Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I haven’t been feeling well this week, so in lieu of eating food, I have been reading about it. A while ago, whilst I was pondering what a resilient UK garden would look like, blog reader Audrey asked me if I had read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is somewhat of a classic in the local good genre. I hadn’t, so I bought a secondhand copy and started reading.

Kingsolver is a veteran writer of novels, poetry and non-fiction, so it’s no surprise that this is an easy book to read (her sections of it, at least – her husband and eldest daughter also contribute sections). Early on in the book I was entranced, with my writerly eye, with some of her phrases.

The premise is simple. Becoming increasingly concerned with where food comes from, and its impact on human and planetary health, the family uprooted itself from Tucscon, Arizona, to a little farm (more of a smallholding, really) in Appalachia – farming country. After a settling in period where they got to know the local food opportunities, and got the garden up and running, they embarked on a year where they tried to eat nothing but local, seasonal food. The early chapters involve worrying about what, exactly, they will find to eat, a worry that quickly evaporates during trips to the local farmers’ markets. There is the anticipation of the first asparagus spears, or the morel mushrooms that spring up by themselves in a secret location on the farm. There is lots of networking with neighbours and local producers.

Later on it becomes more of a gardening tale, with the hard work of planting, weeding, watering… then harvesting and preserving the bounty. This isn’t a story of drudgery and peasant lifestyles, but rather one of shared labours and shared encounters over good food. With their income assured from their day jobs, this family grew vegetables and raised poultry because they wanted to. It was their choice for their leisure hours, and they reaped the rewards in healthy, homegrown food. This is a book about regaining ownership of our food culture: “A food culture is not something that gets sold to people. It arises out of a place, a soil, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging.”

If you think it sounds like a nice idyll for people who were lucky enough to have access to land, and to not have to make an income from it, then in part it is. But Kingsolver is quick to point out that eating locally, in season, can actually be cheaper than the processed alternative. They put a lot of hard work into their garden, but it saved them real money over the course of the year. Altogether she reckoned their year of living locally was over $7000 (nearly £5000) cheaper than their previous year of living ‘normally’, and that’s a lot of money for most people. That’s for a family of four who like to feed guests 🙂

Most months get a chapter; June gets four, and there are 20 in total. Each one has a micro-essay from Stephen L. Hopp on some aspect of the international food trade, whether it be food insecurity and international aid, or the environmental cost of cheap food. It seems as though Kingsolver was the main cook, but Hopp and his trusty breadmachine produced the daily bread. Most chapters also include a selection of seasonal family recipes from Camille Kingsolver, which range from family suppers to dishes for gargantuan feasts. I have to say I skipped over pretty much all of their contributions; sticking to the main text of the book.

By the end of the year the family is pining for seafood (they never did find a local source), but they haven’t lost weight, they never ran out of food and they certainly didn’t feel deprived. They allowed themselves certain imports from outside their chosen food radius – mainly coffee and olive oil, but also seasonings. They bought their bread flour as local as possible, but it didn’t truly fit their criteria. They weren’t purists; they kept boxed mac ‘n’ cheese in stock for visiting children who could not be persuaded to eat anything else.

Through it all, Kingsolver explains what she believes are the problems with the industrialised farming system – there are many, from health and environmental implications through to the cultural losses and the economic reality that supports multinational corporations over small farmers. She is persuasive, and utterly convinced that not only is there a problem, but that it is within our hands to do something about it. Those corporations fight back against local food initiatives, they lobby for tax cuts and food safety guidelines that tie small farmers up in red tape, they stuff their ‘food’ full of addictive additives that make us long for more, and yet they are few and we are many and consumer choices do matter. When we choose local, choose organic or choose to grow our own rather than invest in these corporations we are choosing a way of life that is better for us, better for our neighbours and better for the planet.

Nobody reading here will complain that it involves getting a little muddy out in the garden 😉 but as Kingsolver points out – it doesn’t have to. Farmers’ markets are expanding (and veg box deliveries are easy to find in most places in the UK). And if you’re wondering what you would eat in the lean months of the year (and we’re in one of them now), then she has an answer for that as well, and it’s about preparation. “Eating locally in winter is easy. But the time to think about that would be in August.”

Most of us have the money and space to keep a little food on hand, in case of emergencies. We have larders or pantries, shelves in the kitchen and freezers. What if they weren’t stocked with processed foods from the supermarket, but with things that were grown locally and preserved when they were in season, cheap and abundant? It’s something work thinking about.