I’ll start this post with a confession: I’ve never read any of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, although I’ve long been intrigued by titles like The Poisonwood Bible and Pigs In Heaven.
I first saw this book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life on Instagram, where one of my friends, Mrs Smyth, posted a photo of it and commented on what a great book it was. And it really is! It tells the story of how Ms Kingsolver and her family pack up their life in Tuscon Arizona, move to a farm owned by her husband, Steven Hopp, in Virginia, and attempt to live for a year without industrial food. That is, food grown and raised locally – either food they grew themselves, or food from “so close to home [they’d] know the person who grew it”. The plan was to spend a year “in genuine acquaintance” with the sources of their food, with only extraordinary reasons for sourcing something from outside their state or county.
I loved this idea, and was hooked on their journey as soon as I picked up the book. The timing was fitting: March is the month of the Tassievore challenge, something I’d been an enthusiastic participant in for the last two years, but hadn’t quite gotten into this year.
The book, published in 2007, begins as the family drives out of Tuscon and, ironically, given the forthcoming venture, calls into a gas station for fuel and junk food. It makes the point that “the average food item on a US grocery shelf has travelled farther than most families go on vacation”. Ms Kingsolver observes that the energy used by producing and transporting food far outweighs the energy we get from consuming it. The case for eating locally grown food is compelling. “If every US citizen ate just one meal a week composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.”
Ms Kingsolver weaves the story of her family’s efforts to eat locally or do without with observations on the status of food in our modern life, and the book includes some brief articles by Steven Hopp that provide some interesting facts and statistics on issues raised in the book.
She writes of the conflict between cheap convenience industrial food and small locally-driven enterprises trying to stand up to chemical companies, big food producers, supermarkets and governments. It’s a story that plays out everywhere: small egg producers battling ever-increasing red tape to get truly fresh eggs from happy chickens to their customers; Elgaar Farm having to crowdfund new equipment to continue to be able to produce their products using centuries-old methods and still being tied up in the approval process; Two Metre Tall making glorious beer through natural fermentation that the big brewers claim is “off” because they don’t understand the methods.
I found myself nodding at pretty much every point Ms Kingsolver makes in the book. I’m not sure that everything she describes happens in Australia, or to the same extent, but the overall picture is the same – we live in a society that is largely disconnected from its food sources, demands everything all year round, wants cheap and convenient – all of which comes at a huge price – our health, animal welfare, the environment and local farms to name just a few things. Cheap might be good for our hip pockets, but we pay for it in other ways.
The commentary on the current situation was somewhat deflating, and made me wonder if there really is any hope for the world to reconnect with its food and to get back to more sustainable ways of feeding ourselves. But the anecdotes and stories of what people are doing at a local level made me feel more positive, in spite of the massive obstacles that exist.
I loved reading about Ms Kingsolver’s youngest daughter Lily establish her own poultry enterprise at the age of nine; the fact that Ms Kingsolver had to check the security of the house whenever they left in zucchini season so the the neighbours couldn’t break in and leave zucchinis for them; and the wonderful story of buying a huge pumpkin in Italy, hacking it open at their accommodation and trying to dry the seeds out during their trip so they could take them home. Oh and the expose on the sex life of turkeys, which was horrifying, fascinating, amusing, and ultimately heartwarming.
There’s also a very thought provoking chapter on meat eating when it comes time to harvest the poultry that’s destined for the pot.
Each chapter ends with some thoughts from Ms Kingsolver’s eldest daughter Camille on her perspective on the family’s project, as well as some of her recipes and meal plans for the produce that is available in season each month. These are also available on the website.
I love the whole idea of this project, and would love to be in a position to be able to commit to doing something similar. 12 months of Tassievore-ing and getting food from my own backyard! It seems quite doable at this time of the year when the markets are overflowing with beautiful fresh produce. Ask me again in July or August. I was encouraged by the fact that Ms Kingsolver and her family didn’t end up eating dandelions (or roadkill) in the leaner months like other people they knew of that had attempted similar projects.
Realistically I know that doing this would mean some fairly big changes, a large vegetable garden and time I don’t have. But rather than giving up, I have to get out of the habit of all-or-nothing thinking. No, I can’t source absolutely everything I eat from my backyard and from people in my immediate area that I know personally, but this doesn’t mean I can’t do anything at all. This book has inspired me to start thinking about some smaller changes I can make to increase the amount of local food in my diet. One baby step at a time.