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.)

Disclosure: All links to Amazon.com are affiliate links.

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17 Responses

  1. Meredith gave me her copy of this book and I’ve been meaning to read it all summer. (I’ve been reading brain candy & book club faire lately.) Now I’m really motivated to sit down and read it.

  2. I’m definitely going to hunt down a copy of this book. I think my sister-in-law might have it. All the points that you made are all ones I would have made, particularly with regard to buying the organic processed stuff. We have a grocery outlet near us which often has Cascadian Farms cereal and snack bars. I buy them because they don’t have corn syrup, and they’re easy. But, I do enjoy spending time in the kitchen, and now that I’ve immersed us in whole foods for about two years, I enjoy cooking even more. Yes, it does take a little time finding local sources, and the kids can be part of that process along with the cooking process. Yes, I do have five kids which is a handful, but I don’t have to bake tons of snacks and other stuff. You’re right – fruit and cheese are a perfectly fine snack.

  3. I didn’t know Barbara Kingsolver wrote this! I loved the Poisonwood Bible, my absolute favorite book I read in college. I will be reading this for sure. Love your website.

  4. I have to read this book. Your post, especially the parts about how your kids have basically re-trained their palates without much complaining, is really inspiring. We’re in the process of doing this, too. I no longer eat processed foods at all, and I’ve been gradually eliminating the processed junk for my kids, although to be fair the only processed stuff they really used to eat were chips and packaged granola bars. I’ve always done most of my own baking and cooking from scratch. We switched over to local meat/dairy/poultry products awhile ago, and this has been great. They taste so much better, and I no longer grapple with guilt over feedlot animals. I try to buy local produce at our various farmers’ markets, but that can be more challenging given the limited times they are open. (I’m with you on the bananas and apples, though–I can’t get enough of them.)

    I’m always taken aback by the degree to which industry has corrupted our food supply–the chemicals, the lax and basically non-existent oversight (the FDA is the biggest joke ever when it comes to policing our food), and the stubborn resistance by food companies to even display the country of origin on food product labels. In Europe, farm-to-table traceability is a requirement; in America, there’s little requirement for truth when it comes to our food.

  5. I’m on my third time through this book. Every time I read it I learn something new. (Maybe I’m just a slow learner) I like how the author(s) are all about common sense and family teamwork. I’ve tabbed quite a few pages with my mini post it notes.

  6. I have dog eared and highlighted my way through this book. It was a fantastic read. I loaned it to my sister-in-law and then had to beg her to get it back because I wanted it on my bedside table, especially as the summer garden was being planted. Since it is a seasonal book it is a great introduction to rethinking the way we eat and cook! Couldn’t agree more!

  7. Loving your book reviews!
    I love this post. We are all on a different journey when it comes to making a more conscious decision about what food we eat. I think what books like this, and your posts about your food journey does, is it helps others to re-think some of the food habits that we have developed. We start to question whether we could be making a better choice.
    This post got me thinking about paying extra to get good quality products – meats, veges and more variety of fruit. I am really excited about revamping the kid’s lunches!

  8. Wow. I leafed through this book in Anthropologie one day (yes, they were selling it there!) and thought it looked interesting. Now I’m going to have to read it. Sounds fantastic!

    Just a question . . . what if the only “locally grown” fruit you can get is muskmellon? I’m getting a little tired of it right now. 🙂

  9. Thanks for this great post; sounds like a book I would absolutely love! I haven’t been by here in a while… love the fresh look! 🙂

  10. I’m glad you got to read it! I really liked it too although unfortunately I have not made as many strides in eating locally as you have. I do the best I can in the area where I live and with other constraints such as small children. 😉

    And I was also very taken by the notion that we no longer understand that there are certain seasons for many of our fruits and veggies. I was also always VERY enlightened by what her daughter and husband wrote.

    Glad you were able to share this with your readers!

    1. Well. I may not be doing as well as it seems. These are goals. 🙂

      And we’re all at a different place. Just the fact that we’re aware of the issues and talking about them is a great thing!

  11. Great post and review. When my husband and I were discussing out “Favorites of the Decade,” something we do each new year, this was at the top for me on my book list. I too loved the family’s involvement in both the process and the writing of the book. And it’s a book I’ve referenced multiple times since reading it for recipes and info.

  12. Thanks for the review…I am adding this to my “Books to Read” now. Since we became parents, my husband and I are really trying to focus on changing our eating habits. We literally posted the “Dirty Dozen” list on our refrigerator, and we make an effort to shop for produce often to ensure the best quality and taste. I like the point you and the book made about how this is a lifestyle anyone can afford. Last night, I stopped by the grocery store for some fruit, and I found organic raspberries for $2.50. They were so fresh and ripe and delicious. In fact, our 20 month old was hungry when I wasn’t quite finished with dinner, and he ate almost a cup of them on his own!

    I would like to work harder to eat more locally sourced food, but like you said, I still enjoy apples and bananas. It’s a little more difficult with a small child too. I am looking forward to cooking with him when he’s a little older.

  13. I read A,V,M last year and loved it. It really did change the way I think about shopping for my family. I thought her whole point about how we expect that our kids will wait to have sex until they’re married and yet we can’t even wait to experience strawberries when they’re actually in-season was so interesting. What a teaching point to share with your family!

    Anyway, I don’t know if you’re a podcast listener, but Speaking of Faith recently (in the last two weeks or so) did an interview with Barbara Kingsolver about the ethics of eating. I haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but it sounds really interesting.

    Thanks for all of the foodie book suggestions–I’m loving them!

  14. i loved that book as well. (her fiction is fantastic, too!) it really challenged and changed the way i shopped and thought about food–and inspired us to garden and get chickens:)

    getting off processed junk is still a process–especially away from home, but we’re taking baby steps. this time of year eating seasonally is a joy. it gets tricksier later…i need to do more canning this summer!

  15. First, I have to mention your new header. It is so perfectly you…and it really does a wonderful job of painting a picture of what your blog is about (parenting, beauty, simplicity, whole foods…hmmm…you need an image for fashion too). 😉

    Next, I completely agree that fruit and vegetables get a bad reputation because they are too often eaten canned, processed, and sprayed. Real Example: When we first got married, Tim told me he didn’t like sweet potatoes. It turns out the only sweet potatoes he’d ever eaten were the ones out of a can…topped with marshmallows. Now he can’t get enough of them. We chop them up, top w/ a little butter and brown sugar…perfection!

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