person/couple/family has. Not to say trying isn’t inherently a good idea, because it truly is – but I really really don’t like the judging of those that don’t adhere to strictness around this topic. I also think eating this way means you have to follow health trends (almond milk, flax seed, blah blah). All those things are interesting to me and I like hearing about their health benefits and trying them – but they are absolutely not necessary. And I think that is where the “expensive” things comes from, health trends tend to be expensive b/c companies know they can hike it up and people will still buy. And I think Barbara Kingsolver did a really good job of doing, was sticking to real food that we can grow here in the US and that we can find with some moderate effort.

      Buying from the farmer: I am going to be seriously looking into buying a portion of a cow from a local farmer (the other things like chicken and eggs are easy enough to get in the city). There is a great database online (forget the website right now) that connects buyers with farms owned by families and managed with these awesome ideas in mind. The thing that has held me back in the past was the amount I have to buy (minimum is 1/8 of a cow) and I do not have the freezer space. But it recently came with friends of mine and they jumped at the chance to go in on the project with me. I am imagining frozen beef stews, stocks, soups, home-made ground beef, etc etc etc – that could last literally all year at my pace. I’m so excited!!

      1. ” ALSO – getting and seeking out local/organic/seasonal food is also time-consuming. ”

        That is such a good point. If you’re working two minimum-wage jobs to try and make ends meet… time is very, very valuable.

  6. A topical article ran in the New York Times today called “Leave Organic Out of It” in which Mark Bittman makes the case that there are two struggles in food right now: sustainable agriculture and healthy eating. Hi argument is that the latter need have nothing to do with the former, and if you need to start somewhere, start there. It’s thought-provoking, and he brings up the privilege implied by certain types of food choices. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/07/opinion/bittman-leave-organic-out-of-it.html?hp&rref=opinion

    1. Oooo interesting article Kelly!

      I kind of agree and don’t agree with him. This quote is an example:

      “Often I’m engaged in a discussion where I say precisely that: Eat more plants, try to wipe out junk food from your diet, cut back on industrially produced animal products, and so on. Inevitably, someone asks, “What if I can’t afford to buy organic?” Or, “What if I can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods?””

      1.) I have never ever had a conversation where I talk to someone about how we try to put more fruits and veggies in our life and someone is like “BUT WHAT ABOUT ORGANIC?” Never. I feel like that is another conversation separate to the “be more healthy” one.

      2) I think that speaks to HIS privilege and I don’t think that’s normal, middle america privilege.

      3) I think what he is talking about things on a very small scale, and the organic/food movement in general is on a big scale. Like the machine that we have to move in a different direction. The buzz words of the produce aisle are just 1 way of having an impact. I just feel like he is missing the point by fixating on this idea of “organic” or “sustainable” … we need to re think how we prioritize food. We are obsessed with keeping cost low, but that means we value it also on a LOW scale. And I know we need to keep it “Affordable” but… I dunno, I wrestle with this. Like gas – we keep our gas prices SO LOW, but in other countries it’s not low, it’s high. And they invest in amazing public transit and ride shares and all of these other fixes. Instead of making CHEAP food, I just want to FIX it. But it is a totally different conversation than: I need to eat more salad.

    2. I volunteer for a nonprofit that works for food access/justice and food/nutrition education. One of the things we talk about is it’s about baby steps – if we can get someone to start cooking meals at home instead of eating fast food all the time, that’s great! then the next steps are maybe switch out more of the processed food for fresh/whole, and eating more veggies, transitioning to some whole grains, possibly cutting back on meat. Talking about organic, ethical, sutainable etc., is just not on the agenda for certain groups, and that is way OK – getting them eating healthier is the goal! So I agree that these are definitely different issues that require different approaches and different solutions.

  7. Loving the action on this, and I’m going to add this one as well as Omnivore’s Dilemma to my list!

    Food…it’s complicated. I have been having great personal debates about this for the past several years for a few different reasons. (1) As I learn to cook and enjoy it more and more as a hobby, I READ a ton about food. Many food bloggers are on the high horse about organic, sustainable, etc. Like many people said here, sometimes people just behave this way because it’s a trend, and not because they really understand or believe it. (2) IBS. I have it, and it sucks. And I start to wonder more and more if literally my gut is telling me I need to make a change.

    Because of IBS, I have made organic plants and whole grains a more central part of my diet, but I tend to fall off a lot (traveling, especially), and it is a terrible fight to try to convince my boyfriend that any of it matters. It is a constant battle between knowing and practicing, and deciding how far to go and how serious my commitment is.

    The money factor is so important. And it’s such a catch-22. Organic and local foods are expensive because people don’t by them in enough frequency for these farmers to lower their prices. Supply and demand. But the price is an obstacle to the “movement”, so will they ever get the demand they need? In this case, growing our own food is the logical option, but then…the luxury of land and time is required. Why can’t we just go back to a bartering system?! I bet life was so much easier then.

    1. I think that the reason why chemical-free food is expensive is not just a matter of supply and demand. It is way more complicated than that. When you are raising free range chicken in a barn, and you are not using anti-parasite drugs or antibiotics, and your chicken are exposed to the weather, to risks like contagion from interaction with wild animals, to aggressions from natural intra-specific interactions (eg hierarchic fighting in a chickenhouse), some animals will get sick and you will have losses. Also, animals that are grown without growth enhancers, grow slower. This means the farmer needs to invest more in these animals simply because they will eat for a longer period of time.Same goes for vegetables. Food like this will always be more expensive and I think it is correct. Like Lillybet said , it has to do as well with valuing the work of our farmers. It used to be that meat was something that was eaten only at holidays or during very special occasions, and the rest of the time people ate whatever there was in season because there were no airplanes or trucks to haul food around the globe, there were no greenhouses.
      We have gotten used to cheap food, but this is to the expense of our farmers, the environment, animal welfare… In countries like France or Switzerland.some farms only continue to exist because of government subsidies, otherwise they would be forced to close down. It is just very difficult to compete with industrial farming, but it is not so much an issue of supply and demand, but also that we are just not willing to pay for the real price of our food.
      At the same time access to healthy food should not be a luxury. It blows my mind that highly processed food is actually way cheaper than simple vegetables and fruits, because these industrial processes are not even cheap.
      I think we have to go back to the start, like you say, bartering, urban farming, following nature’s rythms.

  8. I read this book when it was fresh-out a few years ago and then had just started rereading it when you announced the new book list. Perfect. I found reading it the second time round that it felt a lot more preachy about issues that are more commonplace now in our discussions of food – food miles, farmers, Monsanto, sustainable agriculture, etc. In Australia, it’s coming up more often in the media and general conversations. So I skipped all her husband’s sections this time round.

    Just in general, I have a problem with the whole organic label. I think whoever co-opted that term to refer to chemical free food was seriously dense because all food is organic – even the crap stuff. Methane is organic. Lots of chemicals are organic. Plenty of stuff that’ll kill you stoney cold dead is organic. You can’t just take a perfectly good taxonomy and repurpose it for a foodie movement. I think there’s been more resistance to this because of the way it’s been turned in a label of privilege. I think focusing on ethical farming and supporting local growers would have been much more sensible from the get go.

    I was a bit concerned about the (lack of) discussion on overall nutrition – including the vegetarian part – because the modern advice on nutrition certainly doesn’t fit this way of eating – the food pyramid, the idea of eating a rainbow of colours. In the middle of winter, you’re pretty much eating brown and no fruit for several months unless you have access to preserved food. There’s almost no fresh greens to be found and they talk about that being a problem in terms of desire but I reckon it’s bigger than that – we’ve trained our bodies to require fresh greens and a variety of foods for health. The stuff on dairy and lactose intolerance was really interesting but should we be avoiding milk and cheese because in terms of human evolution the ability to digest it beyond infancy is a weird and rare mutation? I think there are lots of reasons why life expectancy has risen since eating like this became less common (in concert with advances in medicine). I know other folks have talked about there being a distinction between eating sustainably and eating for health, but I’m not so sure they aren’t linked in very complicated ways.

    I also think it’s really difficult to sustain this kind of farming/lifestyle in an urban environment. I live in the middle of Melbourne and even stuff grown “locally” has been trucked in from quite far away because the suburbs stretch on for days. Either that or I have to drive for over an hour to find it at a farmer’s market. I live in a rented house and have put together a small plot of moveable pots and grown my own potatoes and tomatos and peas but it is in no way sustainable for feeding an entire family or feeding it over a whole year. We certainly can’t set up a barnful of breeding turkeys or keep chickens.

    I think there are a lot of great points in here about the way we treat food and our farmers with a complete lack of respect. We don’t recognise the labor behind each and every thing we eat and that’s reflected in our demands for cheaper food. We notice that particularly with milk in Australia as the two big supermarkets (Coles and Woolworths) have price wars that means milk is super cheap – but it means the farmers aren’t getting the same profits (especially after deregulation under the previous LIb/Nat government). Many dairies have closed down because they can’t stay afloat. It’s a problem – but at the same time, I don’t want to make food more expensive for urban families that are already struggling. The conversion to a seasonal way of eating is expensive in the short term and most just can’t afford to make the switch. I certainly can’t afford to buy a piece of land and farm it. If I already had a piece of land in a good growing region, sure, no problem – I think we could do it.

    Water has been on the agenda in Australia for quite a while. We regularly have water restrictions in place to conserve supply and to use it sensibly when the dams haven’t been getting filled with rain. Melbourne was permanently on level 3 restrictions and some places in Queensland up to level 5 – no washing cars, no watering the lawn (except for a designated day), using recycled grey water in the garden, limiting showers to 4 minutes, etc. I don’t understand why people in other countries have a problem with doing those things to help conserve a natural resource.

    So… all that seems a bit critical, but I still like this book. I like the way Kingsolver weaves a story (although I haven’t read any of her fiction). You can tell she’s a writer.

  9. This book sounds interesting, although to be honest, I do almost zero cooking in my house. That’s where chefs-wife privilege kicks in. My hubby can do all of those fancy unimaginable (for me) things like make his own stock and butcher meat. We also live in a pretty great area in NC that is urban enough to satisfy my wants but near enough farm land that when Bobby was doing an NC-only themed beer dinner at the restaurant last month he knew where to go to commision(?) some hogs for the dinner. I’m lucky that I know that guy because left to my own devices it’s pretty much cheese and frozen vegetables.

    Excited to give this a read!!

  10. I read the book a few years ago, so the details are sketchy. But I do remember appreciating that it addresses food system issues from a more story-telling approach compared to some other books in the genre. (Sidenote: I have really enjoyed a few of her other books, too!) But of course, it is EXTREME – very few of us have the time/resources/knowledge to grow all our own food, and that’s not the solution for the feeding the country/world.

    I mentioned in a comment above, but I think small steps are key here (whether toward eating more healthfully or eating more ethically/sustainably). Just because you can’t be self-sufficient, doesn’t mean you can’t work on buying some things more locally, seasonally, and/or more ethically/sustainably raised. I understand this isn’t possible for everyone, from either a geographical access or financial stand point, but if it’s something you’re interested it, it can usually be done to some extent.

    I am lucky in that I live in a major metro area (1 mil people) in a very ag-rich state, so access to farmers markets and local produce and meat are amazing. In the local vs organic debate, I would choose local almost every time – I like that the I’m supporting the local economy, and the freshness of local is so much better than big organic that’s had to travel from, say, California; meeting the farmers and knowing where my food comes from is another plus. I have actually found that the pricing is often comparable to the grocery store (eating seasonally helps for sure!). In my area, many of the farmers markets accept WIC and EBT, which is awesome.

    I struggle with the cheap vs expensive thing too – food is what’s keeping us alive, it should be something we place high value on and spend more on. But it’s also a necessity so it needs to be accessible to those at every income level. Lots to chew on and digest with this topic for sure (cheesy pun alert, hah.

  11. So many awesome comments on this post! I love it. This makes me so excited for all the upcoming book discussions. I really love hearing about everyone’s relationships with food, and I agree with what so many folks have already said. Food is such an integral part of our lives and it has such a great impact on our health and on the environment. It’s pretty great that that there is such a focus on it these days.

    I agree that shopping local and even growing your own food is both a worthy goal and hard to accomplish depending on your particular circumstances. We’ve really changed the way we look at food over the past few years as a result of this book (and others like Omnivore’s Dilemma and movies like Food, Inc), and we eat a lot less meat now (and no longer buy it from the supermarket), subscribe to a CSA, and since buying our house, have a small garden every year. But these have all be small gradual changes, and it isn’t easy, because I still have a great need/desire for convenience, between working full-time and having a toddler. I’m really still figuring out how to make healthy, REAL, non-processed foods quick and easy for us.

    One book that I recently read, that I would really recommend is An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. It really got me thinking about my relationship with cooking, about simplifying and about reducing waste. Maybe a good addition to a future book list!

  12. I’m so sad I was a week behind in posts for this discussion! I read this book a few months ago and gobbled it up. I have been on a slow journey for the past two years of making healthier food choices and understanding where my food comes from. The story in the book was nice in a “that’s not possible for me” kind of way, but there were a few tangible outcomes that I took away from it. While reading it, I immediately starting looking for local meat and resolved to make better choices than the standard supermarket. But it’s not easy – just this past weekend, my husband did the grocery shopping instead of me and he bought conventional(?) chicken instead. I admit I’ve lost some steam and forgotten about my passion to look for local meats but I think I am more aware of the ‘pushes’ in my life towards those things now. I also found it interesting that her and her family chooses fish to eat when at a restaurant if they are not familiar with the source of the meat entrees. I felt like that was an accessible alternative to give people who *want* to do better but can’t translate it into their own real-life choices. I also loved the peek into canning/preserving and would love to learn more about it in the future. And I really liked seeing them make everything from scratch, as one of my recent passions is focusing on less processed and less ingredients. Right now I avoid grains, but I love the idea that I could make a batch of bread and savor that instead of a processed loaf from the store.
    Anyway, great discussion – I loved reading all of the comments! I am hoping this has put me over the edge that I am teetering on about whether to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I am in that space of how much do I want to know before I can’t un-know it….

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