A Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I’ve never done a book review here before, but I’ve read one recently that I want to share.

I like it so much that I just started over and am reading it again. Which I suppose is the most telling thing about a good book: you don’t want it to end. That’s precisely how I felt about the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.

AVM (as I’ll call it here) is about nothing and everything all at once. It’s a book where nothing epic happens in the usual blockbuster sense. It has none of the things you would expect from a bestselling story, like adventure and conflict and romance — and yet, it has all of those things. This description may sound Whitman-esque: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.” But that’s what I loved about the book — the premise is very simple and yet entirely multifaceted. The (real-life) story line:

A family moves from desert Arizona to a fixer-upper farmhouse in Southern Appalachia. They proceed to embark upon a year-long journey with a not-so-simple goal: to eat only local food. They make some exceptions for things they can absolutely not buy locally, like coffee and olive oil. And in doing this, they end up growing the majority of their food while also carrying on full-time jobs (and school for the kids). They beautifully narrate their experiences during this year, all the while educating readers on the state of the food system.

As Kingsolver says:

This is the story of a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew. We tried to wring most of the petroleum out of our food chain, even if that meant giving up some things. Our highest shopping goal was to get our food from so close to home, we’d know the person who grew it. Often that turned out to be us, as we learned to produce more of what we needed, starting with dirt, seeds, and enough knowledge to muddle through. Or starting with baby animals and enough sense to refrain from naming them.

In her family’s “locavore” journey, the reader learns the beautiful and challenging aspects of growing your own food and supporting a local food culture. And in a world where much of the food we buy at the grocery store “has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations,” this is no common feat.

Kingsolver is a master-storyteller. This is probably the most important detail of my praise; she could write about how to change a tire and I would most likely be charmed. So in her mellifluous wordsmithing, she turns stories about the growing of asparagus and the mating of turkeys into a page-turner.

The book’s chapters are divided mostly by months or seasons — for each one brings a new adventure in local-eating: “In April I’m happiest with mud on the knees of my jeans, sitting down to the year’s most intoxicating lunch: a plate of greens both crisp and still sun-warmed from the garden, with a handful of walnuts and some crumbly goat cheese. This is the opening act of real live food. ”

Readers may not agree with all of the points Kinsgsolver makes, but any disagreement on ideological issues is easy overlooked for the greater story: that animals and vegetables are nothing less than miracles — and that the more we know about the source of our food, the more we are aware of this grand gift.

Here are a handful of quotes I highlighted on my Kindle:

“Even the smallest backyard garden offers emotional rewards in the domain of the little miracle.”

“American culture doesn’t allow much room for slow reflection. I watch the working people who are supposed to be my role models getting pushed to go, go, go and take as little vacation time as possible. And then, often, vacations are full of endless activity too, so you might come back from your “break” feeling exhausted. Canning tomato sauce isn’t exactly a week at the spa, but it definitely forces a pause in the multitasking whirl of everyday life. It’s a “slow down and do one thing at a time” process: now chop vegetables, now stir them until the sauce thickens, now sterilize the jars, make sure each ring is tight. If you’re going to do anything else at the same time, it had better just be listening to your own thoughts. Anything else could cause you to blow the entire batch. Canning 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.”

“Cooking is 80 percent confidence, a skill best acquired starting from when the apron strings wrap around you twice.”

“Snow fell on our garden in December, leaving the dried corn stalks and withered tomato vines standing black on white like a pen-and-ink drawing titled Rest. I postponed looking at seed catalogs for awhile. Those of us who give body and soul to projects that never seem to end—child rearing, housecleaning, gardening—know the value of the occasional closed door. We need our moments of declared truce.”

“Once you start cooking, one thing leads to another. A new recipe is as exciting as a blind date. A new ingredient, heaven help me, is an intoxicating affair. I’ve grown new vegetables just to see what they taste like: Jerusalem artichokes, edamame, potimarrons. A quick recipe can turn slow in our kitchen because of the experiments we hazard. We make things from scratch just to see if we can. We’ve rolled out and cut our pasta, raised turkeys to roast or stuff into link sausage, made chutney from our garden. On high occasions we’ll make cherry pies with crisscrossed lattice tops and ravioli with crimped edges, for the satisfaction of seeing these storybook comforts become real.”

“Our holiday food splurge was a small crate of tangerines, which we found ridiculously thrilling after an eight-month abstinence from citrus. No matter where I was in the house, that vividly resinous orangey scent woke up my nose whenever anyone peeled one in the kitchen. Lily hugged each one to her chest before undressing it as gently as a doll. Watching her do that as she sat cross-legged on the floor one morning in pink pajamas, with bliss lighting her cheeks, I thought: Lucky is the world, to receive this grateful child. Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing.”

“Planning complex, beautiful meals and investing one’s heart and time in their preparation is the opposite of self-indulgence. Kitchen-based family gatherings are process-oriented, cooperative, and in the best of worlds, nourishing and soulful. A lot of calories get used up before anyone sits down to consume. But more importantly, a lot of talk happens first, news exchanged, secrets revealed across generations, paths cleared with a touch on the arm. I have given and received some of my life’s most important hugs with those big oven-mitt potholders on both hands.”

“In a culture that assigns nil prestige to domestic work, I usually self-deprecate when anyone comments on my gardening and cooking-from-scratch lifestyle. I explain that I have to do something brainless to unwind from my work, and I don’t like TV. But the truth is, I enjoy this so-called brainless work. I like the kind of family I can raise on this kind of food.”



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