Animal, Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life | Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen L. Hopp & Camille Kingsolver
I thought I was going to go vegan in 2017.
I’ve been vegetarian for four years and generally eat a “whole foods, plant based” diet as they say. I suppose I’m a pretty standard vegetarian-that-might-turn-vegan candidate: I eat a lot of Greek yogurt, but don’t buy eggs; I would be okay giving up cheese – though pizza would look a little different then, wouldn’t it? I’ve teetered on the edge.
But, the book:
Before Christmas, I went and visited my grandmother and aunt to aid in the annual Christmas Cookie Baking Extravaganza. My grandmother’s Christmas cookies are a longstanding family staple, concocted from German family recipes passed down over the years. Their Thanksgiving arrival signals the beginning of the winter holiday season. This year it was my turn to help, as my cousins had gone the previous couple years.
As the three of us worked in the warm, fragrant kitchen, my grandmother & aunt began discussing this book, recommended it to me, and – lo and behold – it found its way into my Christmas package this year. And I’m so glad it did.
In summary, the book is a memoir of sorts, detailing the farm-to-fork adventures of author Barbara Kingsolver and her family. For one year, they vow to only consume food they either grew themselves or could obtain locally after moving to a farm in western Virginia. The book beautifully melded so many things I love or care about: communities, food, plants, conscious consumption, environmentalism & policy, to name a few.
Kingsolver et. al. highlighted the value (necessity, really) of investing in our local food economies. My vegetarianism was inspired by a desire to “eat more efficiently” by consuming foods lower on the food chain, thus requiring fewer resources to produce. However, I’d largely turned a blind eye to where those foods come from – which is often halfway around the world. Reading this book convinced me that I could “do more good” in my own eyes as a locavore vegetarian than a vegan, as there is not an abundance of easily available protein sources year round to support a vegan diet where I am. Obviously, everyone is free to make their own dietary decisions, but maintaining a vegetarian diet with a better focus on local foods seemed like the fit for me.
The authors weave this discussion of food economies with that of general consumption, and raise a number of great points as they get to know the people & fellow producers in their community. A common theme was the externalities of consumption, or the effects of an exchange experienced by a third party & not accounted for in the cost of an item or transaction:
“We have the illusion of consumer freedom, but we’ve sacrificed our community life for the pleasure of purchasing lots of cheap stuff. Making and moving all that stuff can be destructive: child labor in foreign lands, acid rain in the Northeast, depleted farmland, communities where the big economic engine is crystal meth. We often have the form of liberty, but not the substance” (152)
There was also a beautiful depiction of the love, care, and art associated with food production, and the intimate experiences we can have with our food through knowledge of or participation in its production. Their decision to eat seasonally meant that not all foods were available at all times, bringing new meaning to each season and the natural gifts that accompany them:
“Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing” (287)
Lastly, the book had an inherent call to action of responsibility at both the individual and collective level:
“Global scale alteration from pollution didn’t happen when human societies started using a little bit of fossil fuel. It happened after unrestrained growth, irresponsible management, and a cultural refusal to assign any moral value to excessive consumption” (345)
I really do think there’s a little bit of something for everyone in this book: those who garden, those who farm, those who are interested in learning more about where their food comes from, those intrigued by the intricate web of consumer transactions & policy, and most importantly those who eat. There are no all-or-nothing directives, simply lots of information incorporated into an enjoyable narrative.
If you’d like to learn more, there is a website associated with the book on which you can also find seasonal recipes and get a virtual tour of the farm.
Shelf & Screen is a series of reflections on various books & media addressing matters (directly & tangentially) associated with consumption & consumerism