Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kinsolver, Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

For a French, food is a serious thing. When you come back from a trip abroad, people anxiously ask you “How was the food?” and the degree of anxiety varies according to the country you were visiting. So I was interested in Barbara Kingsolver’s book on her experience of being “locavore”. This word means that you only eat food which has been produced close to your home.  

For her family, it has been a radical change in their every day life as they moved out from Tucson, Arizona to Virginia, in the farm they already used as second home. Country life instead of city life. The family is composed of Barbara Kingsolver, her daughters Camille (18) and Lily (9) and her husband Steven L. Hopp.

Their challenge was to spend a whole year eating the food they would either produce themselves or buy locally from trustworthy farmers. The book is the story of this challenge,  Barbara Kingsolver mostly wrote it but informative articles from Steven are inserted in her text and some chapters end with Camille telling her feelings about the experiment and giving recipes.  

Of Barbara Kingsolver I know nothing except that I like her books a lot. Through them, I imagined someone very tolerant, respectful of nature and other cultures. I felt someone in peace with herself. I wasn’t far off the mark but I wasn’t aware that she was a skilled gardener. So I expected to read of agricultural catastrophes and funny adventures with poultry. But this is not chick lit about naïve urban Bobos returning to country life, working in fields with high heels and meeting hostile local farmers. In fact, this family had already had a kitchen garden and chickens in Tucson, which sounds a little eccentric, by Western standards of urban life. They had a solid knowledge of farming.  

Their project starts in March, with a family meeting, whose purpose is to write their first shopping list with only local products. Each person was entitled to choose one good coming from outside the area: for example, Steven chose coffee.  Two apparently insuperable problems arose: vinaigrette and mayonnaise. Barbara Kingsolver said she would make her own dressing and would try to make mayonnaise, as she had heard it was not so difficult. That sounded quite revolutionary to her and quite revolutionary to me that it could be revolutionary at all.  

The chapters follow one another, describing the seeds, the crops, the pleasure to cook one’s own food without hiding that this kitchen garden of 1000 m² requires a LOT of work and an awful lot of time wearing mudded boots and cutting vegetables. Barbara Kingsolver loves gardening, browsing seeds catalogues and growing half-forgotten sorts of vegetables. Camille is fond of cooking. Lily loves hens and is in charge of the henhouse and the eggs production.  

This book is an ode to nature with its joyful descriptions of vegetables and to rural way of life. It alternates between the family story and serious and documented information on the food market and production in the USA and its lobbies.  I loved the passage about turkey reproduction and zukini overproduction time – the only time of the year when inhabitants lock their cars and homes, fearing to find free zukinis in it when they come back as everyone tries to get rid of their zukini overproduction. 

It is also a plea to change our habits, for our health and the future of our planet. She praises home made dishes and family dinners, a time and place to share how everyone’s day was. She also tries to promote rural life. Of course, she can afford this way of life as her job allows it. Someone working full time for a company can’t have two months of summer holiday to crop vegetables and make tomato sauce jars for the coming winter. Her purpose is educational. She doesn’t want people to massively quit cities and stettle in the country. She just wishes that people hear another song that the one coming from major food companies.  

I’m sure you wonder “What about the mayonnaise?” – and if you don’t, I’ll tell you anyway. In the last chapter, we learn she never dared try making one. I can’t imagine what is so difficult about it.

I read this book with pleasure, learnt details about the American way of life and society but nothing major as I was already interested in the topic. Will I change something in my habits after this book ? I already practise a lot of what she preaches as I don’t buy ready-cooked dishes and we have a family dinner every night. I have admiration for their experiment and respect for their way of life and but I’m far too urban to be able to live that way. I hate gardening, rooting out weeds bores me and the idea of spending an afternoon “cropping” (as she says) chickens and turkeys doesn’t sound appealing at all. My idea of gardening is sitting on a deck chair with a fascinating book and watch butterflies as I turn pages.

 For further information on their project, book references or recipes, click here.

  1. August 28, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Kingsolver books…well they came highly recommended. Tried one & couldn’t finish it.

    Apart from that, I’m vegan, so I can’t stand to read about animals in food production.

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    • August 28, 2010 at 6:39 pm

      Hi
      Which one did you try ? The Poisonwood Bible ? It’s the hardest one. The Bean Tree is really lovely, for the style and the story.

      My text is not detailed enough on the “animal production” side of the story. Barbara Kingsolver used to be a vegan too and doesn’t eat meat when she isn’t sure it has been produced in farms where animals are well treated. Her philosophy about eating meat reminded me the way Indian killed buffalos. Just the quantity they needed and with respect. To me, her way of thinking her place on earth as a human is close to Indian philosophy, if I recall properly what I’ve learnt in Tony Hillerman’s books. Her point here is to discourage her readers to buy and eat meat from animals grown in industrial farms.

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  2. August 29, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    I think it’s a copout to talk about killing animals “kindly” or with sensitivity. And I’ve never been able to understand people who raise an animal and then haul it off for slaughter. If interested, I recommend Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres.

    I can’t remember the name of the book now. It was probably the Poisonwood thing.

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    • August 31, 2010 at 12:03 pm

      I googled the book from Bob Torres.
      No offence but I don’t think I will read it. I’m not a religious person, and I don’t read bibles, be they about a gaseous invertebrate, the sake of animals or singing tomorrows. I like books which depict both sides of the arguments, and this one doesn’t seem to meet this expectation. 🙂 But correct me if I’m wrong.

      What I mean is that I’m reluntant to read any book which intends to tell me what to think, whatever the subject.

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  3. September 3, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I don’t think the book weighs both sides of the argument. Torres is vegan and proud of it. But the book does have a lot of insights into the animal food industry & its marketing. It made me stop and think, and I always appreciate that in a book.

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  1. December 15, 2012 at 10:34 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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