Friday, October 5, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

This book represents the best from Barbara Kingsolver’s scribblings about the woes and wonders of her ‘year of seasonal eating’ in the southern Appalachians. It records her sense of being ‘called home’ from Arizona to fulfill her desire “to live in a place that would feed us.”

This book is a family affair with Barbara supplying the main text, her husband Steven Hopp providing tips within the sidebars and Barbara’s daughter Camille sharing reflections on her childhood and this experiment, plus lots of yummy recipes.

The ground rules for developing this ‘leaves of grass’ culture were simple to state but onerous to practice:

* Make every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we knew
* Try and wring petrol out of the food chain, even if that meant giving up things
* Shop for food so close to home that we’d know the person who grew the produce (often that was us!)

The book does not feel like Cistercian austerity and self-denial as they decided to treat themselves to one luxury item (in limited quantities) each time they went shopping e.g. coffee, dried fruit, hot chocolate). The mood of the book is serious but light, spiced with literary references, dashes of humor, snatches of conversations from the Kingsolver farmhouse and garnished with drawings that rightly ‘make the book smile’.

It is not intended as a ‘how-to’ tome but it is has the feel of a text book with the sidebars crammed with resources and web links, the pages of recipes pointing to the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle web site and the extensive bibliography and lists of organizations at the end. The book is instructive, ranging from the history of asparagus, the lost art of turkey sex, the tending of fruit trees, the finding of economic substitutes for tobacco growing in the south through to the issues of vegetarianism.

The style is inspirational with Kingsolver becoming the new Billy Graham of growing tasty vegetables, sharing the gastronomical gospel of home style cooking and declaring to her readers “what it is that makes for the hallelujah of a July garden.”

The book bursts with passion. One conviction shared with strength is the ignorance that most people have about vegetable life and the origins and processes by which food arrives on supermarket shelves and in food packets. This book makes a case for children to learn agriculture at school. Kingsolver recognizes the weak food culture of America that consists of not much more than burgers on 4 July, turkeys at Thanksgiving and smashing pumpkins at Halloween. This is slight when compared with the strong food cultures of Italy and France. She asks her American readers, “Will we ever develop a food culture of our own?” In addition to advocating ‘la vida loca’, the authors promote the reading of food labels, the slow food movement, restoring the kitchen to the center of the home and the spin offs such as the experience of neighborliness.

Writing about local food during this ‘Home on the Prairie’ experiment does suggest rightly that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle must have a local focus. This is one of the challenges for readers living in a New York apartment or international readers living in the dry conditions surrounding Dubai. The book has the flavor of the American south and this agricultural log cycles through the months and the seasons of the northern hemisphere. However, the message and implications are evident for all and the chapters on the customs of growing and cooking in European countries do add some international substance.

Will readers experience conviction of agricultural ignorance and epicurean transgressions and respond to the Kingsolver appeal? It might be a cop out for the hardened city slicker to protest, saying this experiment might be attractive and practical if they had a 200 acre farm and a healthy bank balance. The authors seek to distill the implications of their year for people living in suburbia and they head off such excuses by contending that “the main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint—virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy.” (p30)

Related to patience is the important commodity of time. Kingsolver reveals that an enormous amount of time went into the planning of this experiment as well as the daily chores. Former pastimes were left behind and the nature of entertainment changed. Now that the book is written and the one year, farm sabbatical is over, will this lifestyle continue in the form that the book has described? Is this to be the permanent lifestyle and if not what adjustments might be made? It will be intriguing to see how far into senior adulthood such a demanding lifestyle can be endured or is this physical lifestyle the secret of longevity, health and fulfillment?

It is tantalizing to ask, “How would the Kingsolvers grow, cook and eat differently now, if they were to return to suburban life in the desert of Arizona?

How has and how will this agricultural experiment affect the literary career of Barbara Kingsolver? It has obviously produced this journal but will it enrich her novel writing? Or will the investment of time in planting zucchini, peeling spuds, making cheese and knitting jumpers mean that the much desired Kingsolver novels wither on the vine?

Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L Hopp & Camille Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating (London: Faber & Faber, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 91.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Barbara, Steven, Camille and Lily.