Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating Barbara Kingsolver, with Stephen L. Hopp & Camille Kingsolver Faber & Faber, UK, 2007, £16.99 Our Farm: A Year in the Life of a Smallholding Rosie Boycott Bloomsbury, UK, 2007, £15.99
“CANNING TOMATO SAUCE…always puts me in a kind of trance. I reach a point where stirring the bubbling sauce is the world’s only task, and I could do it forever. Whether you prefer to sit on a rock in a peaceful place, or take a wooden spoon to a simmering pot, it does the body good to quiet down and tune in.”
That these words could be spoken, in our fast-fed, Pepsi-revved society, by someone not yet twenty, reassures me that there is still hope for humanity. “The choices I make now about my food”, says Camille Kingsolver, as she leaves for college, “will influence the rest of my life. If a lot of us felt this way, and started thinking carefully about our consumption habits, just one meal at a time, we could affect the future of our planet.” Amen, Camille.
The dinner table, not the television set, used to be the fulcrum of family life in most US and British households, just as it still is in countries like France and Italy. The kitchen was the quintessentially cosy place, the kernel of every house. That’s how it was for me, at Camille’s age, and still is. For her, too. We are lucky.
There can surely be no-one still unaware of the dire environmental and sociological implications of our industrialised, globalised food system and the damage it’s doing, not just to our planetary ecosystems but to our bodies and ultimately our psyches. However, there’s always room for another voice, another way to express the vision, another book. Especially if it is by Barbara Kingsolver – joined now by her husband, Stephen Hopp, and by Camille, her elder daughter, each of whom brings something valuable and unique to the mix.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is not a rant about the horrors of cattle feedlots, the superiority of free-range eggs, or the evil machinations of supermarkets, though all these things are mentioned in it. Neither is it a bible of sustainability, organics, bioregionalism and the importance of rebuilding local economies, though that’s all in there too. It’s a story, by turns funny, touching and inspirational, about real people living, working, growing food, preparing it, eating it together. It’s a book about feelings and experiences, conversations and celebrations and what happens when a family of four takes on the challenge of becoming ‘locavores’ for one whole calendar year. In other words, limiting their eating, for twelve months, to food they have either grown themselves or sourced locally.
The word ‘limiting’ doesn’t belong here, though. This book has nothing to do with limits and everything to do with abundance, joy and conviviality.
Although she is a native of the moist, green, Appalachian region of the Eastern USA, Barbara Kingsolver’s name is closely associated with the desert landscapes of the Southwest, especially Tucson, where she lived for many years. But, as she points out, it is impossible to live sustainably in Tucson. Nothing grows naturally in southern Arizona except cactus, mesquite, creosote bushes – plants well adapted to drought and aridity.
“Like many other US cities, it may as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned,” she explains. “Virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away.”
She and her family decided they must relocate to a region where it is still possible to grow the bulk of one’s own food. They had always returned to Appalachia each summer, but now, “like rats leaping off the burning ship”, they moved back there permanently and began their first year of becoming ‘locavores’. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is their delightful – and highly entertaining – account of that experiment.
It’s also more than that. It’s an affirmation that one can still find folk who savour what they eat and who love to entertain friends and family in ways that involve everyone in the delightful intimacy of preparing and sharing wholesome food.
I understand, of course, how environmentally important – and also how healthy – it is to eat seasonally. But as I watched the Kingsolver/Hopp household struggling to deal with the absurd fecundity of its courgettes and cramming its mighty mountains of tomatoes into cans for the winter, I gained an even deeper appreciation of seasonality. And as I read the hilarious yet poignant tale of the turkeys who had almost forgotten how to reproduce, I felt once more a profound admiration for all those people who work to save our heritage seeds and ‘rare’ breeds from extinction.
If you, like me, are one of the lucky ones who start preparations for dinner by walking into the garden to see what is offering itself to be picked today, you will enjoy this book. But even if you have no space, time or love for growing fruit or vegetables, it may inspire you to discover – if you haven’t already – how you, too, can eat seasonally and as locally as possible. For in reclaiming these aspects of our food we reclaim the full delight of consuming it. Seasons, soils and appetites are all designed to match, and the closer the match, the better it feels.
Abandoning the sterile world of supermarket shopping and joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme, signing up for a veg box or seeking out farmers’ markets can give urban dwellers back their lost connections with the land. And cooking from scratch instead of heating ready-made meals in a microwave can ground us in the ‘now’, just as Camille describes.
ROSIE BOYCOTT’S OUR FARM is also a story of one family’s determination to do something different about food. Their aim was not just to eat locally, but to become local producers themselves.
It wasn’t easy. Luckily for Rosie and her husband Charlie, they were able to bankroll their own project to an extent that most people starting out as smallholders are unable to do. But those of lesser means may find this book useful for the unvarnished detail it includes about the income and outgoings. Here’s an opportunity to study the financial realities underlying most farming ventures.
‘Unvarnished’, in fact, is an adjective I could well apply to the whole book. Besides including some unvarnished truths about our dysfunctional systems of global food production, this author makes no attempt to hide the difficulties and misjudgements of that first farming year, or the personal tribulations of her own, earlier history. In fact there is a certain confessional element to her story, as though she were taking this opportunity to spread her life out where she could see and make sense of it. Reading it, I felt the doubts and fears – and triumphs – of a woman courageous enough to make a midlife reassessment and experiment with something completely new. Which in her case is also something useful for the planet: growing food for her local community to purchase.
As she and her partner laughingly remind each other, they could have bought a Mercedes instead of the pigs, chickens and everything else it took to start a smallholding. I applaud their choice.
They still produce local food. Meanwhile, with that first year long since successfully completed, Barbara Kingsolver and her family have gone on being locavores.
Hurrah for all of them.