Dreaming of Seeds, Roots, and Leaves – Review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

October 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

This post is long overdue. I’ve been meaning to write it for some time now as I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle several months ago. The book influenced my thinking about my relationship with food so much, that I thought it only fitting to provide a full review here. In fact, it was while reading this book that I decided to undertake my 30 day vegan challenge.

I was first introduced to Barbara Kingsolver probably 10 years ago when I read her stunning novel, The Poisonwood Bible. She has an amazing ability to portray a place and its people with such depth that not only do you feel like you’re right there in the midst of it all – but it makes you idealistic, wanting to make the world better. While that novel dealt with Africa and had me ready to pack my bags and go make the world a better place, this one is much closer to home and frankly way more manageable – this is about transforming your kitchen table.

The basic premise of the book is local eating, but that barely does it justice. Kingsolver’s family embarks on 365 days of eating only foods that traveled less than an hour and ideally from farmers they know – the majority of that being grown themselves. Throughout the book she explains the ups and downs of this lifestyle, not to mention the hard work, dedication, and self control it takes to achieve it. In the end, I guarantee despite the perceived daunting task of living off your own back yard, you’ll be compelled to plant something, anything to call your own, even if it is just a pot of basil.

I am slightly embarrassed to admit this, but until reading this book, I’d never stood in the grocery store wondering how odd it was that we had so many choices – and the same choices year-round. It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t see a bright juicy tomato in the dead of winter. In my defense I guess, Florida doesn’t suffer from winter like the rest of the country, but still. Likewise, instead of rejoicing at the sight of dirt on my food, I thought it was somewhat, well, dirty. How did this happen? How did we become largely oblivious to the basics of life and so far removed from the only thing that sustains our very existence?

This book really caused me to pause and think – think about what goes into my mouth ever day. What are my actions doing to those around me? Am I supporting my local neighborhood with every bite, or some far off land and doing more harm than good by perpetuating that buying cycle? One of the strongest takeaways was the amount of oil we spend transporting foods. I don’t know if I’ve been living under a rock, but it seems we as a nation spend all kinds of time discussing the cost of our cars and gasoline, but no one ever talks about the cost of our dinner plate – and I’d argue, the vast majority of normal Americans don’t realize the impact. According to the stats in this book, we consume almost as much fossil fuels in the transportation of our food as we do by transporting ourselves via cars. She says each food item has traveled an average of 1,500 miles – that’s pretty insane when you stop and think about it.

Not only will Kingsolver give you plenty of stats and figures that will make you really stop and think if you want to keep going the way you’ve always done – she also shows us a whole world of amazing fresh and complex flavors unattainable through “traditional” contemporary means – aka the supermarket. Your mouth will be watering with every description of vegetable and bean variety planted in her back yard. Shockingly she says, Americans eat less than 1% of vegetable varieties that were grown a century ago. Less than 1%! No wonder you can walk the supermarket some days and still feel like there is nothing to eat. It becomes same old, same old, because no matter what week you go, you pretty much get the same stuff, just different prices.

Not only can local eating be better for your taste buds, neighbor, and the environment, but it can have drastic benefits for your health. If you really eat local, you essentially cut out all the processed crap we are so used to. She says that one third of our healthcare costs are paying for our bad eating habits. Imagine if we just cut it out?

The meat section is very informative with somewhat detailed information on the harsh realities of factory farms. One of the hardest chapters to read in the book for me was where she talks about harvesting her own chickens. But the reality is – you can only know the life they’ve lived if you grow them yourself. It is the safest way. I’m now mostly vegan and haven’t had chicken in months. That chapter pretty much solidified the vegan decision for me. I figured, if I can’t do it myself, I shouldn’t eat it. But that’s just my point of view. If nothing else, moving away from factory farming isn’t just good for the animals, it’s really much better for your health.

In the end, Kingsolver weaves together an idealistic tale of living off your own land and hard labor which while nice to dream of, is somewhat unrealistic for the vast majority. But she does inspire consciousness with every bite which I know has made a huge difference in my life. Sure, there have been days I’ve bought the asparagus even though I know it’s not in season, but I’m making small steps where I can – reading more labels and paying attention to where it all comes from, trying to cut out the crappy fillers in our foods (soy and corn), and being more conscious and grateful about those that produce that food.

If you’re at all curious about our food system or even just think reading descriptions of foods is delicious – then this is a book for you. Just be prepared. She’s gentle with her stats and opinions, but once planted, the seed grows.

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