What I remember best about Auntie Peg’s ranch up on the banks of Oregon’s Siuslaw River is the food: salmon, darkly river-slick and curled in the big sink next to the door, waiting to be cleaned and sliced into steaks or filleted for smoking. Blackberries, loganberries and marionberries, rinsed and air-drying, waiting in battered colanders to be sugared, floured and poured into pie crusts. Tomatoes, yellow-orangish and ripening on the windowsill above the counter that ran the length of the kitchen on the pasture side of the house.
“They’d ripen faster if you didn’t stand over ’em with a salt-shaker,” my great-grandmother would tell Auntie Peg.
It’s no wonder, then, that I found Barbara Kingsolver’s new collaboration with her husband and daughter so endearingly familiar—everything, that is, except her tales of asparagus, which Auntie Peg couldn’t stand. Kingsolver’s newest book is a literary diary of her family’s decision to eat mindfully and sustainably on their own land for a year. It is, as one of my friends suggested, “a life-changing book,” in the way that a book like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or a film like An Inconvenient Truth is life-changing.
It’s not that Kingsolver is offering any new information. We’ve known for years that Americans are getting fat on the corn syrup added to prepared foods, that industrial agriculture is killing crops, animals, farmers and land, and that transporting food around the world is taking more energy from fossil fuels than the food itself provided in calories. These are not new ideas; Wendell Berry and others like him have been writing about this for years.
But Kingsolver, as any of her readers know, has a gentle touch with her storytelling—the sort of coffee-pouring, sit-a-spell good humor that says, “I can trust this woman. She’s not going to lecture.” In return, she offers up more than a few laughs, as well as some valuable information: where food comes from and how to make it fit on the table.
As a result, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a fusion of garden how-to, cookbook and memoir, with a commentary on American food culture thrown in. Yes, there’s a lot of nostalgia (often for a “simpler” time that required an incredible amount of hard work and was stultifying for both the intellects and spirits of the people who, quite literally, “made homes"). And it’s only fair to point out that Kingsolver’s family has the advantages of education, rural property and the start-up funds necessary to buy heritage seeds and baby poultry.
But those are, ultimately, pretty shallow criticisms for a book that asks us to simply be mindful of what we consume: to think of its effect, not only on our bodies, but also on our spirits, on the land, and on the lives of our neighbors.
The resurgence of interest in the “household arts"—cooking, baking and food preserving, as well as knitting and embroidery, which I’ve lately seen a number of younger people undertaking—is undoubtedly tied to our concerns about consumption. Perhaps it’s a “tipping point,” or simply that, like the addicts we are, we’re hitting bottom and finally tiring of an unsustainable, destructive way of life. Whatever the reason, any attempt to follow Kingsolver’s example—and the book provides everything from Web sites to recipes to helpful hints for cheese-making—surely will lead to a life that’s a bit closer to human scale, timed to the seasons and mindful of life’s cycles.
I could probably put a few potted tomato plants on the balcony. But they’d be too afraid to ripen if I’m standing over them with a salt-shaker.