Thursday, August 23, 2007

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I am, by nature, an idealistic person. This is a fancy-schmancy way of saying "Give me a cause and I'll rally around it with little or no persuasion." I like to think of it more simply as a desire to make the world a better place. Which was probably why I took so enthusiastically to the message in the book. That and the fact that I happen to enjoy good writing and pithy anecdotes about turkeys.
The premise of the book, a non-fiction memoir/journalistic piece, is that the author and her family (husband Steven and daughters Camille and Lily) would for one year eat only what they could procure from their own garden or county. If they could not get the dinner or the dinner's ingredients within the locale, they didn't eat it. My own ignorant first impression was one of gross underestimation. Or overestimation, whichever way you want to look at it. That surely it wouldn't be much of a challenge to eat so simply and wholly. I was very mistaken. The challenges (slaughtering your own chickens, anyone?) they took on over the course of their experiment were equivalent to a total life change.
I found, in the end, that I was the one challenged by what I was reading: had I never found it strange that it was possible for me to go banana shopping in December? How many gallons of fossil fuels, chemicals, and preservatives did it take to grow a mango in Peru and get it to North Texas in 3 days? Why am I supporting sweatshop agricultural corporations in South America when I could be buying from the struggling American farmer?
Needless to say the author went banana-less (and largely fruit-less) for the year. Sacrifices were made, as must happen when there are no Twinkie trees growing in the locale. (I also know only too well about food deprivation: I just spent 6 weeks in Ireland where they have never heard of sopapillas.) But they were sustained by the beauty of a simpler way of life; they raised their own meat, hoed the rows of their gardens, spent late winter evenings marking the pages of seed catalogs looking for the perfect heirloom tomato. I have to admit, while reading about an over-abundance of zucchini, I had a little fantasy of myself in muddy garden clothes carrying an apronful of peppers and squashes into my kitchen. Because if I had a garden like that and raised my own chickens? Hell yeah I'd wear an apron.
The purpose of the book was to get us to think about where our food comes from, who we really support when we grocery shop, what we feed ourselves, and what all these things cost us. The story is told in a practical, friendly tone, narratively compelling and plainly informative at the same time, like taking medicine in a sugar cube. I may be quick to pick up an exciting new philosophy, but I am also quick to pick up a good book. It's incredibly easy to give your heart to Barbara Kingsolver and her family, and listen to what they have to say.

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