Thursday, June 14, 2007

BOOKS: Barbara Kingsolver Is the Seventy-Fourth Most Dangerous Person in America*

It's really hard to talk about liking organic, free-range, local food without sounding like (a) a flaky hippie, or (b) a yuppie asshole. For all you know, I may be both, but I have a sufficiently well-developed sense of shame to not want to broadcast these facts. So before I proceed, let me just confess that earlier this evening I ate a fast-food veggie burger and onion rings, and then chased it with a soft-serve frozen yogurt. So, you know. You know.

Still, this next book has kind of changed my life. Plus, it has recipes.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
by Barbara Kingsolver (#16)
Yes, THE Barbara Kingsolver. The same person who wrote a novel that many consider will go on to become an honest-to-god classic. That very same writer has now written a book whose title gave me inexplicable déjà vu, until I realized that I think it was also the name of the unit my grade three class did on ecology back in '78.

That aside, this book is a bit of a miracle. It explores the modern food industry in depth via a narrative of a year in which Kingsolver and her family attempt to eat only food they grow themselves or purchase from nearby farms on their homestead in the southern Appalachians. The miracle is that a book like this could come off as preachy and smug, or as dry and didactic, and yet it doesn't. Instead, Kingsolver invests it with the same warmth and humanity with which she imbues her fiction writing. She also involves her family directly in the book: her daughter Camille contributes recipes at the end of each chapter, and her husband, Steven L. Hopp, provides information-dense sidebars that support Kingsolver's narrative. (Kingsolver is no slouch in the research department herself: her training as an evolutionary biologist comes to the fore in this book.)

Here are just a few of the many fascinating (and by "fascinating" I mean "interesting, potentially demoralizing, and occasionally terrifying") facts I took away from this book:
  • Thanks to poor lifestyle and nutritional choices, we have dealt to today's kids the statistical hand of a shorter life expectancy than their parents (which would be us).
  • Over the last decade, the U.S. has lost an average of 300 independent (i.e. not owned by corporations) farms a week.
  • However, organic growers, farmers' markets, and small exurban food producers now comprise the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. food economy.
  • Though many eligible mothers may not know it, the U.S. assistance for women with infant children (WIC) gives coupons redeemable at farmers' markets to more than 2.5 million participants in forty-four states.
  • Similarly, the Seniors' Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) awards grants to forty states and numerous Indian tribal governments to help low-income seniors buy locally grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
  • U.S. citizens on average spend a lower proportion of their income on food than people in any other country, or any heretofore in history.
  • The constituent ingredients in an average North American meal travel about a gazillion miles before getting to our tables, consuming insane amounts of fuel. (Sorry I couldn't provide exact numbers; they're buried somewhere in the book and I forgot to pencil them.)
  • Buying your goods from local businesses rather than national chains generates about three times as much money for your local economy.
  • Supermarkets accept only accept properly packaged, coded, and labeled produce that conforms to certain standards of color, size, and shape. Melons can have no stem attached, cucumbers must be no less than six inches long, no more than eight. Crooked eggplants need not apply. Therefore, every crop yields a significant proportion of perfectly edible but small or oddly shaped vegetables that are "trash" by market standards.
  • No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as the U.S. does. As Kingsolver says, "U.S. consumers may take [their] pick of reasons to be wary of the resulting product: growth hormones, antibiotic-resistent bacteria, unhealthy cholesterol composition, deadly E. coli strains, fuel consumption, concentration of manure into toxic waste lagoons, and the turpitude of keeping confined creatures at the limits of their physiological and psychological endurance."
  • If a shipment of ground beef somehow gets contaminated with pathogens, the U.S. federal government does not have authority to recall the beef, only to request that the company issue a recall. When the voluntary recall is initiated, the federal government does not release information on where the contaminated beef is being sold, considering that information proprietary.
  • Not a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as BSE, or "mad cow disease"), anywhere, has ever turned up in cattle that were raised on pasture grass or organic feed.
  • Free-range beef also has less danger of bacterial contamination to humans, because feeding on grass maintains normal levels of acidity in the animal's stomach.
Here's the thing about all this information: it's scary. It's also totally overwhelming if you take it in all at once. I can totally appreciate the knee-jerk desire to go into denial and write all this off as the ranting of a loonie back-to-the-lander. Except Kingsolver isn't a loonie. She's eminently rational and down-to-earth (no pun intended... I think), and it's hard to write off what she's saying.

But at the same time, for most of us, buying a few acres and sustaining ourselves through our own agrarian efforts isn't exactly a viable option, no matter how appealing Kingsolver's gorgeously written passages about harvesting zucchinis or watching her flock of heirloom turkeys mate (a notably rare event, since most turkeys, even free-range ones, are created with syringes and bottled, uh, "turkey juice").

So what's an average urbanite/suburbanites/superurbanite to do? Fortunately, Kingsolver breaks it all down:
  1. Support local farmers' markets, and ask vendors how they farm their products.
  2. Ask your local grocery stores where their produce comes from, and let them know you're interested in local organic food. Their business is to respond to market demand. You're the market. It's your responsibility as a member of the free enterprise system to clearly state what you want.
  3. Resist the urge to buy out-of-season produce, knowing that if it's out of season, it's probably had to travel long distances to get to you.
  4. Re-train yourself to accept lumpy, oddly shaped and sized produce.
  5. Buy free-range meat, eggs, and dairy if they're available to you. (Please, please don't make me regale you with the horrors of factory milk production. I don't think my stomach could bear thinking about it twice.)
  6. If you can, try growing some of your own produce, if for no other reason than just to remind yourself that growing food is real work, and that farmers deserve to be compensated fairly for it.
  7. And, you know, go easy on yourself if you don't hit the mark 100 percent of the time. It's not a contest.
Oh, crap. I just re-read this post, and it does come off as preachy. So much for good intentions. This is why you're just better off reading Kingsolver's book yourself. And on that note -- and because I'm feeling a middle-school book report vibe coming on -- I'll end with a quote:
We will have to change our ways significantly as a nation not when some laws tell us we have to (remember Prohibition?), but when we want to.
I don't know about you, but I want to.

*But as she says, "When you're seventy-four, you try harder." (Seriously, though,
this book actually lists Kingsolver as one of the hundred most dangerous people in America. I hear she wields a mean hoe.)


Alice said...

She's so great, isn't she? This book isn't out in the UK until the summer, but reading her previous books of essays has already inspired me to get organic local vegetables delivered.

Karen said...

I can't wait to get my hands on this book, especially after reading all the excerpts and reviews. I used the word "life-changing" to describe Poisonwood, so I can only imagine what this one will do to me.

Alex L. said...

Just to let you know, your last three posts have been both awesome and incredibly relevant to my life. Especially the bit about the ten-year-old test and Not Saying Everything You Think. The local-food-locally-grown-and-eat-your-turnip-in-the-winter thing is also excellent. And I recalled Chinua Achebe from "Things Fall Apart" and am pleased to hear about his win.

Your blog is a pleasure to read. Thanks for writing.

White Trasherati said...

I just finished this and it is truly life-changing. We promptly planted a HUGE garden at the new house, and I stopped buying out of season produce. And I'm chomping at the bit to make my own mozzarella cheese and baquettes - they make it sound so simple!
Great review, DG.

Anonymous said...

I'm adding this book to my wishlist immediately. Also, I love the local farmers markets and always gleefully support them. Speaking of which, I am undaunted by, and actually kind of love, less-than-perfect produce.

Trasherati: I am going to spend all of my free time at your house eating your delicious made-from-scratch and home-grown food. Because that's what friends are for.

Anonymous said...

I'm really, really not a crunchy-granola, back-to-the-lander type -- I don't think it's possible to be such when you live in New York Freakin' City -- but for a long time, I've tried getting my produce at farmer's markets anyway. And the reason why is because of a fact that will be a fringe benefit to people who try to get their produce locally -- local produce just plain tastes better. Seriously. The peas and corn are so much sweeter, the tomatoes so much more flavorful, the cucumbers so much more juicy, the apples and pears so much richer, the berries so much meatier -- they have the little, intensely sweet strawberries every year that I just love -- seriously, if you are a food freak, and you try the farmer's market stuff, you WILL NOT go back to getting stuff at a supermarket unless it's an emergency. I've even started looking into home canning, so I can buy up a buttload of tomatoes this year and SAVE them to use in the winter, so I can continue to have meals that actually taste GOOD.

So it's not ecology that's making me shop local -- it's because I'm a food snob.

Skippy said...

I just read this book last weekend, and I had an similar reaction to it. I've been telling everyone I know to read it. If you haven't read her Prodigal Summer, you ought to. You'll recognize so much of that book in this one.

Imani said...

When I came to Canada from Jamaica actually, all of the super-sized, pristine, shiny produce frightened me. All I could visualize was a huge needle being injected into the poor little food. I try to buy as much of my stuff from the Farmer's Market as I can, which is pretty easy for me because I live in a farming area.

I agree with Kim -- the food from the market tastes a lot better.

Unknown said...

I am dying to read this book. I'm a long-time fan of Kingsolver and had a similar life-changing moment when I read Omnivore's Dilemma. (And I have driven my hippy, granola husband nuts.)

I can no longer buy eggs from the grocery store--I have to eat pastured, free-range eggs from the farmer's market. Living in Houston, Texas makes it easier to support farmer's markets, we get good produce year round. But I'm trying to find a local grocery store for other staples.

Molly said...

Have you read this book yet:

All about local eating and Vancouver based.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of reading this. I looked up local CSAs this afternoon, and we'll be going to the farmers market for our veggies this week.

It feels so hokey to say a book changed my life, but it certainly feels like that may end up being the case here.

Em said...

Maybe I'm just blessed to live in an area where organic's available nearly everywhere (heck, I sell organic goods,) but I see a surprisingly large percentage of the population buying organic and it warms the cockles of my heart.
Then again, that could just be a heart attack becauses I loves me some cheddar with everything.

BabelBabe said...

I read this and have bought at least three copies to give away (I want to give Kingsolver my money!) I always have had a little garden and we belong to a fabulous CSA, but I have become very conscious of things like local milk - my local grocery store brand is trucked in from Colorado despite at least three working dairy farms within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh! This book was life-changing. I am glad you blogged about it - you do NOT sound preachy. Have you seen this Local eating Challenge?

Pretty cool.

Frédérique said...

I've enjoyed Kingsolver ever since my sister gave me The Bean Tree as a teenager - I read Prodigal Summer twice over the last year and will try to get this one when it makes its way to the Southern Hemisphere.

I sorely miss Montreal's fabulous Jean-Talon market - even at the end of the summer, Christchurch's had a whopping 9 stalls... And after 4 years of growing a full potted vegie garden on a 3rd floor balcony downtown, I find myself with a huge backyard but no time or means for gardening.

New Zealand has very interesting views on the distance issue. It is a haven for organic and responsible farming - for example, all cows (dairy & meat) are pastured, 4 of the 6 kinds of eggs at my mega-mart grocery store are free range, 2 are local - an 'ecological' advantage Kiwis try to use to balance the 5000+ miles everything needs to travel to get to pretty much ANY outside market. This is the stuff that makes the Evening News here.

Sandy D. said...

I'm still on the library waiting list for this book, but I'm eager to compare it to Gary Paul Nabhan's "Coming Home to Eat". Nabhan studies Native American agriculture and gathering, and lives near Tucson, so his take on eating locally is probably a little different. But I definitely recommend Nabhan (and his other books on Native ethnobotany, like "Gathering the Desert") if you live in the SW or want another take on this.

Julia said...

Playing devil's advocate.... you might want to check out this blog post from Reason Magazine about Kingsolver's book: Rob:

Steph said...

I adore Barbara Kingsolver! And I just spent the day selling jewelry at a brand-spankin' new open-air market that features (only) handmade crafts and (only) local produce. So completely fabulous. It also happens to have the only Ethiopian and Moroccan food within a 90 mile radius. I am so excited about this place! And now I am excited about this book as well.

BabelBabe said...

Julia - I think the guy from Reason magazine misses the artistic point of her book - she readily admits that her experience is NOT a typical farming experience. I read her book very much more as an encouragement to THINK about what we put in our mouths and our bodies, and to think aboout WHY certain things are transported thousands of miles (sure, it's terrific to have bananas - at all - and I will never if I can help it give them up - but why truck milk from Colorado when there are three dairies withn a hundred-mile radius? WHY?). I didn't feel as if she came across self-righteous or anctimonious, or innocent of the realities of farming life. she is concerned about the chemicals and fake stuff in our food, which i see as aperfectly valid concern, and she admits she went to an extreme to make a point. i think the Reason mag guy needs to relax.

Tammy said...

Thanks for the link, Julia. I read the Reason dude's opinions with a great deal of interest, but at the end of the day, it's hard to give them a great deal of credence.

For one thing, his tone was pretty dismissive, and he seems to have an axe to grind against the entire local food concept, to the extent that he's lumped all of its advocates into one group (making them easier to dismiss en masse, I suppose), despite the fact that they come from hugely varying backgrounds, with different levels of scientific knowledge.

For another, when he cites examples of how Kingsolver is wrong, all he does is pit his research source against hers. For example, when he states that her claim that organic food is up to 50 percent more nutritious is wrong, he links to a study, but Kingsolver also cites a study to back up her claim. So who is right? He makes Kingsolver's point sound like mere opinion, while his is hard fact, and to me, they're both on equal footing, at best. Why are we supposed to believe him over her? Because he's Reason's science columnist? Kingsolver trained as a molecular biologist. I don't see where one person's credentials trump another.

But even say he does have every authority to discuss local and organic farming on an equal footing (and again, he never states where he comes by this authority, other than the fact that he grew up on a farm; big whoop, so did I)... his column doesn't even mention two of the main issues that Kingsolver addresses in her book: meat and dairy production. There are HUGE indisputable problems with these industries in north America, but dude doesn't mention this at all. To me, it looks like he solely targets the fuzzier area of crop farming in order to roundly discredit the entire book, which makes me suspicious of either his motivations or of the fact that he hasn't even read the book in its entirety. And like I said, it seems like he just has an irrational beef (no pun intended) with the local food movement. Which is pretty ironic considering the title of his magazine.

Also, BabelBabe makes some good points. Kingsolver states at the beginning and the end of her book that this is an experiment to see, first, if it could be done and, second, what impact it would have on how she perceived food and nature.

But again, thanks for the link. Food production is probably one of the biggest issues that we need to address globally, and it's obviously important to keep an open mind about solutions.

Linds84 said...

After reading this post I went to Chapters and bought this book. I must say that it's definitely one of the most visually appealing books I've owned. I found the pacing a little off la little clunky, even. The essays written by her daughter were the most enjoyable part for me. All in all I thought it was an enjoyable book but I think the narrative held up the book's message.

Carol Elaine said...

I would be very interested in checking out this book. It sounds like a good companion piece to Harvest for Hope by Jane Goodall.

Being a tree-hugging, neo-hippie, liberal, formerly vegan, currently vegetarian sort of girl, I love to read books like this, but most of then are hard to slog through (Diet for a New America, anyone?) and I have to say that Jane Goodall's book is great. It's easy to read without skimping on the subject matter, written with warmth and humor. I highly recommend it.

Sing Clementine said...

You might also be interested in Agnes Varda's documentary The Gleaners & I - it's a study of the practice of 'gleaning', starting with food, from the fields, to dumpster divers, in France, and is fascinating on the subject of waste. It's also beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's a great book. I'm going to plant my first 16 apple trees in Quebec next week. And to the poster who mentioned the Jean-Talon market in Quebec, thanks for reminding me of our great resource. Now, back to my search for WHY she's so dangerous!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic review. Kingsolver's book has been my summer read along with Michale Pollan's Omnivoire's Dilemma - these 2 books have truly raised my consciousness about what has happened to America's food chain in my lifetime. I grew up during the 50s in a remote Idaho agriculteral college town. Money was tight for a family of 5, but we ate like kings. Neighbors split the cost for a side of grass fed beef, summer fruits ripened in back yards, and families grew luxurious vegetable gardens. Friends shared regional bounty like rainbow trout and wild huckleberries. Cooking was fun - we had few eatery options, and "invented" convenience foods were not yet available.

My parents are in their 80s now and still eat year round from a summer vegetable garden. I am convinced their long, happy lives have been attached to what they call a "Victory Garden".

M said...

Just finished this book. Loved it.

Trying to reconcile the 100 mile food thingy with the realities of Australian farming. We are 98% urbanised to cities 'around the edge'. Our farms are all in the middle. Local for us can be 500+km. 100km barely gets us to the outskirts of the city...

Her Grace said...

I'm in the middle of this book right now and I just can't put it down. Everything you said is so, so true. It IS overwhelming, but if you can tackle just one thing at at time, I think that we could turn the tide, at least a little.

Great post.

Carolyn said...

I am about half through this book now, and have a difficult time putting it down. To say it has been life-changing is an understatement. I am proud to join her crusade and plan to use this book (and others I hope will soon follow) as a guideline as to how I want to shop, eat and live. And I can't wait to start making my own cheese!!!

Robin said...

It's fine that it's preachy! If it were children being tortured, would we worry about how we sounded while increasing awareness of the issue? I hope not. Yet if we want to talk about factory farming (certainly torture of living creatures as well), people are so attached to their current habits that they'll latch on to any excuse to write off an indictment of the industry they support. So I love this book, I love people loving this book. Also, The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is great.

Anonymous said...

I'm almost to the end of listening to this on audiobook - downloaded from our library.
We are a normal family, a nurse and an electrician, living in a rural suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. We plowed up some of our "green lawn with mature hardwoods," and made a garden! I was surprised to see many of our neighbors doing the same thing!
Yes, it's work, but if we can do it, anyone can!

Anonymous said...

I'm picking through the book now (better late than never), and to tell you the truth, it IS preachy and sanctimonious. There is a lot of truth about some of what she says--the huge disconnect between understanding what we eat and where it comes from, and the inefficiency and energy-hogging involved in its production. But she is incredibly naive about how people live, both here and abroad. She dismisses hybridized versions of fruits and vegetables as creations of corporations, ignoring entirely that often farmers choose them because they are more reliable producers, even when conditions are bad and that farmers depend on these crops to pay their mortgages--no small thing--and because they are often disease resistant.

Also, she romanticizes the way other cultures eat. Many are now switching to more processed food, because in an urban environment, it's a good thing--sometimes a necessary thing--to have processed foods on hand. They didn't do so before not because of some cultural superiority, but because of poverty and lack of urbanization. I'm glad she has a useful, 18 year old daughter who cooks, and a husband who cooks, and flexible careers all about, but a mom who works 10 hour Walmart shifts damn sure needs some bad, evil processed foods when she comes home and sees hungry faces staring at her. She has a devoted little fanclub, but limited solutions.

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