Vacation Reading: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I haven’t forgotten about this series, I promise.  I have several more books to review.  It’s just like everything else, finding the time is the issue.

Today I want to tell you about the highly acclaimed and often recommended Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  I’ve been hearing about this book for years, long before I discovered my passion for whole foods and locally sourced ingredients, and I finally got around to reading it while in Maine a few weeks ago.

If you don’t know about it, this is the story of a family who decided to spend an entire year of their lives eating only fresh, local food.

In their words:

Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, this book (released May 2007) tells the story of how our family was changed by one year of deliberately eating food produced in the place where we live. Barbara wrote the central narrative; Steven’s sidebars dig deeper into various aspects of food-production science and industry; Camille’s brief essays offer a nineteen-year-old’s perspective on the local-food project, plus nutritional information, meal plans and recipes.

I love how each member of the family contributed to the book. This was definitely a group effort.  They also include meal plans and recipes for each season of the year, which I will be referring to often, I’m sure.

I’ve been convicted about the importance of buying local as much as is possible for some time, thus my newest blog baby Eat Local Philly, which I’m still building.  My reasons for buying local are largely based on my desire to support our local economy and to eat better quality and tasting foods.  But Kingsolver goes into great detail explaining the harmful effects of industrial farming on the environment, citing water and air pollution, global warming and other disturbing trends.  I know there is some debate about the urgency of those issues, and I don’t care to get into that, but she made me think about eating local in a whole new way.

I had an epiphany while reading this book.  (Well I had several, but here is the first one.)  I never considered that perhaps the reason vegetables get such a bad rap is because we don’t eat them fresh! I thought I hated vegetables until I started buying only fresh, local ones.  And I could go weeks (and I did) without eating a single piece of fruit before I started buying local.  Now, I can’t get enough of them.  You just can’t believe the difference until you start paying attention.

My kids literally fight over the last of the peas and green beans these days.  Last night one of my children ate three helpings of collard greens. I KNOW! And they eat fruit like it’s going out of style.  One day last week, after stopping at the farm stand and stocking up on fresh peaches and blueberries, my middle child proclaimed passionately, in anticipation of the feast to come, “Mom. I like fruit better than candy!”  Now that’s a testimony to the goodness of fresh, local produce if there ever was one.

Kingsolver explains it like this:

Storage and transport take predictable tolls on the volatile plant compounds that subtly add up to taste and food value.  Breeding to increase shelf life has also tended to decrease palatability.  Bizarre as it seems, we’ve accepted the trade-off that amounts to: “Give me every vegetable in every season, even if it tastes like a cardboard picture of its former self.”

From Camille, Kingsolver’s 19-year-old daughter, who writes a few chapters of the book:

Parents won’t have to work so hard at bribing their kids with desserts if they don’t serve slimy greens.  When fresh and not overcooked, spinach, chard, kale, bok choy, and other greens are some of my favorite things.

Kingsolver tackles a lot of myths about whole foods throughout the book, one being that good food is only available to the wealthy.  It constantly bothers me how people assume that eating real food is an elitist endeavor. Think about how expensive it is to eat out, and then think about the amount of money you spend on boxes of cereals and snack foods. Yes, if you compare pound for pound the price of foodlot beef versus the price of pasture-raised beef, it seems extravagant to buy the meat raised humanely. But if you take your overall food bill (including fast food and dining out) and compare it to the food bill of one who makes most of their food from scratch with wholesome ingredients, you won’t find such a disparity.

Kingsolver sums it up nicely with this:

I am not sure how so many Americans came to believe only our wealthy are capable of honoring a food aesthetic.  Anyone who thinks so should have a gander at the kitchens of working-class immigrants from India, Mexico, anywhere really.  Cooking at home is cheaper than buying packaged foods or restaurant meals of comparable quality.  Cooking good food is mostly a matter of having the palate and the skill.

The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude.  The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint — virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy.

Reading this book also brought to my attention how skewed our perspective has become from having all foods available at all times. We’ve lost that innate sense of what is in season and what foods are actually grown in our own regions. And of course, the nutritional and taste value declines dramatically with imported foods.

Kingsolver made me rethink my buying habits when she explains that she refuses to purchase bananas on the basis that it is wasteful to use that much fuel to transport fruit over hundreds of miles when we have an abundance of fresh locally grown fruit available almost year round.

My practice till now has been to purchase locally grown produce when it is available and in season, but beyond that, I’m happy to take advantage of our modern transportation and enjoy citrus and bananas and other produce that we can’t grow here. And I have been known to buy apples from New Zealand when ours are not in season. What can I say, it’s a fruit my whole family loves.

Let’s just say I haven’t stopped buying bananas yet, but it’s definitely food for thought. Ha! Aren’t I punny?

After reading AVM, I am more inspired than ever to buy local and make the most of what is fresh and in season, and I was reminded that it doesn’t have to be costly. Her menu plans and recipes are all simple and down to earth. There are no exotic ingredients (relegating yourself to only locally sourced foods will do that for you) or pricey cuts of meat.  Of course, the fact that she grew much of their food herself (including their meat) enabled her to keep costs down, but even so, eliminating processed foods leaves a lot of room in the budget for real food.

I had gotten into the bad habit of buying organic processed foods because my kids enjoy having snack food, and it’s easy to package up for the pool and whatnot. (If I’m going to buy processed foods, I do buy organic or at least Trader Joes brands because they have fewer preservatives and they don’t use GMOs and trans fats and HFCS. BUT. They are not nutritious, and they wreck havoc on the food bill.) Since reading AVM, I have gone back to basics — fresh fruits and vegetables and cheese are our snack foods. Ironically, no one has even noticed.  Or if they have, they haven’t complained.

Lastly, I was inspired by the way cooking in the Kingsolver home is a family event. Everyone took part, and they bonded over preparing and eating their own food. I find that all too often, I shoo my kids out of the kitchen because I’d rather do it myself. But I realize that this is short-changing them, so I’ve been trying to incorporate them more into the food preparation around here.

It’s a bit trying on my patience, but they love to help out, and I want them to remember fondly our times cooking together. I want them to think of the kitchen as a warm, happy place. I figure, if I want my kids to grow up to appreciate and prioritize good food, I need to cultivate a positive food culture within our home. America is criticized as having no food culture as other countries do, and it is suggested that perhaps that is why we have so readily accepted fast food and industrial convenience foods and the havoc they wreck on our bodies. I’m doing all I can to counter balance that influence in our home.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is exactly the kind of book I love — a true story, and one that inspires me to action and makes me think in new ways.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.  (As if you couldn’t tell that already.)

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