On Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle

My zero-tolerance stance toward looking at green goop in my 15-month-old’s nose pretty well ensures that I catch every cold he gets, and no amount of handwashing prevents the spread. Right now, I have some sort of serious nastiness, and my voice is working its way into Kathleen Turner range. Of course, my son is beyond miserable too. Somehow, despite a cough that feels like it originates in my soul, I managed to tap this review out last night. It is definitely a night for tea with brandy. The brandy we had on hand. My dear husband is running out for the tea.

This review was written just as Kingsolver’s newest tome is hitting the bookshelves, so yes, it’s a bit out of date. Such is the case when one has two small children at home. Things tend to get a bit delayed. The comments below are relevant to the latest news anyway, which reported all over NPR this morning that a record number of Americans went underfed in 2008. As I review what I have written I do wonder what the locavore movement has to offer the problem of hunger.

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My highschool boyfriend was a highly successful policy debater. Our senior year, the topic was environmentalism, and he and his partner argued that beef was at the center of the environmental crisis. That was fifteen years ago, and by then we had pretty overwhelming scientific evidence that conventional cattle growing was harmful to the environment, but the vast majority of the writing on that topic was coming from the fringes. Beyond the scientific studies, books like Diet for a Small Planet and Tony Robbins’ Diet for a New America, presented the environmental issues along with a PETA-like horror of animal pain, strong tendencies toward the anthropomorphism of animals, and a complex recipe of legume and vegetable ingestion that was suggested as a meat replacement. Needless to say, the hard-core animal-rights perspective adopted by these authors alienated a majority of the mainstream public.

Today, concern about food and food sourcing is trendy enough for best-selling fiction authors to embark on literary-cum-culinary lifestyle experiments, and to regale us with the tales of what they learned during these pursuits. Recent contributions to the canon include Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and the omni-present Michael Pollan article. Becoming a concerned locavore, developing organic habits, and sussing out sources for free-range eggs, is now practically mainstream behavior for a large swath of the middle class. For my own part, I joined a CSA.

I’m primarily interested in Kingsolver’s contribution here, in large part because I have some real problems with it, and book reviews are only fun if they have some good critiques, right? (Also, I haven’t had a moment to read Foer’s contribution yet, so he is temporarily off the hook.) Kingsolver begins her book with the family’s relocation – from the desert of Arizona to the farm that her husband inhereted from his parents in Appalacia. Once fully situated, she outlines the experiment: she and her family will live exclusively off local foods for an entire year, and collectively write about the experience. As far as writing goes, Kingsolver does most of the heavy lifting, but her academic husband and college age daughter (majoring in nutrition) contribure essay-length bits throughout. We are told that her elementary-aged daughter contributes much in spirit.

Each family member is allowed to choose one non-local item to continue eating throughout the year, and coffee and chocolate are obvious winners. By contrast, the older daughter chooses dried fruits, which choice she underscores with a seriously sanctimonious essay on the importance of healthy eating. Her subsequent contributions are all in the same grating tone. The husband’s essays are also challenging to get through, but for completely different reasons. Kingsolver concerns herself with describing the day to day disasters and triumphs of the experiment, and the task of detailing the nastier bits of the food industry and its correlating environmental hazards falls squarely on her mate. He accomplishes his task in despair-inducing detail.

Kingsolver’s writing is gorgeous, and her description of the lifecycle of asparagus is simply lovely and profound. She’s at her best when writing about the mysteries of plant life and the magic of dinner. Where she loses me is when she starts to critique the agri-business. She complains loudly and often about food being flown across the country, which food usually originates in California. And this is a fine and true critique, unless you happen to actually LIVE in California. After several iterations of the frowning “strawberries in February are flown in from California,” and “watermelons in November are flown in from California” theme, it became clear that neither she nor her editors ever imagined that anyone actually living in California would read the book. And this is extremely silly, because the locavore movement basically began out here, and Californians are the most natural audience for a well-written book endorsing the practice.

But this is small potatoes compared to the big glaring problem with the book: Kingsolver is getting PAID to eat locally and write about the experience. She writes under the assumption that anyone could easily make the sorts of food choices she is making, when in fact only a very few can. If there’s anyone out there who wants to PAY me to make healthy, organic, local, seasonal meals using only fresh ingredients, I would gladly stop working my 9 to 5 job to do it. In the meantime, I’m going to need something more than a healthy understanding of what’s at stake to actually incorporate any of her suggestions into my routine. I need a comprehensive recipe plan, I need a graded understanding of pesticide residue (and when it’s actually way more sensible from a personal health standpoint to consider buying long-distance organic products), and I need more money.

Also, I could probably use a husband with a flexible job and some family land, because we can’t plant even a kitchen garden in the space we have now. Kingsolver has a whole tomato growing and canning episode in the book, which as someone who barely has the room for a single tomato plant on my property, seems utterly ridiculous. And, of course, it would help if my kids were older, so I could actually spend time gardening (on my imaginary land) without worrying about my toddler running into the street, or canning all day without worrying about his feeding, nap, and diaper needs, let alone preventing first-degree burns.

At no point does Kingsolver acknowledge that her experiment is actually an exploration of her great luck and situation in life – inherited fertile land, children at ages that they are able to help with the garden and happen to be interested in doing so, and a highly successful writing career that affords her the sort of financial security and scheduling flexibility that others only dream of. It is unclear what she would advise for the woman who has no land, or cannot afford to take a weekend to can vegetables for the winter, or cannot easily move to a good region of the country for farming, or has to work outside of the home to help support the family, as any of these challenges would make following in Kingsolver’s footsteps all but impossible.

Kingsolver’s conclusion at the end of her book that she has saved money through this family experiment is fundamentally wrong. The only way she could conclude that she saved money is if she assumes that her time is worth nothing. And I’m guessing that her literary agent negotiated something at least slightly better than that for this proposal. In an honest accounting, the cost of her meals is not simply the cost of her ingredients, but also the time she put into the project. By this logic, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle probably resulted in the most expensive meals her family has ever eaten.

Ultimately, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is descriptive rather than proscriptive. And as a description, it is dazzling. But as a food plan for the health and environmentally conscious, it makes few practical suggestions. Read it for fun, but not to discover a practical plan for eating locally.

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About christianathomas

I'm a working mother of two trying to make eating well fit into our hectic lives. I also used to own a completely chaotic bakery. Follow me for tips and tricks on how to get more whole foods into your diet.
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4 Responses to On Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle

  1. nmemer says:

    Hi! I bookmarked your blog so I can check in from time to time. I like your review–seems like a pretty practical take on the topic. I haven't read the book. My husband is a grain farmer (did you know? not sure) so the current level of interest in different types of farming, eating locally, etc is especially interesting. Farming is so little understood yet something that is discussed so much lately.

  2. Thanks for bookmarking it! You know, I had basically gathered that your husband farmed for a living from looking at Facebook, but didn't know what. Agreed that we know little about it, in large part b/c the industry isn't monolithic, right? I know my CSA farm well, but how that pertains to what your husband does is a mystery to me. I'd love to talk with him sometime!

  3. joel says:

    I read Animal Vegetable Miracle last…summer..winter? Somewhere in there.. Wonderful read, few can write like Kingsolver. And I'm not sure a cooler last name exists. I think what she did well is show how difficult it is to do what she did. As you pointed out, it's almost completely impractical for most people to do even 1/2 of what she did. But, this is how people lived and ate 2 generations ago. The incredible success of industrial agribusiness has changed everything. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, most of the longest lived populations in the world eat this way, more or less. Have you read Blue Zones? It's about centenarian hot spots, and the associated lifestyles, including diet, of the old folks. Fun, quick read, check it out.

  4. Joel – well put. I think that as I was writing this, my feminist ideals were driving some of my critiques. Because successful agribusiness, as terrible as it may be in some cases, is part of what enabled women to ever get out of the house. And I think that Kingsolver writes knowing that her audience *wants* to eat locally, even as they don't always understand how or the implications of doing so. So the part where she fails to acknowledge that she gets to do this because her particular brand of work allows her to have a career and can a bazillion tomatoes feels fundamentally dishonest somehow. Based on her writing, I can't imagine a way for mass amounts of people to go back to the way people ate 100 years ago without also returning to the social norms of that time, when in fact, here in CA, we probably could eat exclusively locally (accomplished easily if we were vegan, with moderate effort otherwise). The point is that as an ideal, locavore is pretty seriously tricky business…I'm ordering Blue Zones now! Thanks for the recommendation!

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