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!