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Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle February 18, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Barbara Kingsolver has created a paean to fresh, local food with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I harbor some serious misgivings about the locavore movement (see February 5’s post) but Kingsolver’s loving descriptions of the vegetables and birds she and her family coax through life and death inspired a yearning for fresh, homegrown food in even this grouchy urbanite. If food delights you – not just in the eating, but in the seeing and smelling and preparing – you will revel in this book, not for its arguments in favor of locavorism, but for its mouthwatering portrayal of what a year of local, seasonal food in southern Appalachia is like.

That’s really what the bulk of AVM is devoted to, in all its fascinating detail: untangling the mysteries of turkey hatching, celebrating the first vegetable of spring (the reedy asparagus), struggling to prevent boisterous zucchini from overtaking your summer kitchen. It’s lovely, all of it. And if Kingsolver stopped at the pure celebration of all this wonderful food, I would have no bone to pick with her book. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. She insists that we should all participate in the creation of what we eat as she does: by growing it (or at least purchasing it from local growers) and by making it from scratch in the kitchen. Although she doesn’t identify what type of imperative this is, whether moral, spiritual, or cultural, it’s clear that she thinks that a life spent in intimate communion with food is, in some deep sense, superior to one that’s not.

Kingsolver isn’t the first or the only food writer to make this point; Michael Pollan enjoins us to tend gardens and Mark Bittman wants us to spend more time in the kitchen. But this review is about Kingsolver’s book, so I’ll pick on her. The injunction that we should all devote more time to communing with food seems to have something to do with how central it is to our survival, but no one suggests that we all need to be experts on construction because shelter is central to our survival. It’s ridiculous to think that we would somehow be better people if we all took part in building our own homes, so why do we become better people if we all take part in building our own meals? Why not leave it to the experts, if we don’t happen to enjoy it?

That’s another thing: Kingsolver seems to be incredulous that someone could garden or cook and actually discover that they don’t like it. She agrees that women’s liberation means that “…we’ve earned the right to forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food was cooked and eaten, these were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater.” I have to say that for yours truly, no chore, not even dusting, is more stupefying than chopping veggies. Does that make me hopelessly out of touch with the meaning of life?

Not only is it possible to dislike preparing food, it’s also possible to be bad at it. That otherwise unassailable people can turn to be bad cooks or bad gardeners brings up a third failing of Kingsolver and her peers: in their haste to erect a democracy of food preparation, they don’t give themselves enough credit for having something not everyone has: talent. There is such a thing as a green thumb, and why must you force yourself on unsuspecting lettuces if you don’t have it?

There are some other inconsistencies in AVM which are common to the local/seasonal food movement. Kingsolver attacks us for our lack of restraint in eating foods regardless of seasonality; we tell our teens, she says, to wait before having sex, but these are “…words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now.” Yet her own approach to winter is to can 60-plus jars of tomato sauce so that her family can, well, enjoy tomatoes out of season. She touts the idea of a native food culture, yet offers recipes from cuisines that originated in places as diverse as Asia, South America, and Europe. She champions using local ingredients, and this is probably the ideal she most consistently upholds. But if her reason for doing so is to save on all the energy used in transport, which she alludes to a couple of times, she must respond to the critique of the locavore movement that points out that transport is one of the food chain’s smallest gas guzzlers. The energy used for fertilizers and for kitchen food preparation each dwarf it. Kingsolver devotes exactly one paragraph of this 350-page book to acknowledge these issues, and in it chooses to pooh-pooh them rather than discuss them.

Read AVM to relish the miracles that daily spring out of the ground to feed us. Just don’t be lulled into believing that you’ve found more than that.

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Comments»

1. Eric C - February 23, 2010

This seems like another area where the concept of comparative advantage offers a fatal objection. The people I hire to prepare my food don’t even have to be experts (better than I am at it), and I don’t even have to be bad at food prep (worse than some objective threshold). All that matters seems to be roughly whether there is some other (professional?) activity I can do better than food-prep, and whether there is likewise some activity the professional food preparer can do better than prepare food. If no and no, then it makes sense to specialize and then trade.

Angelique - February 23, 2010

Indeed, if what you’re trying to do is have the most efficient food preparation system. I doubt Kingsolver would care much about that!

2. Eric C - February 23, 2010

Oops: “yes and no”.


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