If you live in North America and cherish the seemingly innocent pleasure of slicing a banana over your cereal in the morning, think twice before picking up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. For afterward that pleasure will never be innocent again.
"Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles," writes Steven L. Hopp, Kingsolver's husband, in the first of a series of sidebars sprinkled throughout her book. "If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil
"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" is the story of how the Kingsolver-Hopp family moved from Tucson, Ariz., to southern Appalachia in a conscious attempt to liberate themselves from industrial food. They would eat only, they decided, what they grew themselves or what was grown by others within 10 miles of their home. They were seeking, Kingsolver writes, "an affinity between people and the land that feeds them."
This may sound like a pretty crunchy read – either a frivolous ecofantasy or an uncomfortable scold aimed at those of us unable or unwilling to raise chickens in our backyards. But rest assured, it's neither.
This is largely an informational book, short on plot, and don't expect any deep insights into the Kingsolver-Hopp family. Yet Kingsolver, author of bestselling novels "Bean Trees" and "Poisonwood Bible," adds enough texture and zest to stir wistful yearnings in all of us who have "lost the soul of cooking from [our] routines." Very sweetly Kingsolver reminds us of "the song of a stir-fry sizzle, the small talk of clinking measuring spoons, the yeasty scent of rising dough, the painting of flavors onto a pizza before it slides into the oven." There is no shortage of that kind of soul in the Kingsolver-Hopp home, and readers will enjoy the vicarious taste of domesticity that comes with descriptions of crusty homemade bread topped with (yes, really) homemade cheese.
"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" begins with the family leaving Tucson ("a space station where human sustenance is concerned") and follows them through their first year of life as "locavores" in their new home in Virginia. (Kingsolver's "year" begins, naturally, in the spring when the asparagus blooms.)
The book wends its way through the discovery that rhubarb can substitute for fruit in the early spring, the purchase of the poultry flock to be enthusiastically tended by 9-year-old Lily Kingsolver, mulching, cheese-making, tomato-canning, and eventually, the day on which the poultry will be "harvested."
This, too, the Kingsolver-Hopps do themselves (at least when it comes to their chickens and turkeys – they buy lamb locally.) "You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened," says Kingsolver, "or you can look it in the eye and know it."
This coming from the mother of Lily, a girl who has to be told not to kiss her hens on the mouth and who assures her mother, "If I love my chickens six, I love you seven."
Lily, in fact, emerges as a particularly appealing character, a plucky, pragmatic, young entrepreneur who lavishes care on her flock even as she keeps her eye fixed firmly on the horse she hopes her egg earnings will one day buy her.
Like the carefully prepared meals described throughout, the book is a family affair. Husband Steven, a biology professor, provides sidebars on world hunger, global food distribution, genetically modified food, and pesticides. College-age daughter Camille – who is no slouch as a writer, either – introduces recipes complete with a teenager's view of what it's like to have parents who view out-of-state fruit as contraband material and who embarrass you by making turkey sausage in front of your friends.
But perhaps what's most appealing about this book is the love that holds its disparate parts together: love of family, love of good food, love of the planet, and the willingness to expend extra effort to safeguard these treasures.
If you subtract out the labor involved, the life of a locavore is an inexpensive one. Kingsolver estimates that during the year chronicled in "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" her family ate "organically and pretty splendidly we thought" for about 50 cents per person per meal.
But of course the cost was never the point. "In April I'm happiest," Kingsolver writes, "with mud on the knees of my jeans, sitting down to the year's most intoxicating lunch: a plate of greens both crisp and still sun-warmed from the garden, with a handful of walnuts and some crumbly goat cheese."
This, Kingsolver tells us, "is the opening act of real live food." It's hard not to be impressed.