reflective / reviews

Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

In the last few years, I’ve had some moments of insight about American food culture. One was sometime after I moved out and was shopping for myself every week. It struck me, as I stood in the produce section, that while some fruits I only see in the summertime (peaches, watermelon) and pumpkins and other winter squash are only see in the fall — if I only went with what I knew from shopping each week, I would think that tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, bananas, apples, and citrus fruits grow year round. It struck me that that was a horribly privileged ignorance that myself and most other Americans take for granted, and usually never think about when picking up the week’s produce or eating the same fresh food year-round.

I had another food culture crisis a few years ago when I went with my coworkers at a temp job to lunch. We went to a place called “American Buffet,” and it was just awful. There was a line of Chinese food, there a line of Mexican, there conventional American fried food, and everything was saturated in grease and fatty sauces. None of it was very good, but we stuffed our faces, most eating multiple plates. I left feeling nauseated, both physically and psychologically, by the whole experience, and yet also convinced that the restaurant was aptly named: this was truly an American Buffet, and it represented an awful lot of what’s appalling about America.

Don’t get me wrong, I love food. It is really fucking hard for me to resist a donut or slice of pizza when it appears for free at any event, even when I’m not really hungry, which I recognize is an awful urge, and I try to fight it. I also fucking love pasta and bagels, and my new acquisition of a waffle maker (which I’ve wanted since I got my own apartment three years ago) has made me happier than I even imagined (pancakes are not the same thing, nope). But I’ve internalized the notion that carbs are for special occasions, not every day (and indeed, one of the very few times I noticed a direct correlation between food/exercise changes and my weight, was when I switched from bagels to yogurt for breakfast in 2011).

I’m also fortunate my parents are such foodies, but reasonable foodies — they love cooking and good, nutritious food, but never forced it on us. In fact, my mom used to be my main supplier of frozen meals/pizzas and bagels, but before my last year in college, I made the decision to cut out frozen meals entirely and learn to cook for myself, and only very recently (I think when I went to West Virginia for twelve days and didn’t have a kitchen or fridge at the hotel) did I break the rule about frozen meals.

So I absorbed my parents’ love of olive oil and roasted vegetables that taste like candy (seriously, I brought a bowl of roasted beets, carrots, and potatoes to my friends’ Superbowl party, and took home an empty bowl. One asked me for the recipe, which is very simple and failproof: chop up vegetables, toss them in a bowl with olive oil and garlic salt, then roast them at 425, stirring every twenty minutes, for 40-60 minutes. Brussel sprouts are amazing this way). But I did not want to carry their specific tradition of visiting three or four stores every Saturday morning (two farmers’ markets, Central Market or Spec’s, and Kroger).

So I realized, listening to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, how highly sensitive the subjects of personal health and nutrition are, and I’m convinced it’s impossible to write a book propounding a particular lifestyle without pissing some people off. I’m sure I’ve already offended some just by talking about how I shun frozen meals.

I was leery of this book from the start, because I dislike all starry-eyed rhapsodizing over socially-conscious eating, because it can so easily be outlandish and quixotic and laden with guilt-tripping for those who don’t conform. But I figured if anyone could do it well, it would be Barbara Kingsolver.

I was wrong. I had been head over heels with Kingsolver’s writing before this book. Now, I know her flaws — in particular, she should avoid writing about her family, because it very quickly gets insufferable.

Let me say first that I wholeheartedly agree with the factual argument of the book. Large-scale food production in America is seriously fucked up, and you don’t need to be a yuppie hipster to be disgusted and outraged, and I truly appreciate her and her husband’s advice for how to make small adjustments in your life to protest and not become a doormat to such mega-corporations that treat thousands of animals abominably and are claiming patents to about every species of agricultural seed you can imagine that ends up in the grocery store. She’s definitely sold me on supporting farmers’ markets (though I am not paying their price for local eggs, which is anything from $7 to $10 a dozen. Hopefully those are just winter prices. I buy the ones at Kroger that are marked “cage free” and cost about $2.50, and I do mean to do research to see if I can find out what that company calls “cage free.” But it has to be more humane than what the cheapest eggs cost).

I also really appreciate the botany lesson on when vegetables grow — i.e., when various plants are actually in season, to make me aware of how fortunate I am to have certain foods for inexpensive prices, even in winter. I belatedly realized how ignorant I was when I first heard that the farmers’ market my parents visit in Eugene, OR closes from November to April, and I thought, “It must be too cold in the winter.” No, foolish child, it’s because nothing grows in winter. (Or at least not enough crops to sell every Saturday. I did learn from Kingsolver that certain greens like kale do grow year-round.)

The parts of the book that were a major turn off was some of the more sanctimonious treatises on what you can ethically buy non-locally, and — most of all — how wonderfully wholesome her own family is in their food practices.

For the first issue, I actually hissed out loud during her husband’s first essay, when he was lecturing about the petroleum cost of delivering those fruits and vegetables you expect every week of the year in your local grocery store, concluding with, “A quick way to improve food-related fuel economy would be to buy a quart of motor oil and drink it.”

NO. Inexpensive produce is the only way some families get those nutrients, it is not remotely equitable with drinking gasoline, which not only has no nutritional benefit but would obviously kill you. How fucking dare you. Not everyone’s life situation allows them to stand in the produce aisle and fret about the petroleum cost that put each apple and orange into their cart. Fuck you, sir.

But she did make solid points about how farmers’ markets and nutritious food aren’t as elitist as some cultural stereotypes would have you believe. Food stamps can actually be used at farmers’ markets! And she’s right too that many immigrants manage to make good, nutritious food that doesn’t cost very much and doesn’t make them obese.

Also, near the end of the book, when the family finally allowed themselves the “splurge” of a bag of Florida oranges, and Kingsolver describes how her nine-year-old daughter hugged a single orange to her chest, fondling it before carefully peeling and treasuring each slice as it was consumed, and Kingsolver’s conclusion was (paraphrased, can’t find original): “How blessed the world is to have this child.” And I just thought, really? That’s your takeaway? Because, honestly, if I ever have children, I’d actually want them to take oranges a little more for granted. I mean, I’d want them to understand they are lucky to have easy access to oranges, but I’d like to strike a balance between total ignorance and only getting one a year.

Another point to show how I think she and her family goes just too far in some ways: I am not cutting out bananas from my life forever just because they don’t grow within a hundred miles or whatever distance. No more smoothies or banana bread, ever? Life is simply too short.

The other vomit-worthy part was in the cheese-making section — and again, the factual part was highly interesting and inspirational, I kinda want to try ordering the cultures to make mozzarella at home! But ugh, the part where she fantasizes about how her husband’s deceased Italian grandmother would smile down on them making cheese together — give me a break. Food is great. Some people and families find cooking enjoyable. But it’s not a recipe for familial happiness, and it’s grating when she implies otherwise.

So it was the most difficult Kingsolver book I’ve encountered yet, just in terms of enjoyability. I appreciate being motivated to get up earlier on Saturdays and go to the farmers’ market, as well as the education about how fucking awful the megacorporations are. But she should stick with fiction, I think (though in retrospect, while all her books have a greater message about the world and what we’re doing in it, especially as Americans, Flight Behavior was definitely weighted heavier toward lecture than story. But you might say the same about Poisonwood Bible, I guess). Well, I’m going to get around to her book on Tuscon essays, so we’ll see how that goes down.

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