Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers.
Her prose is graceful, eloquent and spare; she is the master of poetic description punctuated with the occasional baldly-stated observation of ugly, yet undeniable truths.
With her training and background in evolutionary biology, Kingsolver cannot help but report on both the incredible beauty the natural world offers as well as the realities of life: blood, excrement and death. She does so in a prose style that is by turns lyrical and plainspoken; her voice is inextricably tied to the Appalachian farmlands of her Kentucky childhood and her current home in Virginia.
In her newest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she brings her storytelling skills and incisive viewpoint to the chronicle of her family’s experience of spending a year (2005, to be precise) eating locally. What food they did not grow, preserve, process and butcher themselves, they bought from farmers within their home county, with the exception of flour, salt, coffee, cocoa and spices.
Far from being a narrative of deprivation, the book is a goldmine of gems gleaned from an authentic life well lived. Kingsolver is such a good writer, she can make even the most mundane and odd of topics, such as the mechanics of natural (meaning, unassisted by humankind) turkey reproduction a tale of hilarity worthy of a stand up comic. Her ruminations on the prolific nature of zucchini squash and an overabundance of tomatoes at the height of summer are also funny, while also being instructive. (Lesson: don’t plant so darned many summer squashes next time.)
But it isn’t all farming tales of adventures in animal husbandry and gardening woes; Kingsolver and her family also delve into the arts of cooking, food preservation and cheesemaking. Yes–cheesemaking.
Kingsolver herself allows as to how cheesemaking is generally considered beyond the pale for even the most “back to the land” foodies of the world, such that she notes, “If the delivery guy happens to come to the doore when I am cutting and draining curd, I feel like a Wiccan.” Meaning of course, she feels as if she is engaged in something esoteric, alchemical and somewhat, shall we say, eccentric.
Eccentric as cheesemaking and the daily baking of bread may be to most Americans, Kingsolver’s family, who also raised their own chickens for eggs and meat, and turkeys and made sausages from some of their birds, as well as growing and preserving all of their own fruits and vegetables, did quite well. Her narrative is punctuated by asides describing the ecological and health impacts of processed foodstuffs, industrial agriculture the cultural and political fallout of same and written by her biologist husband, Steven Hopp, which greatly enhance the month-by-month story Kingsolver weaves.
Camille Kingsolver, her elder daughter, also joins the writing team, outlining seasonal recipes for each chapter, using the bounty the land created at each step of the harvest, while also bringing her own unique vision to the year-long project.
While not as factually dense and argumentative as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle deserves to be read just as much, if not more, because it takes Pollan’s ideas and extends them over an entire year of meals, not just four. Kingsolver also shows the effects of her family’s experiment not only on herself, but on each of her family members, as well as friends and community members, which, I believe makes for a more interesting and enlightening narrative. Through her eyes and prose, we can see how important it is for us to know where our food comes from and how it is produced, as well as how a mostly urban family -can- actually raise a significant portion of one’s own food, not only ethically and healthily, but inexpensively as well.
A good read, one that I cannot recommend highly enough.
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