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.
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:
- Support local farmers' markets, and ask vendors how they farm their products.
- 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.
- 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.
- Re-train yourself to accept lumpy, oddly shaped and sized produce.
- 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.)
- 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.
- And, you know, go easy on yourself if you don't hit the mark 100 percent of the time. It's not a contest.
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.)