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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

By Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

A few years ago Barbara Kingsolver, with her husband and two daughters, left a perfectly modern life in Arizona to move into their family-owned Virginia farmhouse. They had a mission: to live for a year without eating processed or industrial food, and moreover, to grow and produce whatever they could for their own consumption. A thoughtfully devised cheat-sheet grocery list, comprised of a global spice rack, olive oil, and meticulously sourced fair trade coffee was to complement this endeavor.

Once settled into their new digs, the family plotted lists and strategies. Surviving the winter months without tropical, jet-sent fruit meant that rhubarb would stand in for navel oranges, tomatoes sauced and preserved in jars would line the shelves, and fresh eggs would be collected from hens. Turkeys and roosters were tended to with the built-in conclusion that at some point Kingsolver would dutifully raise her axe, taking notes and delivering blows. Her resulting memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is interspersed with diary-like cook’s life entries from the teenaged Camille Kingsolver and “bigger view” sidebars penned by the author’s husband Steven L. Hopp, an environmental studies teacher at Emory and Henry College.

 

With aplomb and humor, Kingsolver spends much of her time explaining her family’s reaction to their experiment, telling stories about the various course corrections they made in order to make it work. She lists the inventory of her freezer and Mason jars in January, cooks a handful of beautiful, foraged morels in spring, and lets a pickling brine sort out the abundance of a summer harvest. Late in the book is a chapter about slaughtering the farm’s poultry on “harvest day.” With a wry style and tone that has been well-established at this point, Kingsolver hammers out the various bars of her particular executioner’s song:

I find myself fundamentally aligned with a vegetarian position in every way except one: however selectively, I eat meat. I’m unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods. Unaccountable deaths by pesticide and habitat removal—the beetles and bunnies that die collaterally for our bread and veggie burgers—are lives plumb wasted.

Needless to say, 6 roosters and 6 turkeys die that day, but not before Kingsolver runs through a gauntlet of digressions: what civilization would be without meat eaters (nothing, apparently), a neighboring family’s sad car accident, the spontaneous levity of playing with dead poultry parts, and the ramifications of her appearance in the conservative book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken Is # 37) . Kingsolver is apparently #74. As a lead-in to the next chapter about a trip to Italy, Kingsolver also frets in equal measure about harvest-ready farmland in New Orleans that has been flooded by Katrina, but also about her passport, which she believes was damaged by in hurricane’s aftermath. Thankfully, we find out, it was mailed back to her a day before flooding commenced, and the Italy trip is a go.

For the moment, Kingsolver abandons a “spit-shined kitchen” and “a year’s harvest put away.” Suddenly, the reader is experiencing a multi-course, slow food menu—antipasti, pomodoro, secondo, contorno, and dolci—Italians really know how to eat, Kingsolver tells us. “How is it that every citizen of Italy doesn’t weigh three hundred pounds?” She asks. “They don’t, I can tell you that.” At one point, the author and her husband even dine in the fringes of a wedding reception and marvel at the centerpiece of the feast, a four-foot long baked and stuffed swordfish wearing a crown, a cute anthropomorphic touch, carved from the scourge of the food world, a red bell pepper. The bride presumably wore white; the dead fish, however, was in regalia, “wearing” a lemon corsage at the tip of its bill:

I imagined the kitchen employees who carved this pepper crown and lemon tulip, arranging this fish on his throne. No hash slingers here, but food poets, even in an ordinary budget roadside hotel. We’d come in expecting steam-table food, and instead we found cabbages and kings.

Just fifteen pages prior to this, Kingsolver is ridiculing the misguided intentions of “a rather young vegan movie star” who sought to somewhat idyllically set aside a place where animals would not be eaten. “It’s dirty work,” she jokes, “trying to save an endless chain of uneaten lives.”

It’s a strange juxtaposition of images and opinions. The eloquent, lofty “food poetry” invoked in the Italy chapter grates against the staged seriousness of slaughter in the “harvest day” set piece. Through it all, the notion of “food poetry” is subject to the same dangers and throes of interpretation of regular poetry, and Kingsolver’s marveling at the Italian swordfish remind me of nothing less than a recent advertisement placed by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association in several American food trade magazines. It proposed dressing steak and mashed potatoes up in the form of a sundae, for easier palatability, for children’s sake. Pictured in the ad is a tall, fluted glass; a cherry tomato stands in for maraschino; grated cheddar for rainbow sprinkles. Mashed potatoes layered with tenderloin slices like ice cream. “And just for giggles,” the copy reads, “a surprise sprinkling of Pop Rocks®.”

The two alternating chapter themes create a negative space: veganism is a ridiculous, doomed enterprise; the swordfish special is all diamond-in-the-rough, workaday beauty. One person changes the world by being determined not to be responsible for the death of animals, however misguided; another person changes the world with a paring knife and some garde manger 101 lessons, however thoughtless. Unwritten is something along the lines of what books like Michèle de La Pradelle’s Market Day in Provence have revealed: even the most venerated French produce markets embody a kind of ritualized spectacle, one that suckers all kinds of human beings into believing industrially produced vegetables are anything but. A patina of old world farming flair, applied liberally to courgettes and aubergines can sell anyone on the idea that a better way of eating, and thus living, is just slightly out of grasp. It is conspicuous that Kingsolver’s Italy chapter focuses on slow food, the leisure and pacing of a good meal, rather than the origin of its constituent ingredients like the rest of the book.

This would otherwise be fine, but Kingsolver is literally pushing a near-sighted approach to food as a thing spiritually nourishing; she praises the Italian way of eating, wholesale:

Watching Italians eat (especially men, I have to say) is a form of tourism the books don’t tell you about. They close their eyes, raise their eyebrows into accent marks, and make sounds of acute appreciation. It’s fairly sexy. Of course I don’t know how these men behave at home, if they help with the cooking or are vain and boorish and mistreat their wives. I realize Mediterranean cultures have their issues. Fine, don’t burst my bubble. I didn’t want to marry these guys, I just wanted to watch.

Her rejection of veganism is nonetheless also based on empirical reasons: it’s never a victimless diet, she says, so it would be silly to think of it as such. She goes on to write that raising animals for slaughter is ineluctably hardwired in our DNA (somebody call the Human Genome Project). “If turned loose into the wild,” she adds, “they would haplessly starve, succumb to predation, and destroy the habitats and lives of most or all natural things.”

On the next page, Kingsolver quotes Kahil Gibran on the topic of compassionate slaughtering, ending with the line, “Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.” This refrain appears the chapter’s last paragraph, with Kingsolver’s “we the living take every step in tandem with death.” Still, I have to ask: what’s wrong with choosing not to eat animals as much as possible, even if death is always a by-product of living? Also, if we’re all rhizomatically heading toward the same sappy tree, why not let all the animals we’ve bred centuries for slaughter roam free and destroy our natural habitats and lives, or at least give them a head start? A person’s got to eat, sure, but this doesn’t means it is foolish choice to not choose animals as food, collateral damage from turbines, slash/burning aside.

Like a small stack of green beans on a dish containing a tricked-out entree, Steven L. Hopp’s sidebars are prosaic, filled with easily digestible statistics and crunched numbers. In the book’s first sidebar, Hopp states that because each ingredient in a typical meal has traveled an average distance of 1,500 miles just to make it to the plate, choosing just one very local meal per week would net a reduction of 57.2 million oil barrels from our national annual usage. That’s if every man, woman, and child in the United States adopted such a practice. In process and in Kingsolver-household practice, the “food miles” debate gets shifted into an arena where it might not belong, one of selective interpretation. Bananas? Never mind that they contain amino acids, fiber, and a whole bunch of other great stuff in a highly portable, very biodegradable package; too much gas was used for them to get here. After Kingsolver refused her daughter’s friend the luxury of bananas during a visit, the friend had an epiphany, and “developed a sincere interest in agricultural methods that preserve agricultural diversity.”

“Food miles” is a crucial concept, made specifically appealing in its latent message that small, personal choices can effect change. Like the epitome of any Idea Whose Time Has Come, the concept has the funny quality of hitherto undiscovered common sense. In extension, haphazard devastation potentially flows from the whims of uninspired food writers (Kingsolver meets one), or so-called great chefs in the form of an appetizer that calls for two watermelons and a pound of shrimp. The environmental toll is somewhat calculable as soon as Shrimp and Watermelon Ceviche is named Recipe of The Month in Gourmet. Despite the fact that we no longer live in a world where people name peach dishes or baked meringues for visiting divas or ballerinas, restaurant culture, if such a thing can be said to exist, has an immense power over what we choose to eat at home. A variant of this is true as well: the choices we make at home, in advance of going out to restaurants also sustains the industry in an almost Darwinian way. Ask anyone who makes wedding cakes for a living, and they will tell you that during any given season, 70% of planners will order the same exact cake—one popularized in a magazine, or on a Discovery Channel show. Underneath all the butter cream may very well be three layers of blackberries from Argentina, an inconvenient truth in the making.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a big, sprawling book, in turns witty, enlightening, and disappointing. It’s filled with interesting information, like the fact that “baby carrots” aren’t baby at all; they’ve been sculpted into dull cones with a weird grinding machine. Left to dip in baba ganoush deli containers is the less nutritious part of the vegetable, but clearly one that still turns a profit. Kingsolver would likely point out that store bought baba ganoush is inferior, and one should make it at home, anyhow. In an early key passage, she lays out the food business hegemony she sought to counteract by bringing her family to hardscrabble Appalachia:

For the first time since our nation’s food was ubiquitously local, the point of origin now matters again to some consumers. We’re increasingly wary of an industry that puts stuff in our dinner we can’t identify as animal, vegetable, and mineral, or what. The halcyon postwar promise of “better living through chemistry” has fallen from grace. “No additives” is now often considered a plus rather than the minus that, technically, it is.

Yes and no. It’s important here to be specific, not poetic. Food production “additives” can mean a lot of things, from the centuries-old process of adding sulfur dioxide to wine, to putting Butyl Phenethyl Acetal Acetaldehyde into caramel-nougat whatever. As a term of significance, it’s once and future go-with, “preservatives” is less often mentioned and has fallen by the wayside; in a sociolinguistic sense, it’s not clear why, but it’s probably just as important. Butter, for instance, is fresh cream preserved by the process of churning, and the introduction of lactic acid producing bacteria. Water acts as a preservative for wheat flour. As dried pasta, flour has a longer shelf life, and less potential to waste. Kingsolver’s prose routinely attenuates such considerations while seeming “folksy and smart,” as Janet Maslin’s New York Times review describes the book as a whole. As a potential instrument of change, it sometimes becomes problematic that the book is in fact folksy and smart.

Working backwards through this passage, consider that the since-disavowed DuPont line “Better Living Through Chemistry” is the compressed remnant of an earlier slogan conceived by a hired gun advertising agency, prewar, in the late 1930’s: “Better Things for Better Living… Through Chemistry.” Long before Silent Spring and Vietnam-era protests unmade the company’s image, the then new slogan was plied on the American consciousness through its frequent use in Dupont’s The Cavalcade of America, a radio show celebrating the American spirit. At different times, the radio broadcast was fact-checked by consultant Arthur Schlesinger; its script doctored by Stephen Vincent Benét, Arthur Miller, and Alexander Woollcott. Kingsolver invokes the slogan like a sad, familiar, bad taste joke; in may be important, however, to consider how it became so formidable in the first place.

These days, The Rachael Ray Show is something like the 21st century Cavalcade of America, ubiquitous with product placement, a legion of simultaneously thoughtful and mindless advertisers standing in for DuPont. The stunning promise of a 30-minute meal is the new chicken in every pot, and it is doubtful that Kingsolver’s off-the-grid food ambition will change that. Just as Cavalcade presented a factually skewed but content-filled picture of American history, The Rachael Ray Show provides celebrity chat along with cooking instruction and, often, especially garish recipes. It’s doesn’t matter if every last prop in the Pottery Barn-gothic kitchen has been expertly placed for maximum commercial benefit. It doesn’t matter that seasonality is deemphasized on the show. As far as changing the world, I put my money on the kid who grows up watching Rachael Ray and learns how to cook, shedding the ridiculous convenience rubric like a bad habit along the way, rather than the kid who reads Barbara Kingsolver, chortling over zucchini jokes. Putting the politics of food before cooking is essential; Kingsolver informs us just how important it is to first procure the right ingredients. On the other hand, it is impossible to build a green house without a good working knowledge of carpentry.

Moreover, it is paramount that people want to cook. This is why the recipe sections of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, with weekly “meal plan” menus written by Camille Kingsolver, are great. Several aspects of the food crisis debate are misdirected from the start, and no amount of frozen lima beans culled from backyard vines, kept green in a chest freezer pumped with toxic refrigerant, will change this. Kingsolver’s book should do something to reinvent the culture of how we eat, but it too often reverts to a witty complacency almost indistinguishable from the latest Dunkin Donuts commercial, albeit on the other end of the ideological spectrum. It preaches to the choir with alacrity, but it’s also like stepping into a war room. Unfortunately, by mixing journalism and memoir, Kingsolver sidesteps more thorough explanations of the problems she identifies by sharing “a funny thing happened on the way to the farmer’s market” stories.

The standard counter-argument against this kind of I-told-you-so journalism is that a Malthusian interpretation of statistics isn’t necessarily a good indicator of reality; the “keeping up at this rate, we run out of oil/food” argument discounts technological innovation as the fundamental means to reprioritizing the state of food production and consumption. When food locality becomes more a structural commodity, our solutions will create precisely the situation we were trying to escape.

Luckily, Hopp’s sidebars don’t point to a supply and demand problem; they assert that both are egregiously out of synch, and we’re ineluctably getting unhealthier as a population. The total cost of food production is far greater than the benefits of food consumption. Then, considering the effects of consumption—wrought with vine-ripe tomatoes in January and what over 9 billion cheeseburgers served have failed to teach us—it becomes readily apparent that many problems cannot be redressed by going off the grid and eating local, because the problems haven’t been accounted for to begin with. Any adage that begins with “teach a man to fish” implies that man will also know how to descale, debone, filet, and lightly broil said fish, but it’s not the case, and that’s the problem.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle contains a lot of information, things that might startle one awake in the middle of the night, and really should. Perhaps it is best savored slowly, much like the home-cooked dinners Kingsolver describes. As James Salter wrote in Light Years, and later reused as the title of his food for thought-a-day book, “life is meals.” It would be a mistake to say that a lot of this book left a bad taste in my mouth; not because it didn’t, but because it is the exact kind metaphor Kingsolver uses with ceaseless frequency to riff lively through a year of food adventures. This kind of language goes great distances in the minds of some readers, and barely coasts for others. Books like Kingsolver’s, and Charles Clover’s underrated overfishing chronicle The End of the Line deserve more readers, for political and personal reasons both. On one hand, Americans produce 100 billion pounds of wasted food every year. On the other, Kingsolver literally shows us how to use the leftovers.

____
Hugh Merwin is writing a novel about the Russian Saints Boris and Gleb. He
lives in Brooklyn.

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