Eat This, Everybody's a Critic

Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Review by the Quintessence Book Club, reported by Susan

THE BOOK
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is Barbara Kingsolver’s story of her family’s one-year experiment in eating  food they grow themselves in Virginia, Family
supplemented by the local farmers and only a few nonlocal items like
coffee.  It’s also her passionate plea for all Americans to rethink our
eating habits. Down with fast food, up with
slow, local food!

But as much as it chronicles the growing and preparing of food, it’s a story about family – because this had to be
a family project, and the book even includes sidebars by Kingsolver’s
biology professor husband and her 18-year-old daughter, the aspiring
nutritionist and surprisingly good writer.  But contrary to my
expectations, it was far from a farm journal with recipes (yes, it has
a few.)  There are also trips to other farms (including a myth-busting story of visiting their Amish friends), food adventures in Italy,
and the universal recounting of holiday get-togethers – so really good
story-telling.

Their website is a great resource with lots of good links and even stories from others around the world. 

So okay, I loved it, just as much as I love her fiction. I disagreed
with nothing, nodded throughout, and laughed often.  Sadly, my
take-away feeling was frustration at not being able to find the
kind of food Kingsolver and her family eat.  Damn, I want a nearby
farm-based
diner (coz there’s no way I’d ever cook it myself).  But it goes
deeper: I want to have grown up in a family that cared about food, that
made pizza together every Friday night.  I’m jealous of Kingsolver’s
daughters for having all that.  Pathetic, I know.

THE BOOK GROUP
Of the many books discussed by the Quintessence
Book Club, I can’t remember another that’s elicited the range of
reactions that this one did.  Starting with the positive, most reported
variants of "It changed my life."  One member had tried raw asparagus
("amazing, sweet as sugar").  Several had tried recipes, including our
hostess, whose basil blackberry crumble is here.  (Runny but still deelish with vanillaKingsolverpie350 ice cream!)

A meaty discussion followed about not just the book but about how to find restaurants in our area that serve local (go to SlowfoodUSA.org), an upcoming talk by Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food,
the effects of localism on publishing, and Monsanto (one member, an
occupational health doc, declared it "Evil!" and said to quote her -
okay, Dede!) 

We managed to agree on a few things: that we could never, ever do
what this family did, and that the turkey chapters were the best,
especially the one about teaching them to have sex.

But there were notes of discord.  Loud notes.

Two members grew up farming and canning and cooking like Kingsolver, and learned nothing new.

The two members who listened to book hate-hate-hated Kingsolver’s narration, finding it slow,
too Southern, and preachy. 

Actually, over half the members thought the book’s tone was preachy.

But the really strong feelings were yet to come.

One member called it a "dreadful rant" with a "complete absence of
fact" that will "give liberals a bad name." Though it changed his
thinking about local farmers and
humanely raised animals – two causes he now wants to actively support -
he "hated it!"  What to make of that? Kingsolver350_2 

Another member bets that Kingsolver has a big ole carbon footprint
herself, with all that flying around to give speeches and whatnot.
Then she declared her desire to shoot Kingsolver’s 18-year-old daughter Camille (the "little prig") – this from a great-grandmother.  Good heavens!!

Frankly, I had NOT seen any of that coming.  It made me wonder why I didn’t find the book preachy, because I’m so often the one making that complaint about an author.

THE PRESS
So I checked some reviews here and found lots of raves and words like "nonjudgmental", "not sanctimonious or enviro-pious," and
"Kingsolver is no pious soapboxer," none of which helped explain the
reactions of my friends.  I guess the book’s a lightening rod of some
sort, and maybe there’s just no way to write
passionately about a subject that’s central to all our lives and get it
right with everybody.

Love it or hate it, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle sure gets people talking…and thinking about making some changes.

Photos:  Can you tell our hostess had a little fun with the
book?  Labels like "We made this cheese on Thursday" assured us of the supreme localness of the food and wine
served. 

Posted by on June 7, 2008 at 1:49 pm, in the category Eat This, Everybody's a Critic.
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21 Responses to “Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

  1. victoria says:

    Admittedly, I’ve not read the book. However, I’m a fan of Kingsolver’s and can read High Tide In Tucson and node my head and agree with everything too. In regard to a book about growing food, eating locally, making changes, etc., Kingsolver has a few things that most Americans do not – land, self-employment, and the financial freedom to eat locally and organically. Most Americans have their priorities in making the rent, working full time (or more), and putting plain old grocery store food on the table. And it’s easy for those of us who can buy what we want to eat or even grow what we want (myself included for the most part) to keep a that in mind. Slow food, local food, organic food might be more mainstream that ever before but it is still out of reach for most. The trendiness that has accompanied this movement results in $12 sandwiches at “local” and “organic” hot dining places, excluding most American diners. I won’t go to these places in spite of the fact that I can pay for it. I don’t see this as the way to get the average American to make changes.

  2. Okay, I couldn’t resist this one.

    I read (not listened to) the book and LOVED it. The only time I felt a bit uneasy was her defense of growing and killing food animals. Even in those chapters, I had to smile at her descriptions of turkey love.

    At the end of the book, I was frustrated that eating local meant so darned much WORK. It sounded as if her whole family had another part-time job after their real jobs to can tomatoes, take care of chickens, tend the crops, make cheese.

    On another note…our local library hosted a discussion on the book. I wasn’t a part of that group, but it spawned a new local foods community group that is now getting formed. I am certainly a member of that. The book is heartily recommended to all newcomers.

    Robin at Bumblebee

  3. Meg says:

    Wow, folks had some strong reactions! I thought AVM was fantastic.

    Yeah, Kingsolver is fortunate to live in a place and own property that lets her eat locally with relative ease, and she’s lucky to have a job that lets her spend the whole month of August canning tomatoes. But the criticism that she’s elitist or preachy? I just didn’t see that.

    I thought it was a great story about a family who set out to do something challenging and pulled it off. Kingsolver certainly showed the unglamorous side of farm life right along with the inspirational and impressive bits.

    My only complaint about the book is that I wanted to hear more about the specific varieties she was growing and the methods she used in th garden.

  4. greg draiss says:

    words like “folksy and smart,” “nonjudgmental”, “not sanctimonious or enviro-pious,” and “Kingsolver is no pious soapboxer,”

    hmmmmmmmmm

  5. greg draiss says:

    I agree with Victoria…. Too many people waering localism on their shirt sleeve are often not locals in the place they practice being locavores………

    The end of small town butchers bakers and candlestick makers was the interstate highway systen that bypassed most of Main Street America. While it made it easier for the cadndle stick maker in Peoria to sell his candle sticks in Poughkeepsie it also meant that the candlestick maker in Poughkeepsie had to sell his candlesticks in Peoria. Hence more trucks on the road burning more fuel and so on and so on

  6. Layanee says:

    That very few of us could actually eat this way, grow this way and live this way is a bit scary since that means we are depending on others for our very survival. What would you do if all the trucks stopped moving and the power was off for months? Hopefully, we will never have to find out.

  7. Becca says:

    I am mid-book and can hardly put it down. If everyone takes one positive nugget from this book to apply to their life, we would all be so much better off and less dependent on oil as a nation. In my opinion, the people that are put off by her tone in the book may very well be dealing with their own guilt on the many issues she discusses. Every page has something for each of us to chew…oftentimes it is very hard to reflect on the choices I have made and the ones I need to make.

  8. ilex says:

    I just finished reading the book for the first time last week. The thing is, humans have kept versions of gardens like Kingsolver’s for all of (post-Neolithic Revolution) human history. It’s only the last 60 years or so that we haven’t grown at least some of our own food- especially in the US. We’ve willfully turned our backs on a key item (on a very short list of things) that deeply, truly makes us who we are. And in exchange for convenience, we get: Monsanto and their ilk; decimated, sterile soil; rapidly declining fresh water tables, acidified oceans; poor nutrition, diabetes, obesity, and probably a variety of cancers. Or, we could forgo 5 hours of TV a night, get some exercize with the family, and grow some of the best tasting food that can’t be bought at any price. It should be a no-brainer, but industrial food has a very loud and alluring siren song.

    I think the passion that this book arises, on both sides, is the remembrance of so many gardens not grown and so much time lost. We’ll get back to it. We have to.

  9. Diana says:

    “The two members who listened to book hate-hate-hated Kingsolver’s narration, finding it slow, too Southern, and preachy.”

    What does ‘too Southern’ mean? Did I somehow miss the drawl?

  10. Nancy says:

    I enjoyed reading it, though I wished that I had the leisure time to eat/grow that way, AND that I had better trained my children to love their vegetables.

    Re: carbon footprint. She actually took very few speaking engagements that year and after, which was much to our regret because we had an informal agreement that she would come to my college and speak.

  11. susan harris says:

    Diana, I’m a Central Virginia girl myself and would probably LOVE Kingsolver’s accent. Slow reading, though, not so much.

  12. Luci says:

    I loved, loved, loved this book. Most of what she wrote about was not news to me. However, she brought the same style and charm to this endeavor as to her other works, both fiction and non-fiction. At no time did I feel she was on a soap-box. In fact, she took pains to point out repeatedly the pros and cons of different decisions and of trying to find balance in the state of the world we find ourselves.

    They certainly could have remained vegetarians, but to humanely raise animals, have a relationship with them, with the intent of eating them later takes real courage, no matter what side of the fence you are on. My husband and I are considering raising a broiler flock so we can have real chicken at an affordable price, but keep waffling on the who will do the actual killing…

    I have to wonder if the people that find the work so offensive do so because this book scares them? Pushes their comfort level too far? I wonder if these are same people who do all of their shopping at super-box stores like Walmat and Target! I “get” that too many Americans feel entrenched in their conventional, consumerist patterns. My own parents aren’t sure they understand what I’m doing. My engineering father is proud that I’m going to graduate school, but why do I feel the need to study sustainable ag/food principles?

    With the each food scare (salmonella tomatoes last week) I wonder if consumers have reached the point where they are ready to be less complacent?

  13. Katherine says:

    I read and loved this book when it first came out over a year ago and it’s great to see that it is still reverberating with so many. It really seems like her point is not that everyone should do as she has done (impossible, obviously!), but rather to try to get everyone considering in an informed way where their food comes from. It doesn’t mean an all or nothing proposition – just a few local products included in our meals can be so beneficial on so many levels. For me it has forever changed the way I view what’s behind eating strawberries in December and apples in the July.

    People hate change for the most part, especially change that might threaten what they eat, no matter how healthy and wise those changes might be. People reacting so negatively to Kingsolver’s ideas remind me of Hummer drivers showing disdain for the Prius and other gas saving alternatives.

  14. greg draiss says:

    It’s amazing how much of this return to localism really is nothing new and not really noteworthy. What is noteworthy and shameful is how did we stray so far from home in the first place. A child pschycologist made headlines by saying kids need to be outdoors playing more and that video games and computers were part to blame for ADHD. My wife called me at work and told me this to which I asked her where are the kids right now? She said “they have been outside playing all day”. To which I answered “then why are you calling me at work to tell me this worthless piece of news?” She said your’e right what are you grilling when you get home? I answered nice save!

  15. Phillip says:

    I haven’t read the book yet but it is on my list. I had checked the reviews on Amazon earlier and noted the variety of reviews, pretty much split down the middle of those hating and loving it.

  16. Nancy says:

    I liked this book. I liked its style and, for the most part the content.

    After I read it, indeed almost towards the very last pages, it struck me that the reason that some people can manage to live “off the grid” (this musing was in conjunction with other readings about life off the grid), is that the reason some people can do this…is because the rest of us can’t.

    It seems paradoxical that taking on the more physically challenging and taxing lifestyle is actually a luxury that most of us can never come close to achieving.

  17. Eilish says:

    After initial planting, I spend approximately one hour a day tending and puttering in my vegetable garden which is pretty sizeable. I wonder how many people who complain about not having the time to do this kind of thing watch at least an hour of television a day?

    I’m not saying that living like Kingsolver’s family is feasible for everyone or even desirable, but to say that you don’t have time to produce any of your own food seems a bit unlikely. I focus my time on the vegetables that taste so much better grown at home like tomatoes and cucumbers or that are expensive bought in the store like snap peas and fresh herbs. You would be surprised how much food you can grow in a 4 foot by 4 foot patch of ground. Even container gardening can produce a lot of food if you plan right.

  18. Eilish says:

    BTW, I have tried the zucchini and orzo pasta recipe that she gives in the book and on the website and it is great! (Always nice to have more ideas for how to use zucchini.)

  19. Ane says:

    I’m looking for the strawberry rhubarb recipe, have the ingredients growing in my garden and my taste buds are waiting. I’m about halfway through the book, going back and forth. I used to have asparagus and know it’s taste.

  20. Rayna says:

    I loved this book. I read this immediately after Michael Pollan’s ‘In Defense of Food’. They go well together and have helped me form the steps I want to take to eat healthier personally and environmentally. I live in a city apartment and last year grew potted vegetables and herbs on my fire escape and on the roof. I have also joined a co-op, community garden, and have been going to more farmers markets. This time last year I wasnt even eating anything organic at all. Reading these books opened my eyes too much to go back to the way I was eating previously.

  21. Sylvia Spearman says:

    I recommended this book to my book club, and we’ll be discussing it this week. It has certainly encouraged me to go to our local farmer’s market regularly and to feel OK about paying more for good local produce. I’ve even planted a couple heirloom tomato plants…thanks Barbara and family!
    Sylvia

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