Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
By Barbara Kingsolver
With Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
Reviewed by Katherine Czapp
In 2004 novelist Barbara Kingsolver, her husband Steven Hopp, and children Camille and Lily moved from Tucson, Arizona to a farm in southwestern Virginia. Although a resident of Tucson for the past 25 years, Kingsolver had grown up in rural Kentucky, just over the state line from the 40 acres of orchards and fields with barn and 100-year-old farmhouse in Virginia that her husband had owned for 20 years. This farm had served as the family’s annual summer destination—and gardening oasis—for a decade before their final move.
Kingsolver’s exodus from one of the fastest growing cities in America, with its burgeoning cultural, educational and technological attractions, may have seemed odd timing for adults with successful professional careers. Yet the one thing that Tucson could not provide its residents had become the most critical reason for Kingsolver’s decision to leave: Tucson does not grow its own food. All food sold and consumed in this desert city must be shipped in from somewhere else. “Like many other modern U.S. cities, it might as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned.”
Another calamity hovering on the horizon is the city’s shrinking clean water supply from non-renewable aquifers. The farm in Virginia represented not only a completely opposite geographic and climatic haven, but a chance for Kingsolver and her family to prove that it could be possible—and deeply rewarding—to feed themselves through their own efforts, augmented by those of farmers living nearby.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle catalogs not only the material results of their first growing year on the farm, through Kingsolver’s warm, entertaining narrative, but also challenges the reader with substantive musings about the sorry state of our national food supply and what might be done, on an individual level, to improve things close to home. Steven Hopp, a professor of environmental studies, provides sidebars on topics related to ecology, agriculture and local slow food initiatives, while college-age Camille shares family seasonal recipes and her take on the next generation’s view of food and eating.
Even in arid Tucson Barbara had kept a backyard vegetable garden, and Lily had a small flock of laying hens to supply the family’s eggs. Once settled down on the farm in Virginia, the family planned that first spring not only to grow as many vegetables as possible for their year of self-sustenance, but also decided to raise chickens and turkeys for meat. Lily, the 9-year-old family entrepreneur, worked out the details herself for her future egg business.
Kingsolver interrupts her narrative from time to time to reflect on that fact that many people would wonder why on earth she and her family would bother to burden themselves with such labors. Her answers include some of what many readers might expect: that the centralized, price of production of these foods is exorbitantly oil-dependent, both in terms of transport as well as in the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; that factory farms are concentration camps of terrible animal suffering; and that family farms have been depopulated by bankruptcy and the inequities of a “free market” economy every bit as efficiently as totalitarian countries forced the removal of village populations at gunpoint.
These are compelling and involving topics, yet Kingsolver pushes deeper into our agricultural crisis to examine the broader cultural crisis looming large over our country. As a nation, we have walked away from the farm, she writes, and in so doing we have dangerously alienated ourselves from the normal processes of nature. We don’t know which fruits or vegetables appear in which season right where we live, and so the concept of eating locally and seasonally is meaningless for most people. A significant portion of the population has never even seen vegetables growing, and therefore wouldn’t know, for example, that lettuces flower and produce seeds, potatoes have vegetative, above-ground parts, and that a carrot is a root.
This means that we have just about an entire population utterly complacent—and by default passively complicit—in the face of the fact that just six companies—Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Mitsui, Aventis and Dow—control 98 percent of the world’s seed sales. These seeds are patented and threatened with modification with “terminator” genes, to prevent any farmer from carrying on the ancient ritual of seed saving. As Kingsolver explains, “Humans have eaten some 80,000 plant species in our history. After recent precipitous changes, three-quarters of all human food now comes from just eight species, with the field quickly narrowing down to genetically modified corn, soy, and canola.” In case we believe we’re living in the midst of the widest possible variety of food selections, consider that “[m]odern U.S. consumers get to taste less than 1 percent of the vegetable varieties that were grown here a century ago.” We literally don’t know what we’re missing.
In the case of livestock, Americans’ general ignorance of biology prevents them from appreciating how the animals bred to spend their short, miserable lives in factory “farms” have been cheated of normal, animal existence. These animals have been selected and manipulated for characteristics that benefit crowded, industrial conditions and brutal processing methods. Industrially raised “butterball” turkeys, for example, cannot live beyond their programmed four or five months to processing size, becoming so top-heavy that they would collapse on legs too weak to bear them. Industrially raised chickens, pigs and cattle cannot breed naturally and must be artificially inseminated. They are not expected to survive beyond the shortest possible time required to reach processing weight. And where are the farmers in this lopsided equation? As Kingsolver says, “I’m accustomed to a culture in which farmers are either invisible, or a joke.”
When Kingsolver’s family decides to raise turkeys for meat, they select an heirloom breed, Bourbon Red, which appropriately hails from nearby Kentucky. With strong genes for foraging, flying and breeding, these Bourbon Reds will also be raised as a naturally breeding flock—a statistical anomaly in commercial American poultry husbandry. “[A]ny bird that lives past its first Thanksgiving inhabits a domain occupied by fewer than one-half of one percent of domestic turkeys. At nine months, my flock had now entered that elite age bracket, among the oldest living turkeys in America.”
The story of the Bourbon Reds’ first breeding season is fraught with anxiety and expectation (from Barbara’s quarter) and is also very funny as both Barbara and turkeys bumble through some awkward first experiences together. The happy outcome of all the fuss is both delightful and thought-provoking. How did we allow something as normal as animal sexual reproduction (along with normal plant reproduction) to become so rare in agriculture today?
Following Kingsolver and family through the seasons, one can’t help but admire the energy and improvisation—and just plain hard work—they all put in to realizing their aim to “feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew.” Former vegetarians, they are not squeamish about butchering roosters and turkeys when the time comes, but capably and humanely dispatch the animals they have carefully raised from poults. They establish relationships with nearby farmers to procure beef, honey and other produce beyond the capacity of their own farming efforts.
As the story unfolded, however, I wondered where they were finding their dairy products. It turns out that Kingsolver and her family purchased milk and butter that was produced in the state in their local grocery store. These, and bread flour, were just about the only items that they felt they needed to visit a grocery for. Yet it seems to me that somewhere in their neighborhood there must have been someone with dairy animals whose acquaintance they could have made. After all, Barbara takes pride in making her own cheese.
However, the soft cheeses Barbara makes are all made from pasteurized, store-bought milk, and in fact, the 30-minute mozzarella recipe Camille provides at the end of the relevant chapter uses a microwave in the process. This development is rather startling to the reader who has grown to expect Kingsolver to always seek out the raw, unprocessed, genuine resources in her sustenance endeavors. Instead, Kingsolver devolves into a partly tongue-in-cheek discussion of the perversity of human beings who want to consume the milk of other species. Further, she tells us it is the serendipitous possession of a special deviant gene that allows some of us to enjoy lactose-laden milk from cows and other dairy animals. Kingsolver is convinced that she and Camille do not possess this gene and are therefore lactose-intolerant. Even when the family visits Amish friends in Ohio and sits down to dinner with a pitcher of raw milk on the table, Kingsolver merely sighs wistfully and wishes she had that magic gene. There is no discussion of the magic enzyme lactase that is provided free of charge by the friendly bacteria in raw milk.
So close, and yet so far! Could Kingsolver’s Kentucky kin really not have clabbered their milk? Fermentation, as she acknowledges, consumes lactose, but Kingsolver most often uses an acid to instantly precipitate curd for her cheeses, and then discards the lactose-containing whey. With Nourishing Traditions listed in her reference section to boot, it does seem odd that Kingsolver neither brushes up against real milk (even as a hypothetical ingredient) nor finds a single opportunity to apply her investigative journalism to the lively topic of its revival in this country.
Bread making falls into a somewhat similar side street in Kingsolver’s year of food. Husband Steven is the bread baker, and we learn that his trusty sidekick is none other than the bread machine. In one of his sidebars titled “How to Impress Your Wife, Using a Machine,” he assures the reader you can “make some gourmet bread for about 50 cents a loaf” by mixing up some exotic flours from the health food store and tossing that in the machine with “regular” flour, yeast and water. “With practice. . . you might be tempted to try out a loaf in your oven.”
Relish-, pickle- and chutney-making are also quick canning affairs in the Kingsolver kitchen that utilize vinegar; all modern versions of formerly lacto-fermented variants.
Lacto-fermentation, one of the great traditional hallmarks of the slow-food movement, is admittedly not often utilized or well understood in this country, even by those who otherwise care a great deal about the provenance of their food—homemade or locally procured. It is my hope that sooner or later Kingsolver and her family will stumble upon the use of friendly bacteria as kitchen helpers and reports of sourdough pancakes or sauerkraut or, who knows, even clabbermilk biscuits, will appear at their website, www.animalvegetablemiracle.com.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2007.