Sunday, February 07, 2010

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2008
Price: $15.99
ISBN-10: 0060852569
ISBN-13: 978-0060852566

It might just be a matter of thinking about red cars and so suddenly seeing red cars everywhere one looks, but it seems to me that once I started researching organic foods for an article I am writing, I began to see books on sustainable farming, organic food markets, news stories about an organic food movement, and farmer’s markets everywhere I looked. Something is going on, and I’m pretty sure by this point in my research that it is a very good thing. Suddenly, I am seeing garden fresh red tomatoes everywhere.

Barbara Kingsolver’s book about living a year on locally grown and produced food had been on my shelf for some time already. She is an author of whom I take immediate notice, whenever she publishes a new title, whether fiction or nonfiction. My interest in eating a sustainable and healthy diet had been simmering for some time, but it took an assignment to get me digging into this particular garden of delights.

Kingsolver’s nonfiction is fully as rich and readable as her fiction. I was entertained, amused, engaged, even as I was educated, astounded, amazed. Daughter Camille Kingsolver, studying biology at Duke University, adds tasty tidbits of sidebars and recipes, many of which I checked off to try. Even husband Steven Hopp adds an occasional sidebar with his perspective. But Barbara Kingsolver is the word master you expect her to be. She makes me wince with pain for our planet as she recites facts and statistics and studies impossible to ignore: if we don’t reevaluate how we eat, what we eat, and how that food comes to our table, there is going to be a very sad ending to this tale. She also delights me with her personal stories of her family's food adventure.

The Kingsolver family is moving from Tucson, Arizona to live on a farm in southern Appalachia. When Barbara met Steven, he was living on this farm, but he was willing to move to Arizona, her home, when they decided to join forces. Now, it was his turn. Their turn. The family returned to live on the farm, and part of that return was a decision to live a sustainable lifestyle, eating only foods that were locally grown with but a few exceptions (coffee! chocolate!).

As the family begins their new farm life, the author realizes how disconnected Americans are from our food. We give no thought to its source, no thought to how it is produced or what route it travels to reach us. We praise sunny days and lament the rainy ones, giving no thought to the needs of the farmer who feeds us. Our children think of food as something that comes from a supermarket, conveniently packaged and shrink-wrapped. The very same consumer who craves a steak, make that rare, cringes at mere mention of a slaughterhouse. In the family’s yearlong venture, assuredly a challenge, the author is determined to connect to their food in a most intimate way. This means—knowing the farmer who produces what they eat, or producing it themselves.

“When we give it a thought, we mostly consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 85 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too—the processors, marketers, and transporters. And we complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might send back more than three nickels per buck to the farmers: those actual humans putting seeds in the ground, harvesting, attending livestock births, standing in the fields at dawn casting their shadows upon our sustenance… In the grocery store checkout corral, we’re more likely to learn which TV stars are secretly fornicating than to inquire as to the whereabouts of the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our cart.” (Page 13)

Today, however, that farmer casting his shadow across his or her harvest is becoming an ever rarer breed. Increasingly, the food we eat today comes from CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, more factory than farm. Animals here are not treated like living things, but rather as machinery on an assembly line, producing edible product.

Is this a natural result of our ever burgeoning population? Are CAFOs necessary to feed our billions of mouths and bellies? As it turns out, no.

“Owing to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification, and a conversion of farming from a naturally based to a highly mechanized production system, U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980.” (Page 14)

Unfortunately, all those extra calories are not making their way into the mouths of the hungry. The problem of hunger in the United States and across the globe continues to increase, even while the waistlines of most Americans continue to increase. Apparently, those 700 extra calories are ending up in those who least need them. “Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve,” Kingsolver writes, “with no acknowledgement of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme.” What Kingsolver reveals in these pages is what truly could be called a conspiracy: government subsidized CAFOs that leave individual farmers scrambling to compete (ever wonder why organic foods are more expensive? Look to those government subsidies, none of which go to your local farmer) and additions to processed foods such as corn syrup and artificial flavorings and non-animal fats that increase cravings rather than satisfy them. Americans are having a dysfunctional relationship to our food. Unlike most European cultures, who honor the culinary kitchen and family table, we treat food like a poison and a drug. Which, arguably, it is. We are constantly dieting, trying to control it, rather than appreciating it and its preparation. We are give it all up and indulge in gluttony and supersizing our meals, or we starve ourselves with eating disorders. It is an interesting argument and insight.

Food, Kingsolver writes, is a necessity to life. It is a comfort, it is nourishment, it is a sensual pleasure. (One wonders at the growing problem of obesity in connection with the dissolving tradition of sitting down as a family at the dinner table.)

“Our most celebrated models of beauty are starved people,” the author points out. “A food culture of anti-eating is worse than useless.” It is our lack of a healthy food culture that Kingsolver laments, arguing that we have replaced it with two extremes, starvation or gluttony.

“Humans don’t do everything we crave to do—that is arguably what makes us human. We’re genetically predisposed toward certain behaviors that we’ve collectively decided are unhelpful; adultery and racism are examples. With reasonable success, we mitigate those impulses through civil codes, religious rituals, maternal warnings—the whole bag of tricks we call culture… these are mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous. And here we are, sure enough in trouble.” (Page 16)

We are the first generation of humankind to have children who are predicted to have shorter life spans than their parents. If that’s not a sign of trouble, I don’t know what is.

Industrial farming, the author writes, is the cause of much of our pollution problems and resulting climate change. While many of us mistakenly attribute pollution to automobiles, most pollution in this country can actually be traced to CAFOs. Nothing about a food factory is sustainable. Add to this sheer cruelty to animals and…

But let’s return to the farm. A local farm producing organic foods that end up on your dinner plate is no punishment. I can vouch for this. Since eating organic foods myself, everything I have so far tasted, from meat to vegetable, is incomparably more delicious than what is food factory produced. If you have ever eaten a greenhouse tomato and then sliced into a tomato sun-ripened in your garden, you get the idea. Eating organic foods is not giving something up; it is a rediscovery of food as it was meant to taste—expectionally good.

The year unfolds, and we are treated to the adventure—and it is that—of the family gardening and living from their garden, or eating what they buy from local markets, locally produced. There is seeding and weeding involved, sure, and lots of canning and preserving, but Kingsolver’s point is that doing all of this, getting involved in our own food production and preparation on so intimate a level, is in so many ways and on so many levels what we are missing. It gets a family involved and working together. It brings back to life a family dinner table. It cultivates more than the carrot and potato in the soil; it cultivates relationships. Knowing who grows your food is a true pleasure, and to this, too, I can attest with my own experience. Since “going organic” myself, I have gotten to know quite a few members of my community, and not just area farmers, from whom I now buy my fresh eggs, poultry, steaks, milk, cheese, fruits and vegetables. The anonymous CAFO has receded from my life and in its place—are new friends.

Kingsolver also writes a fascinating argument against mass vegetarianism. Because I, too, have considered that lifestyle and soon abandoned it, I was particularly interested in what the author had to say. Humans, she writes, are naturally adapted to an omnivorous diet, with our canine teeth for tearing meat and the enzymes in our digestive systems for breaking down animal proteins and fats. She describes a vegetarian world with livestock gone wild, and then describes the process of killing a farm animal for food. This is not a story of cruelty. This is, instead, a story of respect for all living creatures and the cycle of life and death, of sustainability. It is far more important, she states, to be concerned about the kind of life we provide to our livestock.

There is so much more to this book. Discussions about pesticides and genetically modified foods. More recipes. And all woven together with Kingsolver’s literary skills. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is going on my top shelf of favorite books, those that have contributed to transforming my own life in a positive way. It’s a delicious and highly informative and thoughtful read, a wonderful introduction for those wishing to learn more about the organic food movement and to simply be inspired.

~from The Smoking Poet, Winter 2009-2010 Issue

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