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

Since last week (April 28 – May 2) was Baltimore Green Week, I’ve been reading:

Click here to read my entry about my desire to read these books and click here to read a list of discussion questions courtesy of the publisher, Harper Collins). Also, you can click here to read my entries about The Omnivore’s Dilemma and here to read those about Deep Economy.

Today I’m in the mood to write about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

This book came very highly recommended and while I first heard about this book from reading a New York Times article published in May 2007 “My Year of Vegetables” by Corby Kummer (who by the way is a fantastic writer and frequent contributor in The Atlantic — one of my favorite magazines), it was given to me as a Christmas present. Strangely, Christmas 2007 feels like it just happened and I find it hard to believe that it is now May 2008.

Chapter 1 and most of Hopp‘s sidebar essays read much like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, listed as a source in Kingsolver‘s bibliography, with facts of the amount of high fructose corn syrup we literally consume and petroleum we figuratively consume (through fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides and through the gas used to transport our food). Also listed as a source is Gary Paul Nabhan‘s Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods; Nabhan (also the author of Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods) is a friend of the Kingsolvers!

Kingsolver and her family moved from Tuscon, Arizona to the Webb family farm — full of charm and history and curious place names like the Milk Gap, Old Charley’s Lot, Dewberry Hill and the Paw-Paw Cemetery — in southwestern Virginia in the Appalachias and vowed to eat only food whose “provenance” they knew for their second year in their new home. Her philosophy is essentially “labors like this help a person appreciate why good food costs what it does. It ought to cost more.”

The Kingsolvers do allow themselves a few non-local food indulgences provided that they’d learn to purchase them “through a channel most beneficial to the grower and the land where it grows.” Steven chooses coffee; Camille picks dried fruit; Lily wants hot chocolate; and Kingsolver indulges in spices from far off places. And as the year goes on they allow themselves more and more non-local items but they still grow astonishingly large quantities of their own food.

Kingsolver is an award-winning novelist (and 1972 Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Award winner) and it comes through in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Her writing is delightful, filled with humor and facts both! Here’s an example for you:

“Oh Mama,” Lily cried, “Look what’s about to bloom — the tranquils.”

There went the last of the needles of ice around my heart, and I understood I’d be doomed to calling the jonquils tranquils for the rest of my days. Lily is my youngest. Maybe you know how these thing go. In our family, those pink birds with the long necks are called flingmos because of how their real name was cutely jumbled by my brother’s youngest child–and that was, yikes, twenty years ago.

That’s how springtime found us: grinning from ear to ear, hauling out our seedlings, just as the rest of our neighborhood began to haul out the plastic lawn flingmos and little Dutch children kissing and those spooky plywood silhouettes of cowboys leaning against trees.

She just makes you laugh out loud, over and over again. (And in case you didn’t know, Lily is Kingsolver‘s youngest child, who was six years old and starting an egg and chicken business at the time.)

As for facts, did you know that Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Mitsui, Aventis and Dow (6 companies in total) control 98% of the world’s seed sales? (I’m guessing that Seeds of Change, Heirloom Seeds and Park Seed Co. are among the 2% not controlled by those giants.) Or that 80% of the beef-packing industry is controlled by four companies — Tyson (IBP), Cargill (Excell), Swift & Co. (ConAgra) and Farmland National Beef — and that 80% of the soy-bean processing industry is controlled by three companies — ADM, Cargill, Bunge and Ag Processing Inc. (AGP)? Or that transporting one calorie of a perishable fresh fruit from California to New York takes about 87 calories worth of petroleum? As Kingsolver puts it, “That’s as efficient as driving from Philadelphia to Annapolis, and back, in order to walk three miles on a treadmill in a Maryland gym.”

I loved reading the names of various heirloom fruits and vegetables and heritage livestock. Tennessee Fainting goats I’d heard of but, Florida Cracker cattle? Jersey Giant chickens? Gloucester Old Spots hogs? American Mammoth Jack Ass? Midget White, Black Spanish, Beltsville Small White, and Bourbon Red turkeys? Five-color silverbeet? Long Keeper tomatoes? Gold of Bacau pole bean? Russian Banana fingerlings? Suyo Long cucumbers? Inchelium Red, Red Toch, Chesnok Red, Persian Star, and Brown Tempest garlic? Collective Farm Woman melon? Cajun Jewel Okra? Costata Romanesca sqaush? Zucche de Chioggia? Georgian Crystal garlic? La Ratte? Aristocrat pear? Principle Borghese tomatoes (perfect for sun-drying)? Chioggia beets?

I think the most surprising fact from Hopp’s sidebars essays are that in 1948 (when pesticides were first introduced), farmers used about 50 million pounds of them and suffered about a 7% loss of all their field crops; whereas in 2000 they used nearly a billion pounds of pesticides and still lose 13% of their field crops. Clearly, pesticides are not helping!

Even Camille Kingsolver’s essays, recipes, and food plans are fun to read. Most interesting to me was this section of “Eating my Sister’s Chickens:”

Even the ancient Hindu populations of India were not complete vegetarians — though they did not know this. Traditional harvesting techniques always left a substantial amount of insect parts, mostly termite larvae and eggs, in their grain supply. When vegan Hindu populations began moving to England, where food sanitation regulations are stricter, they began to suffer from a high incidence of anemia. Just a tiny amount of meat (even bug parts!) in the diet makes a big difference.

And the recipes all sound delicious! I am especially looking forward to trying the recipe for Asparagus and Morel Bread Pudding. Mmmm mushrooms . . .

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle did not convince me to become a “local food” fanatic — there are too many non-local foods that I love, particularly sushi and mangoes — but it did give me a greater appreciation for farmers and the food they provide.

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