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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Book Review: Barbara Kingsolver & Family Collaboration

After Reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Trips to the Grocery Store Will Never Be the Same

September 24, 2007

Barbara Kingsolver's new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, defies classification in many ways.

Ardently and meticulously, Kingsolver chronicles a year of devoting time and energy to eating locally grown foods. Thus, as a story of one year in the life of the author, the book might be called memoir. But it is more than that.

A second quality of the book that makes classification difficult is that it has three distinct voices — Kingsolver's; her husband Steven Hopp's; and her daughter Camille's. Each contributes in a way that adds to the texture of the message, yet each voice, distinct in style, plumps Kingsolver's story with a shared viewpoint from a distinctly different perspective.

Like a novel, which it isn't, conversational prose laced with humor and wit, plus the unfolding of the "plot" as a year-long journey, qualify the work as plain good reading. Ultimately, however, Kingsolver's book posits an engrossing, convincing argument that our quality of life, our health, and, ultimately, the Earth are being destroyed by our eating habits.

After living in Tucson, Arizona for many years, Kingsolver met and married Steven Hopp, a professor of environmental studies at Emory & Henry College who happened to own a farm in Southwest Virginia. ("We proceeded to wreck our agendas in the predictable fashion by falling in love," she writes.) This story is outside the bounds of the book but explains Kingsolver's seemingly sudden resolve to migrate to a farm in Southwest Virginia. As an interesting note for local readers, Kingsolver writes that she has deep roots to the area, ones that include extended family and the fact that she grew up just over the state line in Kentucky, not to mention a great-uncle who practiced medicine in Abingdon.

To prove Americans no longer understand the concept of eating seasonal, local foods, Kingsolver points out:

North America's native cuisine met the same unfortunate fate as its native people, save for a few relics like the Thanksgiving turkey. Certainly we still have regional specialties, but the Carolina barbecue will almost certainly have California tomatoes in its sauce (maybe also Nebraska-fattened feedlot hogs), and the Louisiana gumbo is just as likely to contain Indonesian farmed shrimp.

Her family's year of eating locally was to discover what it means "to live on the land that feeds them,"..."to countenance the ideas of 'food' and 'dirt' in the same sentence," and... "to start poking into [the] supply chain to learn where things are coming from." Echoing another voice from America's historical yearning for simplicity — that of Henry David Thoreau — Kingsolver states that they had "come to the farmland to eat deliberately."

What follows is a page-turning adventure story (really) of how Kingsolver's family makes discoveries and of what they reap in both food and intangible reward. The 365-day food year for them begins in March with the appearance of the asparagus spears that Kingsolver had planned for three years earlier. Along with the story of her crop, she regales us with some fascinating asparagus history, likening the Romans' desire to experience food from exotic locations to our own:

The Caesars took their asparagus passion to extravagant lengths, chartering ships to scour the empire for the best spears and bring them to Rome. Asparagus even inspired the earliest frozen-food industry, in the first century, when Roman charioteers would hustle fresh asparagus from the Tiber River Valley up into the Alps and keep it buried there in snow for six months, all so it could be served with a big ta-daa at the autumnal Feast of Epicurus.

The rest of Kingsolver's year follows chronologically with tales of working alongside family and friends to raise children, "harvest" chickens and turkeys, put up foods as they ripen, cook, and ruminate on the pleasure of a deeper association with the land supplying her family's needs.

Her ruminations turn also to examining the underbelly of the food industry — the astronomic amount of petroleum required for transporting foods thousands of miles; the disgusting, not to mention inhumane, problem with CAFOs (contained animal feeding organizations); and the loss of nutritionally superior heirloom varieties of animal and vegetable due to the industry's development of the more profitable genetically modified versions.

The food industry's gain is our loss, as we read from many sources other than Kingsolver's book, but her treatise is much more than a fact-filled, well-reasoned argument. She writes with great bemusement and tenderness of her daughter Lily's egg business, a business whose economic end was to purchase a horse, a business that claimed the lives of testosterone-filled roosters as much for food as profit. Lily's hands-on education stands largely unparalleled when we consider what most American children or adults know of raising food.

Hopp's contribution to the book is a series of strategically placed essays on such topics as the politics of the beef industry:

Cows must have some friends in high places. If a shipment of ground beef somehow gets contaminated with pathogens, our federal government does not have authority to recall the beef, only to request that the company issue a recall.

Daughter Camille contributes her testimony to the wonder of attending to, preparing, and eating the food that literally changes her life:

After we sit a while talking, it's time for cherry sorbet. The dessert is almost too purple to be real, and an ideal combination of sweet and sour. Everyone finishes smiling. This has been one of the best meals of my life, not only because it was so delicious, but because all this food came from plants we watched growing from tiny seeds to jungles...We had a relationship with this meal.

Camille's recipes accompany her confessions, and they are offered with suggestions for weekly menus.

Kingsolver's story almost ends with an admonition. She declares that we don't need a "pick-up truck or a calico bonnet" to eat local foods. What we do need is resolve to go to a farmer's market, buy what's in season (and lots of it) in order to prepare for the leaner months of the year. And then in those lean times, enjoy what's available thanks to the fruits of earlier labor. Her daughter's contributions to the book add weight to her argument when the first and most obvious objection to her plan is that time is too precious for such labor-intensive pursuits.

Rather than ending by throwing down the gauntlet to her readers — although she does do that — Kingsolver's last chapter relates an event that, as a skilled storyteller, she has been adroitly leading us toward. To reveal it would destroy the page-turning quality of the book. She brings the two-pronged purposes of story plus treatise to satisfyingly metaphorical fruition.

After reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, trips to the grocery store won't be the same.

Gloria Oster teaches English at King College and is a member of the Editorial Committee for A! Magazine for the Arts.

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Topics: Literature