The Garden Bookworm Reviews Barbara Kingsolver

Sep 24, 2010

By Liz Rottger, Contra Costa Master Gardener.

After listening to an informative and inspiring presentation on French bio-intensive gardening, which transformed not only the speaker’s garden but also her life, I was reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—A Year of Food Life, which recorded a similar transformative year in her family’s life. 

Kingsolver’s describes her family’s year-long effort to grow their own food, to make everything they eat from scratch and to buy only food that is locally produced. It turned out to be a challenge that perhaps only someone with Kingsolver’s determination and experience could undertake because, as she points out, most people don’t even know what fruits and vegetables grow in their neighborhoods. “This knowledge has vanished from our culture.” Worse, we are now raising a whole generation of children who think that strawberries somehow ‘grow’ in plastic boxes!

Kingsolver’s book is both educational and delightful. Perhaps the most fun reading is the wonderful descriptions of her family’s experiences throughout this year of ‘going natural.’ Trying to decide when to start this adventure was troublesome. Would her family end up eating peanut butter sandwiches? She decides that when she can finally harvest the first asparagus will be their moment of truth.

But you can’t survive on asparagus alone, even as bounteous as this first spring perennial vegetable is. So on a windy, fiercely cold Saturday in April, she visits the local farmers market and finds to her great surprise green onions, baby lettuce, fresh eggs, black walnuts, locally grown turkey sausages and lamb, assorted jams and honey and—lo and behold—rhubarb! They will indeed survive until their own vegetable garden starts to produce. The canning orgy that takes place in her kitchen in August and her desperate efforts to prompt the procreation of her flock of heirloom turkeys are adventures described in her inimitable style.

But there is so much more! For example, her daughter, Camille, contributes many delicious sounding recipes and entire seasonal meal plans. Her husband, Steven Hopp, a professor of environmental studies, inserts informative sidebars on a variety of food issues, such as the growth in community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations, fair trade, the cost of food transport, the challenge of feeding the world and the urban agricultural movement. The book contains a detailed bibliography, along with numerous organizational references and resources for those of us who want to learn more.

More importantly, in the process of describing what she planted, harvested, canned, dehydrated, or froze, Kingsolver also tells us about our own food industry, the commoditization of agriculture, the increased consumption of processed foods and the marketing of the desire to have everything, always. She challenges us to not necessarily emulate her family’s lifestyle, but to think differently about what we eat and what choices we make daily when we walk into a modern supermarket. How we define “locally grown” is important.

“Eaters must understand, how we eat determines how the world is used.” A powerful statement! I looked in my own pantry and found, for example, Turkish dried apricots, Moroccan olives, Nicaraguan bananas, Hawaiian honey, and Mexican red peppers among other foods grown thousands of miles from my Bay Area home.

“A genuine food culture is an affinity between the people and the land that feeds them,” she says. This is a concept that certainly every Master Gardener understands and espouses. But there is much to re-think in how each of us develops a more sustainable lifestyle. Many of us will find Barbara Kingsolver’s book an inspirational guide to thinking about and making those complex choices.