Camille and Lily Kingsolver are lucky. Their mother, acclaimed novelist Barbara Kingsolver, has raised them to know when tomatoes are in season, how to collect chicken eggs, the best way to stuff sausage, and that potatoes have stems and leaves. They also know how to make pickles. Other children aren’t so fortunate, we find out in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the family memoir-plus-environmental science book by Kingsolver (with contributions from her husband Steven L. Hopp and Camille).
In one scene, Camille’s teenage friend visits the Kingsolver home to find Barbara in front of green beans and a bubbling pot. Kingsolver explains that she is making pickles. The friend “dubiously surveyed the kitchen: me in my apron, the steaming kettle, the mountain of beans I was trimming to fit into the jars, the corners where my witch’s broom might lurk,” Kingsolver writes. The friend doesn’t believe Kingsolver can make pickles from beans. An hour later, she returns. Kingsolver narrates, “She held her eyes very close to one of the jars and announced, “Nope! They didn’t turn into pickles!”It’s a silly yet telling example of the high degree that Americans – especially my generation – have no clue what their food is, or where it comes from. As a one-time science writer with two biology degrees, Kingsolver is more in tune. So is her family. Hopp is an environmental biologist, Camille studied biology and anatomy at Duke University. Lily, 9 years old when the book takes place, runs the family’s chicken-and-egg venture. Together, the three set out to become “locavores” for one year, eating only local, organic and responsibly-cultivated foods. The experiment coincides with a lifestyle change: the move from Tucson to a rural Virginia farm where they can grow produce and raise chickens and turkeys.
Why do it? For several serious, well thought-out and articulated reasons. To establish a connection to our food sources, and know their provenance firsthand. To support farmers who value pesticide-free crops and responsible, sustainable practices. To challenge our country’s dominant culture that wastes natural resources such as fossil fuel. (“The average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations,” says Kingsolver.) And to play a part – even a small one – in reversing the trend. It’s not necessarily a sacrifice, Kingsolver points out. Home-grown, fresh, organic food is naturally tasty.
Kingsolver is no purist, she readily admits. (Although the family’s indulgences don’t come close to marring their environmentally-responsible perfection – fair-trade coffee, out-of-state flour, dried fruit.) And she isn’t trying to convert readers. The tone is here-are-the-facts-now-you-decide. She wants to enlighten readers and give them the knowledge and inspiration to find their own unique ways to follow her locavore example.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is not the first to consider such issues. Marion Nestle’s What to Eat, Peter Singer’s The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse and Eric Schlosser’s book for teens, Chew on This were all released during the same year as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 2008. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals followed in 2009. Kingsolver contributes by bringing food science into the context of family life. She situates herself not just as researcher and commentator, but also as protagonist.
The book chronicles the locavore year month by month, season by season. It begins in spring, when the first asparagus pops up. (Don’t know how asparagus goes from the soil to your plate? Kingsolver explains the whole process in gripping detail and colorful descriptions.) Kingsolver tracks seasons not by the weather, but by “what’s up” in the garden – wild mushrooms, onions, cherries, zucchini, tomatoes. Sowing, weeding, watering, picking, canning, preserving and joyful eating also follow the calendar. When the air gets cooler, Kingsolver sets about freezing and canning items to see the family through the winter. She must also train rare heritage turkeys in the art of reproduction. The book concludes on a jubilant note when one of the hens successfully gives birth to chicks.
Although Kingsolver offers plenty of detail, I suspect she’s not entirely forthcoming about the challenges of farm work. Surely it’s not as easy as slapping on a pair of jeans and crouching in the soil. What about pesky flies and smelly manure? Finding the right watering and irrigation methods? Keeping the chicken coop clean? (One exception is her explanation of the turkey “harvest” with its blood and guts.)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has turned me into a locavore-wannabe. I scour grocery store aisles looking for “Grown in California” labels, but settle for tomatoes from Mexico, pineapple from Hawaii and kiwi from god-knows-where. When spotting a BLT on a restaurant menu, I cry, “But it’s winter — tomatoes aren’t in season!” Then eat it anyway. I buy bread from the French guy at my local farmer’s markets, but also get my favorite Sara Lee pita at the market. I know it will take time to adjust my buying and eating habits to a locavore lifestyle. But Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has convinced me to give it a try.
Originally written for “Popular Science Writing” at Occidental College, Spring 2012