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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

August 28, 2010 6 comments

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.

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