I love to read. When I first became interested in real food and alternative food production methods, I turned to books to help me figure it all out. One of those books was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.
I was extremely excited about this book. I loved Kingsolver’s most famous book – The Poisionwood Bible – and had very high expectations for AVM. Plus, I’d heard so many good things about it. I don’t know if my expectations were the problem or if it was the book itself, but something about it was just off.
AVM chronicles Kingsolver’s family’s year-long journey of eating locally. They moved from Arizona to the family’s farm in Virginia and committed to only eating food produced within 100 (or maybe it was 150?) miles of the farm, with the exception of a few fairly-traded products like coffee, tea, olive oil, and spices. They started a garden, got chickens and turkeys, sought out local meat sources, and canned and preserved all summer long to ensure they’d have enough food to get them through the winter.
I’m not entirely sure what I expected. Humor, for one. Tension. Struggle. But there was none of that. Their year, as portrayed in the book, was relatively simple. I do my best to eat locally and seasonally, but my pantry is far from their 100 mile radius. Limiting myself to such restrictions would be incredibly difficult. At the very least such an experiment would produce some hilarious internal dialogues/debates whilst grocery shopping.
To read AVM, that never happened. No one ever had a craving for a banana or avocado or almond during the whole 365 day experiment. No one wished for maple syrup on their pancakes or a wedge of lemon in their iced tea. The ease of their transition made me feel weak for my own struggles with local eating and where to draw the proverbial line. After all, my fair-trade coconut oil still requires gallons of fossil fuel to traverse the thousands of miles between Southeast Asia and southeastern PA.
To put it simply, the Kingsolver family didn’t seem human. She writes of making bread and cheese from scratch, preserving enough produce to survive the apocalypse, and raising livestock as if they were the most natural and basic of skills, as though she cannot comprehend why we all don’t live this way. I have tried all of these things. While they certainly are rewarding, they are far from easy and, at least in the case of bread, cheese, and preserves, not things I would want to do every week.
Things got better the more I read. Perhaps the tone of the book became less pretentious or perhaps my expectations of it changed. I realized that Kingsolver and her family weren’t new to the world of local eating when they began their adventure. In fact, they were probably 90% of the way there when they started. They were already baking their own bread and making their own cheese and preserving their own tomatoes. None of it was new to them. Eating locally and seasonally had been part of their lives for years so this was the next logical step. I was being unfair comparing myself to them. Perhaps in a few years I, too, will be ready to take the plunge and commit to living completely locally for a bit. But not today and that’s alright.
The book does contain a lot of interesting information on the industrial food system and on food cultures in general. It echos Michael Pollan’s lament over America’s lack of a stable food culture and how that has negatively impacted our diet, lifestyles, and health. I agree with most of what she writes, though I think she could have found a less wordy way to say things. Here’s a short excerpt on pumpkins:
“Every dog has its day, and even the lowly squash finally gets its month. We may revile zucchini in July, but in October we crown its portly orange cousin the King Cucurbit and Doorstop Supreme. In Italy I had nursed a growing dread that my own country’s food lore had gone over entirely to the cellophane side. Now my heart was buoyed. Here was an actual, healthy, native North American vegetable, non shrink-wrapped, locally grown and in season, sitting in state on everybody’s porch.”
Yes, the whole book is written in that grandiose style. If you like that kind of writing, this is the book for you!
Also, at times I felt she was assuming I knew far more than I did and at others I felt she was patronizing me. It got better as I read, but never quite hit a stride for me. I felt simultaneously bored and overwhelmed. I finished it, and am glad I did, but there was never a point where I just wanted to sit and read. With The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I hated to put it down. That was not the case with AVM.
In spite of all my gripes, I felt it was worth the time. It is obvious that she cares about changing our food system and wants others to care, too. For that alone I respect her. Kingsolver is a wealth of knowledge regarding the industrial food system and I learned a lot through this book. The success of their journey is impressive and if you stick with it to the end, you’ll be rewarding with an endearing story about their attempt to start up a breeding flock of turkeys.