Sunday, July 15, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I love this image. It is printed in Barbara Kingsolver's latest book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (AVM)with the words "Picture a single imaginary plant, bearing throughout one season all the different vegetables we harvest...we'll call it a vegetannual."

I enjoyed reading this book. Many people know what it is all about by now - Barbara Kingsolver, well known novelist, along with her family, move from Tucson, Arizona to Virginia to pursue their quest to eat locally for one year. They planned this for a few years so were well prepared when the time came to begin. The book details their personal journey along with more serious information about our food supply. The more scientific sidebars are written by Kingsolver's husband Steven L. Hopp and the teenage perspective and recipes come from her daughter Camille.

Kingsolver makes a lot of interesting points. Here are a few that struck me:

* I wished I had marked the page so I cannot quote directly, but she writes that if each person/family ate one meal per week from local and organic sources we would save quite a bit of oil.

* Six companies control 98% of the world's seed sales. They own many of the catalog companies that home gardeners buy their seeds from. The number of non hybrid vegetable varieties available for seed purchase has gone from 5000 to 600 from 1981 to 1998.

* Consumers often view prices of local products as high. I know this is true because I overhear people discussing it at the farmer's market. I've wanted to tell someone 'try the garlic - I know it's $2 for 3-4 heads but it'll be the best you've ever had'.

* Mad Cow disease (BSE) does not occur in grass-fed beef. It has never happened, according to Hopp. Not surprisingly, the US government is overwhelmingly supportive of large scale cattle operations and frighteningly lax in its testing for BSE.

* On a brighter note, I was interested to learn that asparagus can grow into a four foot tree. It only looks like what consumers perceive asparagus to look like for one day.

Kingsolver goes into detail about how much work is involved in storing food for the colder months. She freezes, cans, and dries food so that in the colder months all their food comes from these stores.. It's very fascinating to read, but I think difficult to translate into real life for most people. I don't think that is necessarily the point, the point is to do what you feel comfortable with, but to the uninitiated this could all be overwhelming.

I found myself comparing this book to The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan which I found to be a more absorbing read. Both books cover some different aspects of the same topics. It may be that I read it first, but Pollan's book gave me more to think about and has influenced me to use my buying power - perhaps another reason is that he spends much more time on animal treatment than Kingsolver. I have been making changes in our diet slowly, one thing at a time. A long term goal for me has been to buy a deep freeze and purchase a large quantity of meat for the winter from a local farmer.

This is not to say AVM has not influenced me. I'd like to try to freeze more from the farmer's market this season . The rate limiting factor for me is the size of my freezer and the manpower to carry all the food home. My husband is supportive of many of my food and eating goals, but I'm not sure how he'd feel about dragging home bushels of tomatoes every weekend. In fact I already did get some eye rolling over that request.

Some aspects of AVM were surprising. Bananas are mentioned several times as a 'forbidden' fruit which frankly wouldn't bother me very much. Towards the end of the book she mentions never having need of a lemon - pardon me? Perhaps I am selfish or too used to our carbon consuming ways, but I really don't like to think about never buying another lemon. Or Parmesan cheese. Or a peach for that matter. The growing season in Minnesota is so short, I simply cannot imagine going literally 6-7 months of the year without a fresh vegetable or fruit or never eating stone fruits again that cannot grow here.

So I am back to believing do what you can, where you can. If I eat 3-5 meals per week from local sources in the more bountiful months does that make up for buying broccoli from California in February?

I recommend looking over the official book website Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. There are lots of great links as well as photographs of their farm and recipes. I made one of the recipes for Disappearing Zucchini Orzo and it was delicious! I think it is my new favorite way to eat this most prolific growing vegetable. I made 2 changes when I made this - I only used thyme since I had that in the garden and I salted and wrung out the zucchini before sauteing it- a lot of the water comes out this way.


Robin said...

I learned so much from this book, and I suspect a lot of other people have, too. When I was in Costco this weekend, I overheard a conversation between two men over some vegetable or fruit (couldn't see what it was). One went over to look at it more closely and said, "'s from Chile...out of season!" I just know they had read the Kingsolver book!

nutmeg said...

Like you said - each of us is to do what we can and what we feel comfortable with. Small individual changes end up being significant when enough people do them. And again I say I have to get to the Omnivore's Dilemma - you've really intrigued me by saying that you felt it more absorbing!

And I want to put that Vegetannual picture on my sidebar but don't know how to do it. And tips?

Cornflower said...

A huge, important and fascinating subject. I do pay attenton to 'country of origin' labels and try to buy locally grown/reared food where possible. I am certainly far from perfect in this, but it's easier now that our supermarkets seem to be getting the message that more people want to shop that way, and our farmers' market is flourishing.

Tara said...

Robin, I agree that many people are learning from this book. When I talk to people in my daily life about such things, generally the response I get is 'Oh, I've never really thought of it that way.' I think it's great that Kingsolver, being such a well known writer, has written this, and perhaps will cause people who might not have looked for a book on this subject to read this.

Nutmeg, small changes can make a big difference as you say. I just hope that more and more people want to make them! Do read the Omnivore's Dilemma - if I could I'd offer you a money back guarantee if you don't love it!

I have to admit, I've never tried to add a picture to my sidebar so I have no idea! I'd have to fiddle with it. That would be a great one to add.

Karen, it is getting easier, I agree. The big grocery store is just so ingrained in the culture here it's quite hard to get away from that.

Carrie K said...

Since I've got a lemon tree in my back yard, there will be no giving up of lemons any time soon.

Freezing does take energy. Come to think of it, so does canning. My mother used to can and so did my best friend's husband.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Tara!

Thank you for the wonderful review! Thank you also for pointing out some of the more interesting chapters to read..I think I'll start with a couple of chapters and if I am enjoying them I'll go on to read the whole book. I will admit I am completely fascinated with the idea of eating locally, but it's not always practical...still, I look forward to reading how the author and her family fared with this experiment.

Again, thank you for a wonderful review!

Tara said...

Carrie, your lemon tree sounds wonderful! I was so enamoured with all the citrus trees in Arizona recently. Lemons lying all over the ground!

Lotus, thank you for your generous words. I hope you find that you enjoy the book. I agree with you in that it is a bit dry, but there's definitely much to be entertained by as well.

Nan said...

Tara, I think you touched on a very, very important point. Often books such as these can discourage the "average" person more than encourage us to live better lives. It seems so overwhelming to try and do all they ask of us. I, too, live in a short, short gardening season state. We can freeze some but we can't grow wheat for our bread or semolina for our pasta or lemons or oranges. So, all we can do is "our best." If a book could be written that said simply that, I think it would have more of an impact. We buy locally as much as possible and are lucky our milk is raw from the next town, and our cheese is from the next state. But I buy organic potatoes by the 50 pound lot, and they come from all over the country. I get my flour from King Arthur but they must get their organic wheat from other parts of the US. I believe in supporting organic farmers whether they are in New England or Texas. So, it all comes back to doing our best. At least being thoughtful about the whole thing is a start. Have you ever seen some shopping carts that don't have a vegetable or fruit in them? Just packaged goods?

Tara said...

Nan, thank you - that's just what I was trying to say. I too want to support organic farmers in the US. I found all the commercials this past winter very disturbing - the ones about how we should buy produce from Chili since it is in season there. I would prefer to at least purchase from an organic farmer in California in the winter. Yes, I have seen shopping carts like that! I definitely notice those things, particularly when I see children and what their parents are feeding them. The cashiers have actually said to me, 'do you always eat like this?' meaning all fresh foods, produce, milk, yogurt and such. Well, I don't always, we do buy ice cream, chocolate, popsicles and such but I like that most of our food comes from the 'outer aisles' at the grocery, meaning fresh foods.