In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the amazingly talented author Barbara Kingsolver takes on a new realm: the economy of food life. The idea for the book was born in her family’s move from the arid climate of Arizona to the temperate climate of southern Appalachia. Part of the motivation for this move was a desire to live in a way that was at once more sustainable and healthier, both for her family and her world.
Sustainable food culture is not a new topic for books or in the public sphere. It has been tackled by many authors in recent years and has increasingly been part of political and social discourse. Kingsolver, however, takes the issue out of the realms of academia and politics to plant it firmly in the context of her own family, lifestyle and garden. What is usually painted as a grim doomsday situation is brought into a positive light by Kingsolver and her family, who manage to find creative ways to live within their community and in harmony with the seasons of their own part of the world.
Framed within this context, much of what she discusses seems like good common sense. But unfortunately, in today’s single-minded, profit-driven food economy, much of this good common sense has been replaced by short cuts that prove to be near sighted and counter-productive. Take, for example, the practice of using pesticides and insecticides that eradicate birds like swallows. How does this make sense when swallows are insecticides since insects are their main diet? And what about the practice of shipping vegetables halfway across the world when we could just as easily grow them in our own back yards? Kingsolver brings contradictions to the fore, pointing out that these practices not only damage the environment and ecosystems we inhabit, but also harm our local economies by putting our hard-earned food dollars into the far away bank accounts of a few large corporations.
Though it seems if not impossible, incredibly daunting to purchase only food we can trace back to its source, Kingsolver gently walks the reader through some simple ways of doing so. She then goes on to describe processes (like making cheese) that most of us wouldn’t even have any idea we could do in our own kitchens, let alone in half an hour, and describes them in such simple terms that by the end of the section the reader is left wondering why they’ve never tried them before. The book is also peppered with factual passages on a variety of topics related to worldwide food production by Kingsolver’s husband, Steven L. Hopp, along with essays, recipes and menu suggestions in keeping with the seasonal ingredient list by her elder daughter, Camille.
Even if you’re not about to give up tomatoes in January, this book will provide you with such a range of information and ideas that you can’t help but become more aware of the food that ends up on your table. Whether you decide to visit a local farmer’s market, grow some of your own vegetables in your backyard or a community garden, choose to buy foods marked “local” whenever you see them, or simply have an increased awareness of the true cost of your food, this book will certainly change your relationship to your meals and provide you with options should you choose to pursue them.