Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver)

Our town believes in good food. We are surrounded by farmland and work hard to keep the family farms alive, buying local and joining community supported agriculture programs. Our university partners with farmers on new projects and techniques for organic farming and provides information for value-added products. Two of our nationally renowned restaurants (L'Etoile and Harvest) focus on local food year-round. We aren't just consumers. We are creators. Our local pastamaker was an normal everyday guy until he returned from a trip to Italy with stars in his eyes and determination. Former chemistry teachers are reborn as specialty bakers. We have surplus of chocolatiers. Madison is a good place to eat.

Madison may be unique among cities, but it's clear that the focus on local food is growing nationwide. This current trend is something Barbara Kingsolver may not have imagined when she began writing her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, which chronicles her year of eating locally, growing much of her family's food in their own garden. The book begins with a couple chapters defending this decision, providing a synthesis of the information Michael Pollan presents in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma in a style that feels uncharacteristic for Kingsolver. Her books are full of beautiful, vivid prose that sucks you in on the first page. I was reluctant to read The Poisonwood Bible, an Oprah book club stamp on the cover providing more of a caution sign for me than one of approval, but loved the book, gushed about it the whole time I read it. So when I picked up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I was not ready for what a friend referred to as "textbook" prose. This introduction may be useful for the Oprah Book Clubbers who don't know who Pollan is, or who aren't familiar with the arguments for eating local, but for others, who may feel disappointed at the beginning, I have one word for you: skim. Skim this part (and the well-meaning sidebars written by her husband and her oldest daughter) and you will be gratefully rewarded with the rest of the book, which reads the way I feel a Kingsolver book should.

In preparing for their year of eating locally, her daughter Lily, age 8, lover of chickens, decides to run an egg business. When Lily asks if she can have a horse, Kingsolver figures the best answer is to say that Lily can raise the money herself through her egg business. "When I was a kid, I would have accepted these incalculable vagaries without a second thought, understanding that maybe a horse was out there for me, but I'd just have to wait and see. The entrepreneurial gene apparently skips generations. Lily got out her notebook and started asking questions." After inquiring about the cost of a horse, the selling price of a dozen organic eggs, she went to her room to run through calculations.

In a while she popped out with another question.

"How much can you sell chicken meat for?"

"Oh," I said, trying to strike a morally neutral tone in my role as financial adviser, "organic chicken sells for a good bit. Maybe three dollars a pound. A good-size roasting bird might net you ten dollars, after you subtract your food costs."

She vanished again, for a very long time. I could almost hear the spiritual wresting match, poultry vs. equines, fur and feathers flying. Many hours later, at dinner, she announced: "Eggs and meat. We'll only kill the mean ones."

There are many fine, surprising, moments in this book, with constant reminders of the origins of food and food traditions, and the importance of food in our lives. Returning to traditional practices (homebaked bread, preparing the summer harvest food for winter storage) reminds Kingsolver of her own childhood rituals, such as harvesting apples, which then makes her turn to her own children:

I don't know what rituals my kids will carry into adulthood, whether they'll grow up attached to homemade pizza on Friday nights, or the scent of peppers roasting over a fire, or what. I do know that flavors work their won ways under the skin, into the heart of longing. Where my kids are concerned I find myself hoping for the simplest things: that if someday they crave orchards where their kids can climb into the branches and steal apples, the world will still have trees enough with arms to receive them.

1 comment:

Maewen Archer said...

Someday I'm going to read this ...