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Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life [16 May, 2007]

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By Barbara Kingsolver; HarperCollins; 384 pages.

In 2004, Barbara Kingsolver relocated from Arizona to Virginia with her family to live for a year on locally produced food that included fruits and vegetables grown, and turkeys killed, in their garden and orchard.  They were inspired by the slow-food movement, which advocates the protection of indigenous plant and animal forms threatened by cheaply produced homogenous varieties made for mass production and easy transportation.

Kingsolver book about that period, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, deftly weaves the larger context of global agribusiness into descriptions of her family’s days planting, pruning and harvesting.  Her book espouses many admirable principles, but falls prey to the cloying sentimentality that runs rampant in most food writing and leaves us desperate for the acidic wit of Anthony Bourdain.  It also reflects a larger trend in food and environmental writing: The recuperation and depoliticizing of more radical activism into a middle-class aesthetic.

Ultimately, the book is an account of what happens when a nice upper-middle-class family decides to live off the land.  Kingsolver is anxious to point out that hers is a solidly respectable endeavor by lovely normal folk.  So, despite the alternative nature of her experiment, Kingsolver distances herself from the vegans/hippies who might seem like her natural allies.  She insists that she and her fellow farmers are nothing like the “dreadlocked, Birkenstocked [guy] …reeking faintly of garlic.”  Instead, they wear “Red Wing work boots, barbershop haircuts, Levis with a little mud on the cuffs, men and women who probably go to church on Sunday...”  So there.  Hard-working, all-American sorts with none of that radical nonsense cluttering their neatly-trimmed heads, and presumably smelling of apple pie.

Such caricatures erase the fact that vegans and hippies were among the first in the United States to make connections between food and politics—connections that Kingsolver only occasionally makes in her folksy and precious narrative about good farmers living off the earth.  The group Food Not Bombs provides vegetarian food to the hungry while protesting war and other conditions that create poverty.  They are well known for their “food recycling”—dumpster-diving for food trashed by markets and restaurants for cosmetic “imperfections.”

These tactics may not be organic but they are every bit as ethical as and more politicized than Kingsolver’s year of eating locally.  While her brood will not let a speck of non-organic flour pass its lips, FNB utilizes and maximizes available resources in a much less insular and more sustainable fashion.

It never occurs to an otherwise progressive-minded Kingsolver that her project might replicate the United States’ political isolationism.  And, as even Slow Food NYC’s co-leader David Berman has written, choosing only local food can actually diminish the biodiversity that’s essential to a healthy environment.  But Kingsolver is fixated on the ideas that Alice Waters and others have made popular: The earth is our giver, and we are obliged to eat locally and personally know the farmers who bring its harvest to us.

Or not.  I’ll never know the city employees who keep my streets clean, but I’ll also never vote for any alderman who opposes their unionization.  In other words, we don’t have to have a stiflingly intimate knowledge of farmers to support their work.  Some of us, terrified even of earthworms emerging from the ground, are fine with never going near “real mud.”  And we might not want to spend all—or any—Saturday morning talking to every farmer at the market.  But we might support their practices in more impersonal and equally effective ways, like pressing our local stores to buy their produce or insisting that our politicians stop enabling agribusiness.

The current food production system is undoubtedly disastrous for both the world’s economy and our health.  But the best solution is to think politically, radically and inventively about how best to create a sustainable and varied system of production and consumption that diminishes waste while providing better and more healthful food to everyone.  Kingsolver’s solution might work for her family, but the rest of us might not want to revert to our hunter-gatherer selves just yet.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 16 May, 2007]

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