When author Barbara Kingsolver and her family made the decision to try and survive for a year only on produce they either grew themselves or were able to buy locally they were committing an act of near food heresy in North America. Government policy dictates that tax dollars in the United States subsidize the system of food production that results in the facts listed above.
Attempting to swim against that stream of government endorsed eating habits is as difficult as salmon trying to swim upstream to reach the spawning grounds. The advertising dollars of multimillion-dollar corporations have inundated us for years with messages that quicker and more convenient is better, until we've almost reached a point of no return.
But it comes at a price; increase in type two diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and malnutrition. Still, could you give up your chocolate bars, your potato chips, your out of season fruit, and microwave dinners? Would you even want to? Why should you?
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver and family not only describe their year doing just that, but spell out the whys, wherefores, and the rewards for and from doing it. At the beginning of the book they clamber into their car and leave the American South West desert where they've relied on food from all over the continental United States to begin a journey that will take them further then just the miles they travel across the country.
While most of us would look upon this as a voyage of deprivation and hardship, the way Barbara lays it out for us it becomes a glorious and exciting adventure of exploration and discovery. Who would have thought that there could be so many varieties of Tomato? Or that it's possible to have a party for a hundred people in May only eating locally grown produce and stuff you pulled out of your garden?
Why do such a thing though? Well through out the book she builds her argument using facts like the ones I started the article off with of course, but there are even better reasons. I have a friend who runs an organic garden. He has an acre of land that he has cultivated and sells shares in each winter. As the produce ripens he harvests it and delivers to the people who bought shares.
I helped him out for a couple weeks one summer picking beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and anything else that was coming into season. For lunch we'd wander the rows and pick something fresh off the vine or straight from the earth. Have you ever tasted a carrot that came out of the ground ten minutes before you've eaten it? What you buy in your grocery store might as well be carved out of wood for all its similarity in taste.
Now imagine you have that from April to October, from the beginning of the growing season to the end. Leafy greens that haven't been frozen and shipped a thousand miles and actually taste green; (I swear I know what green tastes like after eating fresh lettuce just grown in my backyard one year) wax and green beans that are so crisp they snap like kindling when you chew them; tomatoes that are so juicy and sweet that you just want to eat slabs of them forever; and corn that tempts you to eat it uncooked.
Of course if you are fortunate like the Kingsolvers to have bought some land that has generations of fruit tree on it, a cherry that's just turned black the day you eat it is nothing like the pulpy things you would buy imported in mid-winter. Once you know how something is supposed to taste chances are you're going to be more than willing to wait for it to come around on the calendar again.
Preparing for winter is a time consuming task it's true; canning, freezing, drying, and preparing proper root storage will eat up days in the fall. But on a cold rainy September or October day standing in the kitchen with the fruits (or vegetables as the case may be) of your labour and imagining how much better they are going to taste than anything store bought can make even the nastiest job seem pretty attractive.
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver with an assist from her husband Steven Hopp and her daughter Camille Kingsolver have put together answers to all the arguments we all have been able to come up with about living a sustainable life. It's too expensive, it's too time consuming, and the food is so boring are all rebutted with a mixture of facts and anecdote.
Barbara has the zeal of a missionary but it is tempered with the soul of an artist and a woman who raised a child by herself. Not only does she advocate the lifestyle and share its wonders, she also has reams of practical advice on how it can be achieved no matter what your financial situation. Most of us don't have the options of raising our own livestock, or even growing our own vegetables like her family, but we probably all have access to a farmer's market where the produce from vegetable to meat is local.
This is a well written, fun, entertaining, depressing and optimistic book all at once. It's depressing to realize that while the government on one hand is telling us to eat a balanced diet they are propping up an industry that grows only two crops, both of which make up the lion's share of all pre-packaged food sold, The optimism comes from knowing that we can make a difference in our own lives and that we don't have to play by their rules.
If we are what we eat I would rather come from Barbara Kingsolver's garden or its equivalent than the shelves of my local grocery store.
(Originally posted May 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.