Monday, May 28, 2012

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Completion Date: February 6, 2012
Reason for Reading: Buddy Read with Ana.
In her first full-length nonfiction narrative, bestselling author Kingsolver opens readers' eyes in a hundred new ways to an old truth: you are what you eat. The bestselling author returns with a wise and compelling celebration of family, food, nature, and community.
Today Ana and I are finally posting our buddy review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It has been a long-time in the making! The poor book in general. I have an ARC... The book came out in 2007. I have started it a couple times, but just never seemed to be in the right mood. I am glad that reading it with Ana gave me that added push to finally move it from the unread shelf to the read. Today I have the first part of the discussion and then you can read the second part on Ana's blog. Enjoy!

Ana: I should probably start by saying that I really enjoyed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and that I'm very glad our read-along gave me an excuse to pick it up at last. However, my experience with it was unlike any reading experience that I can remember. Kingsolver writes about her community and her country in great detail, which is completely understandable considering the goals of the book. But for what I think was the first time ever, I experienced a deep sense of culture shock while reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I'm pretty used to reading US-based non-fiction, and while there's a lot about it that's specifically American, there's usually also a lot that applies to my reality. The US and Europe are different in many ways, but they have enough in common that I can pick up any book and feel an instant sense of familiarity. Of course, the fact that I'm exposed to American culture through my media consumption also plays its role. This is why it surprised me so much to find Kingsolver's book so unfamiliar. The American relationship with food she describes here is very much outside my experience. Was this something that you felt, too?

Kelly: I agree, I also enjoyed this book and am so happy that I finally got around to reading it. As I have stated before this was actually an ARC, so it has said on my shelves for an embarrassing amount of time. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I turned the last page. As to your question, it is a hard one for me to answer. I also have read many books set in the United States and their country borders mine, so we share a lot. That being said, this book was almost too Americanized for me. That’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate the information that she was imparting, but I think I would have liked this book ten times better if was written from a global standpoint. That being said, Canada has many of the same problems with food production as the U.S. I live in a farming community and I have to go to farmers markets and stands to get actual local produce. And that is mainly because we ship things from the U.S. so that even in the winter we have fresh produce.

I am curious about exactly what you mean about the American relationship with food being outside your experience. Can you elaborate?

Ana: First of all, I should probably amend that to "America's relationship with food as Kingsolver describes it". I realise that the USA are a huge country and that there's a lot of diversity from state to state, so there's no way the picture this book paints is 100% representative. Kingsolver herself doesn't claim that it is, so I don't want to misrepresent her by making unfair generalisations.

Having said that, there were quite a few things in the book that she describes as very common in America but which felt very foreign to me: for example, the idea of people not really knowing anymore what it means for a vegetable to be "in season" and needing the vegetannual to guide them. Or the majority of people no longer cooking at home and mainly living on processed food.

In my country, cooking at home is not in the least unusual, even in families where both partners work (which is the majority of families, actually, since most people just can't make ends meet on one income). Kingsolver briefly discusses European countries like Spain and France, and I could relate to that sort of food culture a lot more. I grew up with home-cooked food and with the idea that ready-made meals and fast food are bad for you and should be had very, very rarely. My parents never really made things like cheese, yogurt or pasta from scratch, but they made (and still make) a lot of other things.

When it comes to eating vegetables out of season, we do import and eat certain things all-year round (tomatoes, lettuce, and bananas are probably the main ones, though the first two are grown locally in greenhouses), but the idea of waiting for the right season to eat, say, strawberries or asparagus or fresh basil or cantaloupes is not novel to me. It's something we've always done, mostly because off-season vegetables are a lot more expensive and thus difficult to afford - and also not nearly as good. These are the ideas I grew up with, and so they became part of my general attitude towards food - and I don't think my family is at all unusual in this regard. Also, my father is a big gardener and has always grown his own vegetables, particularly fruit trees. I grew up knowing when apples, grapes, oranges, lemons, peaches, or plums were in season because that's when we got to pick them.

Another thing that differentiates my experience from Kingsolver's is the size and climate of my country. Of course, this just proves her point about the fact that our relationship with food is shaped by our relationship with the land. But for example, Portugal is pretty small, which means that while oranges from the Algarve are by no means local by the one hour's drive definition, they come from a place that's eight hours away. That's not ideal, but it's also not the same as shipping produce from California to the East Coast of the US, or importing bananas from the Dominican Republic. Also, supporting national produce has always been a big part of my country's culture. One of the main supermarket chains uses the fact that their produce is mostly national as their biggest selling point. People do this more for economic reasons than for environmental ones, but the end result is similar (though sometimes this is also justified in nationalistic terms that I'm uncomfortable with). "National" is not the same as "local", of course, but it's a much closer approximation in a country this size than somewhere like the US.

And then there's climate: the months as Kingsolver describes them in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle were just so off to me. The climate in Northern Portugal is by no means tropical, and we do have winters and occasional snow; but the ground never freezes and in the grand scheme of things temperatures are very mild. Spring really does start in March. Basil pots that I get in April are often still green in October. When I came home in December, the lemon tree in my parents' backyard was loaded. Things like this obviously make a huge difference to the notion of "in season", and consequently to our relationship with food.

All this to say that I hear you on wishing the book offered a more global perspective. I realise that's not the book Barbara Kingsolver set out to write, which is fair enough, but I'd love to find some other book that did attempt to do that. If anyone reading this has any recommendations, I would love to hear them.

Something I really wanted to discuss was the relationship between the lifestyle Kingsolver advocates and class. She spends a lot of time dispelling the notion that eating locally is an elite thing, and I believe that this is really important. But do you think the book as a whole really does dispel it? I have some thoughts on this I want to share, but I'd like to hear yours first.

Kelly First, I want to add my two cents to my perspective on what you said and then I will move on to your questions. I live in Canada and we often get grouped in with the U.S. when it comes to our common practices. I was happy when Kingsolver made a quick detour into Montreal, but even still that is enough distance to be entirely different than people on the east coast. I know that when I grocery shop I read where my food is coming from. For example, we have a mushroom farm about 30 mins from my house. There are two major grocery store chains in my area: One sells the mushrooms from the local farm, but the other one imports them from Ontario. Yes, this is still Canada at least, but it baffles me why they are not supporting their local farms. And, if the grocery store that does sell them is sold out, I refuse to buy any at all. They still come from other parts of Canada, but it is the principle of things. Canadians need to support their local farmers and stop importing from other markets. That’s a big thing here right now.

Another thing that I couldn’t help being surprised about is how big a deal she makes about farmer’s markets. In my province they are everywhere. Now, there are the ones that only happen like once a week or whatever, but then there are store-type places that sell local produce and are open depending on the farming season. For that reason, I am well aware of what is in season. Take peas for example. I love peas and you can buy ‘fresh’ peas year-round at the grocery store, but I only actually buy them for the month or so that the farmer’s markets here sell them. Then, I eat frozen ones that are packaged locally. I couldn’t imagine not knowing when seasons are. The big thing around here is apples. While you can generally buy apples throughout the winter; people around here know the best time is the fall. And, people come from all over to pick their own fresh apples at that time.

So, as you can see, I had a hard time with the idea that people do not know the seasons of things. I think that the only time that happens for me is for things that we don’t have the climate to grow, like bananas. I actually think it is fun to wait for the season for things. In the spring there are fresh strawberries, then there is the blueberry season. Or, what about the first fresh watermelon of the year? (And, I am sorry, this generation is entirely missing out on the joys of standing on your patio spitting watermelon seeds with your siblings or whatever.) That makes my mind drift to my pet peeves about the farming industry. Take blueberries for example, people must have never had a wild blueberry because you cannot tell me those organic, huge things taste anywhere near as good. If I can’t find wild blueberries we just do without that year. I suppose my point is that while I am sure many Canadians could relate to this book, I had a harder time with some of it because I just think so differently.

And, now, to your question. It is actually a hard one because my mind was on other subjects and I wasn’t as necessarily concerned with this one. Frankly, I don’t think that eating local has anything to do with ‘elite’, but more to do with the world of ‘quick and easy’. But that is just me. If you have never had anything to do with farming you also don’t necessarily know any different. My grandfather was a farmer, so we grew up with his gardens. I knew when to raid them for my peas because I had been doing it since I was really little. Now that he is gone I think my pea obsession is a combination of actually enjoying them and the memory of when he was alive and gardening. That is all to say that I think about your question differently despite what Kingsolver said in her book. I am curious what you were thinking about it, though.

Don't forget to head to Ana's blog to read the second part!


  1. Hi Ana and Kelly! I read both parts to buddy read but I'll comment here. Kelly, you know that my experience will be similar to yours: strawberries, blueberries, apples, road side vendors, but since the Valley is such a big farming community it is a little bit different here on the island. The best food in the in season food and we do have to hunt around a bit for it. I think you have to keep an eye out or ask around because the seasons don't last long. I'm waiting for rhubarb now. And yes we do have the same problem with the 2 big grocery stores not carrying local produce.

    Kingsolver's book did make me pay more attention to labels and will buy local over foreign. She also prompted me to start a vegetable garden.

    A good companion to this book is One Straw Revolution (and our library in Sydney has it if you ever want to borrow it). It was written in the 1970s but the author talks about how organic should be affordable, even then! It's an interesting little book.

    Great job guys!

  2. Yay! I'm so glad you guys finally review this! I didn't even know you'd read it! And, as I said over at Ana's, I'm so happy to get your perspective on the book. It is so American, so I love to get your foreign perspective. I'm thinking I need to move to Canada or Portugal, because they way you eat is so similar to my own. Apparently I had a rather foreign upbringing, because we had a huge garden, my grandmother canned a LOT of our food for the winter and we always ate from the garden. They would even go in with my aunt and uncle to buy half a cow from a farmer and split the meat between their families. A lot of that came from them being small during the Depression and knowing what it's like to make do with what you had. I'm doing my best to maintain what they taught me, as you well know. I don't know what I would do without my garden. Now, if I could just get the hubby let me get those chickens….

  3. Hey Kelly! Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed yours and Ana's thoughts. I wrote (too much) over at Ana's (always the way it seems to go--I write the big comment on the second half of these types of buddy reviews). :P

  4. Oh, great first half (haven't gone to Ana's yet). I read this book some years ago. I actually really disliked Kingsolver's tone (and ESPECIALLY the tone of her daughter) because it seemed very moralistic to me. But I think she's right in that a lot of Americans don't always know when things are in season. We don't. I think other countries have more of a culture of kitchen gardens, too, that we are missing, and that would really help us to realize when things are in season or not. We have really messed that up here with our subsidies and monoculture, and based on our obesity levels, it's really coming to bite us.

  5. I live in a very small town in the middle of nowhere, literally. It's hours and hours and HOURS to get to a bigger town of any size. Most people buy groceries at walmart because it is so significantly cheaper than the other tiny grocery stores. We have one farmer's market, and I *think* it opens the first weekend in June and closes in late September. It's only open on Saturdays and if there are 10 booths then it's a big day. Additionally, our growing season is very short, most people with gardens still have seedlings inside the house. We do have a few local things, but other than corn and melons, most everything is imported. It's really easy for me to believe that people don't know what growing seasons are. I only know because I'm CHEAP, but I couldn't tell you off the top of my head when anything is in season, except apples and citrus. I only know by what is on sale.

  6. Like Lisa, I live in the middle of nowhere, with a once-a-week farmer's market (a recent thing; started up in the past five years). It's on Saturdays, 9-noon and if I miss it, that's it. Otherwise I can go to Kroger or Wal-Mart for food. The attitudes in this book struck me as typically American Academic, which is a kind of elite, if only because academics make more money than lots of other Americans.

  7. Wow! What a great first half. I do have to say that Kingsolver is right about Americans not knowing when things are in season. If you haven't grown up around some kind of garden or farming, you're not going to know. It's too easy to buy any kind of fruit or vegetable anytime you want to.

    The availability of farmers' markets is an elite kind of thing. If you're in a poor neighborhood, there most likely won't be a farmer's market in your neighborhood. You would have to go to a more affluent neighborhood which will more likely host a farmers' market. Plus, if you're poor and receiving some kind of government aid, you won't be able to use that as payment as a farmers' market, but you can use it some place like Walmart. :-(

    I can't wait to read the second half of this!

  8. My experience is a little different...I grew up (mid 70's-mid 80's) in a working class American family (MS)...we ate out of a garden only what was in season bc that's the way my parents were brought up and it was cheaper. I grew up eating deer meat, processed into sausage, deer burger, roast, you name it...again, bc my dad hunted and it was what we could afford. I loathed working in the garden and loathed shelling peas, butterbeans, shucking corn etc.
    As an adult now with a family to feed (in rural S MS) I am just beginning to learn eating by season and by what I can produce myself. Even though I grew up in the garden, I only have a small one of my own and partly bc of Kingsolver's book which I read 2 summers ago. I can see where a reader might pick up an elitist feel from Kingsolver and/or her daughter but in the spirit of personal narrative I don't think they could have presented it any other way since that's exactly what this book is supposed to family's experience. Given that, I am appalled at the price of eating fresh vs. eating processed at the grocery store. It is much cheaper for the average family in our community to buy blue box macaroni, ramen noodles, and sugary juice drinks to keep their families fed. It is no longer cost efficient for many of them to have their own gardens as well. You would think in rural MS that we have tons of farmer's markets; we don't. Much of our produce is shipped AWAY from us rather than kept in our community. More than likely this phenomenon is caused at least partly bc local growers can get higher prices by selling to distributors of higher class neighborhood grocery stores. So, once again, the have nots work themselves to death so that the haves can eat better.
    I'm an academic in MS so I don't make more than lots of other Americans. I laugh when I see the "average American teacher salary" reports...bc I don't make anywhere near the "average." But, I was still able to find lots in Kingsolver's book to "guide" me in my quest to feed my family better and to make me more aware of the politics, local, state and nationwide surrounding the most recent eat fresh movement. Great conversation!!!

  9. Aside from it being nice. It has great content as well.

  10. I do think there is a class divide in eating locally, growing your own food, etc...; however, I think the bigger economic division comes in the form of time and knowledge. What I mean is that though it might be less expensive to buy seeds and grow food, or to buy dried beans, rice, and a whole chicken, it takes time (in the garden and in the kitchen) and information that some low-income folks don't have. If you're working multiple minimum wage jobs and are juggling kids in daycare, you are much less likely to have an hour or four to roast a chicken and make homemade stock and simmer beans, etc......

  11. Wow I am LOVING this discussion!!! I have to agree with you Ana on your culture shock. I had some culture shock related to my own country. The truth is, a really large amount of americans don't eat at home anymore..or don't cook at home..we're quickly becoming one of the most obese countries because of fast food and overly processed frozen food. I've started cooking for myself since I've been inmy apartment and just in this short time I can notice a change! In the way I feel! My body is happy! The other sad thing is, until about three years ago when I really got into gardening, mostly thanks to this book, I didn't pay attention to seasons either. For people in the US who don't garden themselves, i think very few people know what's in season when. Aside from the obvious things like watermelon being associated with summer. But growing up, we had apples, oranges, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, etc. all year! And we assumed that stuff grew all year! It's not until I started growin those things myself that I could start seeing that we were paying high prices in fuel, plastic wrap, etc. to have those things. And then it just gets sort of disgusting.

    I think I can certainly see how the point can come across that you have to be of a certain class to live like eat locally. What I can say for the US is that it's a hell of a lot cheaper to buy some rice and locally grown beans, onions and bell pepper and make an amazing tasting pot of beans and rice for pennies on the dollar compared to what you would pay for fast food.

    I DO think that Kingsolver's book was written to the US and even more specifically using her climate as an example. Here in the south, we can grow tomatoes all but two months out of the year. I would love to see something written on a more global scale! Ok…off to Ana's side of the review :p

  12. I just left a long comment over at Ana's blog, so I won't write too much here, but it was great to see the perspectives of two people from outside the U.S. I have to admit, i was shocked by the culture shock you both expressed. I forget that not everyone has to reacquint themselves with real food the way so many of us in the United States do. Growing up, we had one of those in-season charts in our cupboard and I would always pull it out and look at it, but I don't think I really got it. You could still buy almost all of those things at any time at the grocery store; and, as far as I was concerned, canned fruit was just as good as fresh fruit. Besides, fruit was just something you got and ate because it was fruit and it was good for you, (and it was better than vegetables!)...the idea of things being in season never really sunk in. Now (thirty-some-odd years later) I'm finally starting to get it. Generally speaking, I'll wait until summer to buy things like strawberries and peaches. If I can buy locally-grown produce I will, but sadly, there's still no such thing as a good fresh peach out here, it's just a matter of where it is on the crunchy/mushy scale. :(

  13. Oops-*reacquaint* not reacquint!

  14. Great discussion! I've seen this book around a lot, but didn't have enough interest in it to actually pick it up. I might have to change that very soon!

    I can see where Kingsolver is coming from with a lot of the points you guys brought up. By my experience, a lot of my friends and co-workers (including me) live off of frozen dinners or restaurant food. Its a very rare thing when we actually make a homemade meal, let alone one with local produce. This, in large part, might be a generation thing or the fact that we all live alone. My relatives (ie Grandparents, parents, aunts, etc) are completely different in that they make their own meals and often use veggies and fruit that they've grown themselves. However, none of us use farmers markets. This is probably because the nearest one is about a half hour drive away from us and is only open on Saturdays from 9-noon. But this is mostly a rural mid-west experience.

    Which brings up my questions of, does Kingsolver talk about the difference between rural and city life in contrast to the experiences with food that she discusses?

  15. I haven't read this book, but have loads of thoughts on the subject anyway. I'm always blown away by the differences between the European and American food industries. I consider myself lucky to be in Europe, with all our regulation. Some of the stuff in the States really horrifies me - especially the meat and dairy lobbies. But things aren't perfect here either and I think it's horrible that healthy foods are so much more expensive. I live in Belgium and strawberry season is accessible to all, but blueberries and raspberries are ridiculously expensive. I hate that every single year.

    I try to eat seasonal but I find local much more difficult. I'm too selfish I guess, I still want my bananas and the occasional mango and even tomatoes all year round. Other things, like asparagus and pumpkin, I definitely associate with certain times of the year and only eat them then.

  16. I feel like Kingsolver didn't really convince me that eating locally isn't a elite thing. I think it didn't use to be, but you can't deny that without a decent amount of time/money/land it's hard to grow or buy organic fruit and veggies.


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