Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating
By Barbara Kingsolver
Faber £16.99, 370 pages
FT bookshop price: £13.59
In 2004 the American novelist Barbara Kingsolver left her desert home in Tucson, Arizona, and moved to a farm in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. With her came her husband and two daughters and a shared intention to live, for a year, simply on the agricultural produce of the area. If they couldn’t grow it themselves or buy it from their neighbours, they would go without. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a diary of their experiences.
Theirs was a plan that went against the grain of contemporary habits in the developed world, and particularly in the US. One reason Kingsolver gives for leaving Tucson was the realisation that “like many other modern US cities, it might as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned. Virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away. Every ounce of the city’s drinking, washing and goldfish-bowl-filling water is pumped from a non-renewable source.”
In one of the lucid pep-talks which punctuate the text, Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, a professor of biology, notes that Americans put almost as much fossil fuel in their refrigerators as in their cars: 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen. Some is consumed by agricultural machinery, synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, but 80 per cent is used in transporting, processing, warehousing and refrigeration. Each food item in the average American meal has travelled 1,500 miles.
The family’s adventures in running the farm and engaging with their new community are charmingly described. Various dysfunctional aspects of the western way of eating are indicted: the supermarkets’ encouragement of seasonless shopping from a limited range of animal and vegetable species, and the cynicism of giant concerns such as Monsanto.
One hears echoes of earlier American literature, especially pioneer works like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, and Kingsolver is keen to remind her fellow citizens of how recently they lived closer to the land. More jarring to some will be the book’s mirroring of the religious conversion narrative. In bondage to the American way of eating, Kingsolver and her family acknowledge their sins, and after a period of soul-searching in the wilderness are born again. Through hard work and refusal to give in to temptation, they ascend to a state of foodie grace, in which they are bountifully rewarded with smaller grocery bills and carbon footprints, higher self-esteem and better family life.
They are on the moral high ground, and it’s planted with excellent asparagus. But there are good recipes and much practical information here, should you wish to join them.