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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
by Barbara Kingsolver (with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver)
HarperCollins, 2007; $26.95

When Barbara Kingsolver and her family began planning a year-long immersion in their local foodshed, the concept seemed original. By the time they completed an account of their year as “locavores,” regional eating had entered the mainstream – powered by the Slow Food movement, food safety concerns, and books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

While no longer fresh in concept, Kingsolver’s account of their year still affirms the pleasures of local eating and family cooking, where each season brings its own abundance (yes, even midwinter). The book is an extended invitation to relinquish eating habits that are hard on person and planet, and to find greater nourishment for body and soul by selecting foods from known local sources.

Kingsolver deftly weaves the personal and political, melding her family’s taste for fresh produce with its distaste for a food system that uses 87 calories of fuel to transport 1 calorie worth of fruit from California to New York. Pile that extravagance atop of biodiversity losses, feedlot atrocities, and misplaced governmental subsidies, and you get – in Kingsolver’s words – “untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unravelings, and global climate change.”

As a family, they approached this experiment in agricultural reform with a missionary zeal and a willingness to work hard (even daughter Lily, age 9). A collaborative spirit enriches the book, with husband Steven Hopp contributing fact-filled sidebars and daughter Camille adding earnest postscripts with favorite family recipes.

One of their hardest moments comes when they face the realization that “you can’t run away on harvest day.” A long-time vegetarian, Kingsolver returned to growing and slaughtering her own meat after realizing that a vegetal diet does not relieve one of responsibility for animal deaths (given the collateral destruction that results from pesticides, habitat loss and farm machinery). “Globally speaking, the vegetarian option is a luxury …,” she believes. The argument that “it takes ten times as much land to make a pound of meat as a pound of grain, only applies to the kind of land where rain falls abundantly on rich topsoil … Managed grazing is healthier for most landscapes … than annual tilling and planting, and far more fuel-efficient.”

Even with a meat-based diet, the Kingsolver family finds local eating a highly affordable choice. (She claims they ate well at a cost of just 50 cents per family member per meal!) They purchased flour for bread and organic grain for their heirloom chickens and turkeys, and each family member was allowed one fair-trade luxury (such as coffee and cocoa). Mostly, though, they lived off produce from their local farmers’ market and their own berry patches, orchard, pasture and 3,500-square-foot garden in southwestern Virginia. They managed to grow, harvest, preserve and prepare their food around the demands of two full-time jobs, two children and travel commitments. It must help that on their farm – to all appearances – crops never fail, poultry never sicken, and stored produce never spoils. But the exaggerated ease of ‘growing your own’ does not diminish the book’s credibility: It’s an inspirational account of tackling global problems in your own back yard, and serving up some exceptional meals in the process.

F. Marina Schauffler, an environmental writer and editor, is author of Turning to Earth (Virginia, 2003).