Reading: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Finished Reading:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver – I wasn’t really “into” Kingsolver’s books that I’ve read before (The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees) but I saw this in the bookstore and was very intrigued. I’m a sucker for books that have to do with food. Luckily the book was available through my library system so I got to read it for free.

This book covers a year with Barbara, her husband, and two daughters, after a move from Tuscon, Arizona into the steep Appalachian hills of Virginia, as they attempt to go to a self-produced and locally-produced diet. Their journey includes planting tons (literally) of vegetables on 3,500 square feet of soil, developing relationships with local farmers and local food producers, learning to make their own cheese, discovering the mating secrets of turkeys, and thinking a lot about where food comes from and why that matters. One of the neat things about this book is that it’s a family-produced book; Barbara’s oldest daughter ends most chapters with a short essay from her perspective and some yummy-looking recipes, Barbara’s husband has sidebars scattered throughout with interesting stats, resources, and tips.

Some of the things that stood out to me:

  • With a non-farming background, I was surprised to learn that asparagus grow to become 3-4 foot plants. We eat the small shoots that come up in early spring.
  • Mass-produced veggies have drastically decreased the variety of foods that we could be eating. Some plant varieties — even whole species — are being lost. “According to Indian crop ecologist Vandana Shiva, humans have eaten some 80,000 plant species in our history. After recent precipitous changes, three-quarters of all human food now comes from just eight species, with the field quickly narrowing down to genetically modified corn, soy, and canola” (p. 49, in the chapter “Springing Forward”).
  • Organic foods have 50% more antioxidants than conventionally grown foods, because they have to work harder at surviving (without pesticides).
  • The chapter “The Birds and the Bees” has an awesome story about Barbara’s youngest daughter, Lily, and her egg venture, that made me laugh out loud.
  • Chapter 8, “Growing Trust,” has an interesting rant about our perception of grocery money. Why do we insist on “cheap food prices” and settle for sub-par quality produce, meat, and fast or convenient food, but spend billions on bottled drinking water? The sidebar in this chapter is especially interesting, addressing the complaint about how organic foods are more expensive. Truth be told, we pay billions in tax dollars, Farm Bill subsidies, and health and environmental costs for the production of “conventional” foods that don’t show up in the grocery aisle sticker prices. While there is something to be said for larger corporate organic producers who might be manipulating the growing popularity of “organic foods” (and who might be less than ethical in their commitments to providing truly organic foods), small organic farmers generally have to charge more because they put more labor into their work and also have a harder time distributing and marketing their goods.
  • Did you know that with some mail-order cultures and store-bought milk, you can make your own fresh mozzarella in 30 minutes? Let me add that on my “things to try to do someday” list!! It sounds like yogurt, cream cheese, and ricotta cheese are relatively easy to make at home as well; hard cheeses are a little harder. (Pardon the pun.) Barbara describes a cheese-making workshop she attended, which makes me very interested to see if anything similar is offered in my area as well.
  • Sounds like canning tomatoes in a water bath is the easiest way to start canning; the acidity keeps you from having to process the vegetable in a pressure canner. Another thing I’d want to try someday as well. (Note to self: Need garden with tomatoes first.)
  • Barbara’s adventures into raising — and breeding — turkeys is priceless.
  • The final results of their year-long experiment: Based on current organic food prices, Barbara’s family raised and harvested $4,410 worth of veggies and poultry. Supplemented with locally milled flour, locally produced pasta, organic grain for animal feed, etc., they spent a total of about $0.50 per person per meal.

Barbara pulls out all the stops unapologetically, using statistics, personal sketches of farmers, and humor, to make a compelling and sometimes convicting case for buying local produce and food, supporting local farmers, and overall becoming more aware of where your food comes from and your own role in the food production chain. Some may find her preachy; I found her passion inspiring without being judgmental. It helped that I was fascinated by the details she provided about things like canning and cheese-making (remember, I’m the one who reads the food bits of the Little House books for pleasure) and that I love food books in general (How to Read a French Fry, Salt, and Garlic and Sapphires immediately come to mind as recent foodie reads).

Personal impact of this book:

  • Recommitting to buying more of our groceries from the local food co-op (I got a bit lazy in the past few weeks)
  • Giving the farmer’s market another try (I get overwhelmed and lost when I go); actually try talking to the farmers if I’m brave
  • Future desires:
    • Learn how to make mozzarella
    • Learn to can stuff
    • Grow a garden

With a bookmark:

(Books I just started reading, or books I’ve been “reading” for ages. Most recent first.)

  • Confessions of a Tax Collector by Richard Yancey
  • Buying Your First Home by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart
  • Body, Soul, and Baby by Tracy Gaudet
  • What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg, and Sandee Hathaway
  • The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
  • A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson

In the library book box:

  • Dragonhaven by Patricia McKinley
  • A Good Dog by Jon Katz
  • Dog Days by Jon Katz
  • Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith

6 thoughts on “Reading: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

  1. So ironic! I just started this book yesterday! I’m excited that you liked it, and I’m even more anxious to get into it. I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It’s very similar to Kingsolver’s book, but I’m going to table it until I’m done with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Thanks for the GREAT review!

  2. Good recommendation, I will try to find this one!

    I’m also looking for “Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally”, kind of the same idea I guess.

    I listened to “Omnivore’s Dilemma” — although I am a city kid (Seattle) I went to a Ag school (WSU), and I DO know a bit about agriculture. Most of it was common sense, and the ENDLESS chapter about corn. I gave it up, I just couldn’t stand any more!

    I still can’t think about Kansas without recalling that monotone drone about corn, corn products, corn-fed chickens, corn syrup….. 🙂

    Splash’s mom

  3. Kristine – Would love to hear your thoughts when you’re done!

    ClickerTrainer – Hooray! My library actually has a copy of Plenty so I’ve added it to my list.

    “Corn, corn products, corn-fed chickens, corn syrup…” — that reminds me of a scene from “Best In Show” where Harlan Pepper is naming different kinds of nuts: “Peanut. Hazelnut. Cashew nut…”🙂

    And I’m “exact words only” sometimes, so I probably would have said “listened” as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s