[Note from Audrey: I wrote this essay in 2008. I look back with gratitude that our boys are now so big and read their own books past bedtime, but also with some wistfulness. . . Barbara Kingsolver remains one of my writer-heroes. Find out more about the book here]
Interest in locally grown food has been growing steadily among people interested in good health, good taste, good soil, reducing their ecological footprint and enhancing their local economy – so much so, that best-selling authors are dedicating entire works to their exploration of the consequences of their sustenance’s provenance. Somehow the work we do has become trendy. We look at our ragged T-shirts, callused hands, and variously dented automobiles, and shrug. But isn’t that part of the beauty? Here is a trend with content: real health, good soil, carrots and lettuce, the essence of earthiness.
Over the winter, in snatches of time between seed catalogs, packing lunch boxes, playing “Go Fish” again, and grouting tile, we read some of the fantastic and inspiring books that document this trend. Okay, it took more than this winter. Reading time is a premium luxury at this moment (thankfully I got in more than my share of reading time as a kid!). But that just adds to the endorsement, as I vastly prefer the escapist fling of fiction to any non-fiction writing, however brilliant, and I by default do not finish any book that isn’t good enough to keep me up past bedtime.
To me, the best of the bunch is “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver (with Steven Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, Harper Collins, 2007). I stayed up past bedtime reading this one, for sure. I recognize that some of my enthusiasm was fueled by my long-time adoration of this author (tousling with Jeremy over whose turn it was to read “Pigs in Heaven”, giving a somewhat dog-eared copy of “The Poisonwood Bible” to Jeremy’s parents while they were volunteer teaching for a year in Ethiopia) . . . with her gracious, funny and insightful writing. This book is very personal – as eating necessarily is – and coming from a writer I admire so well, I found this really interesting. Also, I have a lot in common with Kingsolver (though sadly, not the skill at writing!): we’re both moms, biologists, try to transform anxiety about the future of the world into joyful action, and have the same attitude toward cooking and eating. So in a way for me, it was like reading an alternative reality of my life, written really really well.
Those rather large personal biases stated, this is a book that I believe should appeal to and be a good read for many. Barbara Kingsolver has a big heart, and I believe will embrace and inspire many. The book documents a year in which her family embarks on a project to eat only what they can grow or purchase locally. This type of project is catching on, but it is a joy to read her version. Discussion of the big issues (energy imbalance of current food systems, the American obesity epidemic, the ethics of eating) flows naturally from and among the joyous and engaging recounting of the family’s local year. She gets on the soapbox just enough to prickle your conscience a healthy bit. Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp (an environmental studies professor) provides succinct sidebars on many big problems in agriculture and food systems. I initially read these with trepidation, expecting dreary finger-wagging, but instead found these little essays honest, well-stated arguments, and always with hope of a better way. Camille (their teenage daughter) contributes delightful, youthful notes and recipes. This gives me courage to keep cheerfully offering fresh vegetables to our young sons, who are usually skeptical but are enthusiastic when they give the veggies a chance. For example, when Jeremy pulled up some overmature salad turnips for Timmy to feed the calves – the calves turned up their little bovine noses, but Timmy took a look and started munching both root and leaf. He prefers raw vegetables, whole, and procured himself from crisper drawer or field. No lathe-shaped baby carrots for this boy.
One great aspect of this book is that it shows how everyday, economical meals can be prepared with local foods in season. I have no problem with elegant restaurants and fancy food magazines extolling the virtues of eating local, but those meals are treats and cover about 1% of our dinners. Camille lists weekly dinner menus throughout their season, many of which are simple and pretty quick to prepare.
Barbara Kingsolver bemoans the lack of an American food culture, as exists in many older and less heterogeneous countries. It seems that, given the decimation of Native American cultures, the melting pot America hasn’t had time yet to meld into something new and cohesive. Beyond McDonalds, I suppose. On the other hand, I’d argue that some distinctive regional food cultures have existed for a long time and others are taking hold, based on eating in season.
Kingsolver is a great writer, but it is fascinating that food can have such an exciting story. Of course, this is a human story too, the journey of a family and what they learn in a year of eating food from their own backyard and region. However, the climatic final scenes are all about turkeys, and their struggles and triumphs were so moving I found myself tearing up at the end. I am not a natural turkey-lover (I was once locked in a turkey pen on a dark and stormy night, and did not like it), but this was a real drama played out in the domestic sphere, but with humans in the supporting roles rather than the stars.
For everyone pulling miracles from the Simple Gifts soil,