Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (HarperCollins)
Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon (Harmony Books)
Barbara Kingsolver & Steven L. Hopp
When Fri 5/18, 7:30 PM
Where Swedish American Museum Center, 5211 N. Clark
Price Free with $29.65 book purchase; $5 companion tickets
Info 773-769-9299 or womenandchildrenfirst.com
More Some proceeds benefit Angelic Organics
“Eaters . . . must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used. . . . To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as one can, this complex relationship.”
–Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating”
Farmer and poet Wendell Berry wrote those words in 1990 and 15-odd years later Westerners are finally thinking as seriously about the food we put on our plates and in our mouths. This spring sees the publication of Slow Food guru Carlo Petrini’s latest manifesto, Slow Food Nation (see Critic’s Choice in Section 2), and not one but two memoirs of considered experiments in local, seasonal eating–locavorism, to its initiates.
Motivated by the widely reported statistic that the average North American meal travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to table, the authors of each memoir–novelist Barbara Kingsolver (with help from her family) and writer-journalists Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon–set themselves a common task: spend a year sourcing their food from their immediate environs. The environmental realities driving their decisions are undeniably compelling–those air-freighted tomatoes leave a catastrophic carbon footprint–but their projects share a cultural component as well. The authors are hungry to forge a closer connection with the natural world and the men and women who farm it and to see what kind of positive change that connection might effect in their own lives. With such an earnest, if worthy, mission it’s amazing that even one of the two is actually a good read.
Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle begins as she and her family uproot themselves from their longtime home outside Tucson, the setting of many of Kingsolver’s justly acclaimed novels, for their new digs–a rural Virginia farm they had previously used as a summer home. There, she says, “we would take a food sabbatical, getting our hands dirty in some of the actual dying arts of food production.”
They spent a year getting the 100-acre farm up and running before they even started their year of local eating. Every family member contributed to the effort–and helped shape the resulting book. Husband Steven Hopp (a biologist) provides wonky sidebars on the nuts and bolts of fair trade and the horrors of factory farms; 19-year-old Camille Kingsolver contributes recipes and anecdotes, and younger daughter Lily, who’s “too young to sign a book contract,” makes regular appearances. By and large, however, it’s Kingsolver’s show.
Also a biologist by training, she provides a rich overview of the cycle of vegetable life, from the root structure of asparagus to tips on the best way to dry pumpkin seeds while on vacation in Italy. She’s a fount of information on canning and dehydrating, hammering home the importance of a well-stocked pantry if you’re going to get through the winter.
Such practical advice, however, is shot through with more than a trace of self-congratulation. “In my own life I’ve had ample opportunity to reinvent myself as a city person,” she muses. “But I’ve remained tacitly rural-identified in my psyche, even while living in some of the world’s major cities. It’s probably this dual citizenship that has sensitized me to my nation’s urban-rural antipathy, and how it affects people in both camps.” These bully-for-me moments (and there are many), delivered in Kingsolver’s measured, folksy voice, drain the tale of much of its life.
She insists that she’s not interested in undertaking some extreme eating challenge–they’re not giving up olive oil for lack of an olive grove, or flour, or coffee, god forbid. But challenges overcome are critical to good storytelling: the dragon must be slain, the castle must be stormed. On the Hopp-Kingsolver farm, they want for nothing. Every day yields a bushel of nature’s bounty. What they can’t harvest themselves they procure by zipping down to the farmers’ market in the Prius. Benevolent old folks dispense canning tips at the hardware store. Loving, supportive friends gather for the chicken harvest. Angelic children eat their zucchini. Lily, a fourth grader, runs her own organic egg business. By the midpoint I was longing for a raid on the garden by a posse of hungry rabbits–anything to goose the story along.
Kingsolver traps herself in her own mythmaking: on one hand she insists they’re just a normal(ish) American family; on the other she takes pride in their nerdiness, their old-fashioned off-the-grid lifestyle. At one point she giggles over being named number 73 on political commentator Bernard Goldberg’s post-9/11 list of 100 people “screwing up America” while disemboweling a turkey she’s just killed. This is no normal American family.
Lip service is paid to the problems faced by grocery shoppers outside the family’s Appalachian idyll–those lacking a 100-acre farm or a national leftist profile. But Kingsolver displays little empathy for the poor or otherwise struggling faceless masses–a posture that seems particularly strange given the populist affection for the underdog that marks her novels like The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams. Instead her repeated characterizations of “most Americans” ring with tinny sanctimony verging on scorn: we are alien creatures knocked, variously, as numb, lazy, wasteful, and fat. And a weird strain of survivalist isolationism bubbles throughout, as she warns readers to batten down the hatches and lay in a store of canned goods in case of global catastrophe. The overall effect is that of a long, well-intentioned lecture, gently scolding and terrifically boring.
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who started their own locavore project around the same time as Kingsolver did, make a few appearances in her book, first as an unnamed couple rumored to be “eating dandelions” and later dismissed as part of a larger clutch of fellow travelers who’ve gone and made the whole thing “trendy,” damn them.
Freelance writers in Vancouver, BC (MacKinnon’s a former editor of Adbusters), the pair set themselves stricter parameters than Kingsolver and her family’s. Dubbing their project “the 100-Mile Diet,” they vow to eat only food and drink sourced from within a 100-mile radius of their home for a year–with exceptions granted for socializing and travel. They chronicled the experience on a Web site and their new book, Plenty, was based on those postings.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, they arguably had it pretty easy, with the region providing ample fresh fish, produce, and even wine. But their adventure is rife with conflict, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Unlike Kingsolver, who revels in her role as a housewife, Smith, a child of the 70s, freely admits she never learned the “household arts”–a failure of child rearing she chalks up to a feminist impulse on her mother’s part. (“Learn to type, and you would become a secretary. Learn to cook, and you were doomed to be a housewife.”) MacKinnon’s the domestic workhorse in their family. As the months roll on and the two of them grapple with the vagaries of onion storage and tomato canning in a one-bedroom apartment, they bicker and fight. They take turns narrating chapters, and each speaks frankly of dark moments of doubt–about the project and about each other (conversations devolve into “Why are we even together?”).
The couple’s quest for flour is a recurring motif, and by the ninth month, with their home overrun by potatoes and jars of reeking sauerkraut, MacKinnon’s reduced to grudgingly picking through a pile of wheat berries on the kitchen table to sift out the mouse turds–until he discovers there are weevils in the grain.
It’s a low point, but when, 11 pages later, the pair finally secures a weevil-free wheat source, it’s a genuinely triumphant moment loaded with promise. “We were the proud owners of seventy-five pounds of flour, enough for 150 loaves of bread or more pancakes than anyone could count. . . . On one pail, containing an unsifted grind with all its bran and germ intact, [the wheat farmer] had written three words: ‘The Real Thing.'”
The book’s expansive rather than protectionist–in part because Smith and MacKinnon must rely heavily on networks of friends and farmers; they’re never going to grow all their own food in a three-by-ten-foot community garden plot. Unlike Kingsolver’s book, most of whose supporting players come straight from central casting, down-home department, the characters in Plenty ring true (there’s a screwup brother, people get drunk), as does the vivid landscape that sustains them–the islands and mountains that flank the coast, the fertile lowlands of the Fraser Valley, the rivers raging with salmon . . . that is, until the chemical spill.
Mostly, though, the book succeeds because Smith and MacKinnon don’t give a crap about being normal. Locavorism isn’t normal–that’s the point–and they fly their freak flag with bemused pride, giving themselves over to the mania that infects the newly converted. The end of the book finds them on the coast of Vancouver Island, rowing toward the open ocean. Their mission: to collect seawater to make precious salt. One imagines Kingsolver at home on her sturdy homestead shaking her head and clucking at those “trendy” kids, but they’re the ones I’d rather have dinner with.