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Barbara Kingsolver – Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

September 14, 2010

109. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (2007)

Length: 370 pages

Genre: Non-fiction

Started: 29 August 2010
Finished: 02 September 2010

Where did it come from? A friend who is the opposite of a book hoarder who was cleaning off her shelves.
Why do I have it? She knew I loved Kingsolver and that I hadn’t read it yet.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 18 August 2008.

Welcome to my stop on Barbara Kingsolver’s TLC Book Tour! This tour is primarily to celebrate her newest book, The Lacuna, but hosts were free to review something from her backlist as well. Since I’d had Animal, Vegetable, Miracle on my shelves unread for two years, I figured this was the perfect opportunity! Don’t miss the information on the giveaway below the review, and be sure to check out the other stops on the tour!

Summary: After realizing how divorced the average American is from the source of the food that they eat, how we’ve become used to purchasing any produce, from anywhere in the world, in any season, and how much gasoline goes into growing, processing, and shipping most of the things we eat, Barbara Kingsolver and her family decided to try an experiment. For one year, they decided that they would eat only local food: things they could grow or raise themselves, or that were produced within a hundred miles of their home. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the story of that year, organized into chapters by month, and peppered with short factual pieces contributed by Kingsolver’s husband and recipes and menu planning tips by her daughter. It’s a story of farmers, of cooks, of waiting for the first shoots of asparagus that signal the beginning of spring, of being overwhelmed by zucchini, of convincing turkeys to breed without human assistance, of the best way to fail spectacularly at making pumpkin soup, and of celebrating the tiny miracles of life by paying attention to the food we use to sustain it.

Review: I didn’t want to read this book. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my top three favorite authors, possibly my favorite author, and yet I did not want anything to do with this book. The reason is a simple one: I hate to be made to feel bad about what I’m eating. It’s the reason I try to avoid dining with militant vegetarians, people who talk about their Weight Watchers points, and anyone who is horrified that I grew up eating (and still prefer) ketchup with my pork chops. I’ve been lectured at about food many times before, and I can’t stand it, and no matter what anyone told me about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I was convinced that it was going to be more of the same… and as a result, I wanted no part of it.

So imagine my surprise when I finally (and grumpily) started reading it, to find that not only was it not lecture-y at all, but that it was also completely fascinating, actively inspiring, and compellingly readable. Kingsolver’s fiction will always be my first love, but she’s an accomplished non-fiction writer as well. It didn’t hurt that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was written in my favorite style of non-fiction: mostly memoir-ish personal experiences blended seamlessly into the more journalistic factual sections.

An added bonus was that the setting for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was in rural southern Appalachia, which is an area of the country that I know and love, as well as being the same setting as Prodigal Summer, my far-and-away favorite Kingsolver novel. In fact, it was almost immediately clear upon starting Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that the fictional Widener family farm, setting of the “Moth Love” chapters in Prodigal Summer, was drawn almost entirely from her real-life homestead. So even if the tone of the book got a little too lecture-y, at least I was on familiar ground.

But the thing was, I rarely felt like I was being lectured at. Kingsolver’s obviously very passionate about the topic, but she lays out her arguments logically and persuasively, appealing to the scientist and pragmatist in me. What’s better, although the rational argument underlies everything, the prose dwells more on the personal immediacies of the issue: the small “miracles” of the title, the joy of eating cherries right off the tree and the wonder of holding a newly hatched chick, rather than the important but substantially less tangible benefit of saving the environment. Kingsolver’s prose is as rich and wonderful as ever, equally adept at evoking a field of tiny green asparagus shoots, a hunt for mushrooms in the Appalachian forests, and a homey kitchen full of tomatoes to be canned.

“Nothing is more therapeutic than to walk up there [to the garden] and disappear into the yellow-green smell of the tomato rows for an hour to address the concerns of quieter, more manageable colleagues. Holding the soft, viny limbs as tender as babies’ wrists, I train them to their trellises, tidy the mulch at their feet, inhale the oxygen of their thanks.” – p. 177

Despite how warm I found Kingsolver’s prose and how accessible I found her argument, I had a hard time turning off the part of me that hates feeling guilty about what I eat. Even when I was absorbed in the story, there was still a small part of my brain that kept up a constant litany of complaints that sounded obnoxiously whiny, even to me. “But I don’t wanna give up tea and grapefruit and Oreos! I don’t wanna spend every free minute of the summer slaving over a steaming canning bath! I don’t wanna never eat an avocado again unless I move to the Southwest, and I don’t wanna move to the Southwest!” I couldn’t shut this voice up, despite the fact that Kingsolver never once suggested that I do any of those things. In fact, she’s very sympathetic to the fact that becoming a dedicated locavore is not an easy undertaking, that her family is unusual, and that not everyone has the time, money, or acreage to produce all of their food themselves. (On the other hand, she does such a good job of describing the joys of growing and making your own food that I often found myself wishing for a house with space to garden, and I’m seriously considering attempting to make my own cheese.)

The thing was, despite my whining and my resistant heel-dragging, I kept running up against a factoid that was presented early on in Chapter 1: if every U.S. citizen ate one meal per week from local, organic food, we would save 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. Just one meal. 1.1 million barrels per week. One meal. I can do that. And Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has convinced me that it might even be enjoyable. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Anybody who’s ever bought tomatoes in January, bagged lettuce in November, or bananas anywhere north of the Tropic of Cancer. Also, obviously, anyone who’s interested in food and food culture, anyone who’s concerned about our planet’s dwindling supply of fossil fuel, and anyone who likes Kingsolver’s writing style.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle‘s official website, complete with resources and recipes.

Other Reviews: Book Addiction, Capricious Reader, The Indextrious Reader, Sassymonkey Reads, Shelf Love
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: This story about good food begins in a quick-stop convenience market.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 351: “Lily ran outside to gather a handful of grass while I approached with a cup of water, holding it close enough for her to get a long drink. She accepted détente and settled down.” – a relaxing of tension, esp. between nations, as by negotiations or agreements.

Giveaway: I’ve got gently used copies of three of Kingsolver’s books to give away: a copy of The Lacuna bequeathed to me by the same bookshelf-clearing friend who gave me my copy of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, plus two books that I found at the local library booksale:The Bean Trees (Kingsolver’s first novel), and Prodigal Summer, which is one of my favorite novels ever (as you may be able to tell by reading my love letter to it.)

The Lacuna is hardcover, so I’m going to restrict that one to folks from the US and Canada, but the other two are open worldwide, although I ask that international folks have a Bookmooch account (I’ll smooch the points back to you.) Enter here by Monday 20 September.

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 12:53 am

    I also really enjoyed this one. It made me much more conscious of what I eat and where it comes from. Since I moved to NZ, I’ve been able to eat a lot more local meat and produce, and I’ve started a (very) small garden with organic lettuce and some herbs. It feels pretty durned good.

    • September 14, 2010 1:18 pm

      Memory – I think the agnostic approach to our food sources is most endemic in the US, although it certainly occurs everywhere. That’s great that you’ve got a good source for local food, though!

  2. September 14, 2010 1:51 am

    I haven’t read this book, but I can totally relate to how you feel about the guilt. I drink a ton of coffee and that’s not going to grow in my backyard. :)

    On the other hand, I am fortunate enough to live in a small town surrounded by farms. Both of the grocery stores in our town carry local produce when at all possible, and I love that about them. It’s so fun knowing that the corn on the cob that I’m eating came from some field I’ve probably driven by recently. When things are out of season though they do import stuff from all over the world. It’s kind of inevitable.

    We’ve been doing a lot of picking fruit from farms and freezing it this year, which is a first for us. I’m looking forward to all of the desserts that will be made from them (which I’m sure won’t help my waistline).

    I loved the stat you shared at the end. Thinking of just doing one meal a week is a much more approachable goal.

    • September 14, 2010 1:20 pm

      Alyce – Don’t feel bad about the coffee! Kingsolver and her family didn’t go 100% local, either… they each had a “cheat” item – coffee, chocolate, etc. – plus other kitchen staples that aren’t US-produced: spices, olive oil, etc.

  3. September 14, 2010 7:36 am

    I hold my hands up to feeling guilty too. I am definitely not the earth’s greenest inhabitant, especially when it comes to food. I made need to brace myself and read it, if it won’t make me feel guilty. I have yet to embrace the world of Barbara Kingsolver, but you have made me eager to seek out one of her books.

    • September 14, 2010 1:23 pm

      Vivienne – Your mileage may vary as per the guilt, of course, but I’ve found that it hasn’t made me too guilty, but it definitely has made me more thoughtful about what I’m buying and when… i.e. thinking about whether I really need that terribly out-of-season asparagus, or if I could swap it out for string beans, or something else that came from a little closer to home.

  4. September 14, 2010 8:46 am

    Oh, I’m so glad this isn’t preachy- I’m an unrepentant carnivore, so I’m on your side here. But one meal a week? I could do that. Gotta start somewhere, right?

    I’ve heard such good things about Kingsolver, and I want to read The Poisonwood Bible– have you read it yet?

    • September 14, 2010 1:26 pm

      Omni – Hooray, carnivory! This book isn’t opposed to carnivory at all – there’s a whole chapter on the day they spent harvesting turkeys. It just promotes local carnivory – knowing the dirt your cow walked on as well as the dirt that your tomatoes grew in.

      Poisonwood Bible was actually the first of Kingsolver’s books that I read, way back in the day. I really loved it, particularly the first 2/3s of it… it gets a little unfocused towards the end (in my opinion, plenty of other people love the whole thing.) Prodigal Summer‘s still my favorite, though.

      • September 14, 2010 8:09 pm

        Local meat! I can do that.

        Hmm, I think I’ll start there. But thanks for letting me know about the ending!

  5. September 14, 2010 10:16 am

    What a fantastic review: so inspiring! You’ve made me want to re-read the book. But you’ve also made me want to re-read her novels. ::sigh:: So many good books from her pen!

    • September 14, 2010 1:27 pm

      Buried In Print – I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read Animal Dreams – I’ve revisited most of her other novels at least twice, but I’ve never made it back to that one… which is weird, since I remember really enjoying it!

  6. September 14, 2010 10:21 am

    I wanted to make cheese after reading this one too. I haven’t, but I still think about it from time to time.

    • September 14, 2010 1:28 pm

      KT – I’ve got a friend here who has expressed interest in trying it as well, so… we’ll see.

  7. September 14, 2010 3:41 pm

    Well, that does it. I need to read this book so I can learn how not to be preachy about my garden and how great it would be if everyone with a yard grew at least a few veggies.

    (I’m not a locavore for all my food, just for stuff that grows here! I’ll never give up my avocados or my grapes.)

    • September 15, 2010 11:25 am

      Leslie – Heh, that’s an issue I hadn’t considered: that this book might be good for people who don’t want to be preachy as well as those who don’t want to be preached at. :)

  8. September 14, 2010 4:10 pm

    I own this one too and I love Kingsolver too, but also like you I had being made to feel bad about food even if I know I’m wrong. I’m thrilled to hear that this book doesn’t do that! I suspected that it might not after I watching the author on TV do a reading and talk a bit about her experiences, but I still wasn’t sure.

    I’m so glad you were on this tour – your review has me really excited about this book!

    • September 15, 2010 11:24 am

      Heather – Oh, I’ve never seen Kingsolver talk, on TV or otherwise. That seems like it would be great!

      I’m glad I’ve got you excited about this book, and I hope you find it as interesting (and non-preachy!) as I did!

  9. September 14, 2010 7:58 pm

    I loved this book too and have actually learned to make cheese since reading it – it’s much easier than you think!

    • September 15, 2010 11:22 am

      bermudaonion – Cheese just has this aura of magic to it… very much “step one: get milk. step two: Magic happens. Step three: cheese!” Even if the magic is actually really simple, it doesn’t seem like something a regular person can do. But I’ll take your word for it…

  10. September 15, 2010 11:13 am

    yea, but. Give up bananas?!?!

    • September 15, 2010 11:20 am

      Care – I know, I know. Actually, the issue of bananas got brought up in one of the essays in Kingsolver’s book Small Wonder. After reading that, I have cut my banana consumption waaay down (especially since I’ve been to a banana plantation in Costa Rica and know exactly how long that plane ride is). I haven’t stopped eating them entirely – that’s way too much to ask, plus I need my comfort-food banana bread now and again – but I’ve weaned myself off my banana-a-day diet, and I haven’t suffered too badly. :)

  11. September 15, 2010 6:34 pm

    I felt a lot like you did going into this book, and I agree with your review completely. It definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things I can do better as a consumer, and while I won’t be growing anything in my non-existent backyard anytime soon, I do try to buy local or at least organic when I can.

    Excellent review!

    • September 20, 2010 9:13 am

      Heather – I think the eye-opening might be the most important part of this book; it’s hard to change your choice when you’re not even aware that you’re making them!

  12. September 15, 2010 10:17 pm

    Animal Vegetable Miracle is one of my favorite books, I call it “one of those books that changed my life”, and your review did it justice.

    How did it change my life? am I total locavore? nope. Do i buy lettuce off season? yup. Did I give up bananas, kiwis or avacado? Nope.

    Do I go to the farmers market more often? YES. Did I start a small vegetable garden? YES. Am I more conscience of how much food my family wastes or throws away? YES. all super easy things to do.

    and did her daughter’s corn pudding recipe become a staple at thanksgiving at my place? you bet it did!

    She’s not preachy at all, and Kinsolver doesn’t want to try to make anyone do anything. She’s just telling what her family did and how things worked out, or didn’t work out. I love nearly everything that woman writes!!

    • September 20, 2010 9:17 am

      Redhead – I’m going to have to try the corn pudding, for sure! My family’s got our Thanksgiving menu pretty well set, so introducing a new dish is hard, but maybe for the weekend before… :)

  13. September 16, 2010 4:53 pm

    Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, too! I actually got to see her do a reading a few months before this book came out, and it just made me love her even more.

    “I’m seriously considering attempting to make my own cheese . . .” I felt the same way when I read the book! I think that’s part of the power of this book – while it does flirt with being a little preachy at times, it also makes being a locavore sound so enticing. I totally love tomatoes right off the vine, too, so really, all she had to do to convince me was mention the word . . . I, too, hate feeling guilty about what I eat, and I try to make up for that by doing what I can (buying the bulk of my produce at the farmer’s market) and just trying to adjust the rest of my eating habits slowing. But I’m definitely not perfect, and there’s still a lot that I’m stubborn about :)

    • September 20, 2010 9:18 am

      Emily – Oooh, tomatoes fresh off the vine. I didn’t get *nearly* enough of those this summer.

  14. September 18, 2010 12:30 pm

    I actually started this book the other night, but then some books I was really excited about came in at the library and in the mail… Must get back to it!

    • September 20, 2010 9:19 am

      Kailana – While I got caught up in the story, I think it would also be an okay book to read in chunks and pieces, so you should be fine. I hope you enjoy it!


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