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.
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!
(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.
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.