Eating food from the neighborhood

May 13, 2007|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Chicago Tribune

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

By Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

HarperCollins / 370 pages / $26.95

Midway through reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the new Barbara Kingsolver book, I pushed up from the couch, set the book aside and took the three-mile drive to the local farmer's market - a popular Saturday morning ritual in my area of suburban Philadelphia. There I joined my neighbors in the predictably happy frenzy: procuring homegrown flowers and freshly baked bread, organic eggs and the lush, bright produce that is seeded, tended, crated and sold by the region's Amish farmers. I've been a farmer's market junkie since I was a kid. It's the smells. It's the theater. It's all those handwritten signs: "Homegrown." It's what you carry home with you - all manner of things sweet and good.

Still, as much as I love this Earth and do my level best to honor and preserve it, I will never achieve what Kingsolver and her family achieved during the year in which her book takes place, a year when the family of four resolved, as Kingsolver writes, to make "every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew."

This meant eliminating foods that had taken a long, fossil-fuel-guzzling ride across country, or whose production had unnecessarily taxed the Earth. It meant moving from Tucson to the southern Appalachians and working the farm that had long been in the family's possession. It meant eating asparagus when the asparagus emerged, eggs when the chickens yielded, tomatoes all through the over-generous tomato season, and setting up a personal turkey chopping block. It meant days in which it rained cherries. It meant forgoing bananas. You aren't going to find any bags of Doritos in the Kingsolver pantry. You will, however, find one healthy preponderance of preserving jars.

Kingsolver and her family came by their decision to eat right quite naturally. Good food and its loving preparation had been a household staple for years. A concern for the environment (and a deep understanding of its inner workings, thanks in part to a graduate degree in biology) has rippled through many of Kingsolver's novels and essays, in big ways and small. Her husband, Steven Hopp, is a biologist. Kingsolver's daughters have lived unusually conscientious, concerned lives.

Still, going food local meant making sometimes-chancy compromises. It meant not eating fruit, for example, when fruit was not in season (or satisfying oneself with rhubarb, as opposed to, say, apples). It meant making a commitment to spending much of every day either growing food or preparing it, or putting one's fate in the hands of farming-wise neighbors.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a hybrid book - part memoir (though those hoping for even the slightest whiff of familial discord or tension must look elsewhere), part call to action, part education, part recipe collection. It has the feel, most of all, of an extended magazine article, complete with helpful, fact-fat sidebars by Kingsolver's husband, who, among other things, provides honest updates on the harrowing state of the planet's stressed natural resources, points readers toward regional farmers, answers questions about the relative yield of different-size farms and encourages communication with local grocers and politicians about the importance of locally grown food.

The youngest member of the family, Lily, emerges in the text as a pigtailed sprite - wise, compassionate and one heck of a chicken farmer who keeps her spirits up even as she watches her profits dwindle when her mother insists on being repaid the money lent during the operation's start-up. Camille, the elder daughter, contributes first-person slices of life as well as her own tried-and-true recipes. Camille's writing doesn't just bear an uncanny resemblance to her mother's (the same plucky rhythms and cadence, the same sort of tongue-in-cheekisms); it demonstrates a preternatural knowledge of foodstuffs and chemistries.

Here is 19-year-old Camille, for example, in a chapter that gently goads the reader to eat greens: "Multivitamins are obviously a clunky substitute for the countless subtle combinations of phytochemicals and enzymes that whole foods contain. One way to think of these pills might be as emergency medication for lifestyle-induced malnutrition."

Later, writing about the word organic, Camille says: "The word has sneaked onto a pretty loose-knit array of food labels too, tiptoeing from `100% organic' over to `contains organic ingredients.' Like overused slang, the term has been muddled by rising popularity."

Beth Kephart wrote this review for the Chicago Tribune.

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