Barbara Kingsolver does not want to remove the Cheetos bag from your hand, necessarily.
“I take a lot of care not to tell anybody to do anything,” she says in a phone interview.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
But if you come away from her latest book more mindful of your food choices, she’ll be pretty pleased.
And they are choices. You might not think you need to know much more about food. After all, you have the layout of your neighborhood superstore memorized, from the full line of Ben & Jerry’s pints to all things Swiffer. You can buy fresh flowers flown in from Colombia. Why worry?
But Kingsolver and her family resolved to do things differently for a year, living as “locavores,” people who eat pretty much exclusively from what’s on their land or close to home. She writes about the experience in her best-selling new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.
Even now, Kingsolver’s family—husband Steven Hopp, teen daughter Camille and fifth-grade daughter Lily—is not returning to its old ways.
“Once you have eaten from the tree of local knowledge, you won’t go back,” she says.
Even a generation ago, a lot of people ate what was grown in their own back yards or available nearby, Kingsolver says. It’s only lately that we’ve grown used to having a variety of out-of-season produce available year-round—and only lately that we’ve lost track of what the food seasons really are.
“Having grown up in Kentucky, in a rural farming community, I grew up with a very clear sense of farming as an important livelihood and a cultural reality,” says Kingsolver, who was raised in Nicholas County, Ky., and now lives on a farm in southwestern Virginia. “So it surprised me to go out into the world and see that in many urban places ... farming is so unimportant to people it’s almost invisible. People have forgotten that an actual person somewhere has to grow their food.”
Our grandmothers canned tomatoes. Our mothers canned green beans. Our generation knows where to find the Jolly Green Giant adorning a can and knows that it will always be only a few minutes from our house, no matter the season. We’ve even lost the fine art of preservation, canning and freezing.
And no matter, we think, what our wintry tomato tastes like (drywall with a hint of vinegar, I think). In knowing that we can have January tomatoes, we’ve lost the palate to distinguish between a produce-aisle tomato available during a snowstorm and a fully ripened in-season tomato, particularly a tomato variety that doesn’t travel well or is easily bruised.
“I don’t think of taste as corrupted so much as untrained,” Kingsolver says. “A lot of us have not had the opportunity to taste asparagus 30 minutes after it was cut from the ground” or to eat eggs from a chicken that lived outside, with egg white “so viscous it almost stands up.” (For those of you who prefer to see your eggs only after they’ve been slid onto a plate in omelet form, that might be more information than you need. But Kingsolver wants readers to know that vegetables come from dirt, that chickens should be allowed to peck outdoors in a warm farm yard and that weeding has a kind of zen feel about it.)
Kingsolver says the emphasis on local eating is an idea that has caught fire: Her book is scaling best-seller lists, and Kingsolver thinks her fans—readers who stuck with Kingsolver across landscapes, both physical and emotional, from The Bean Trees to The Poisonwood Bible—have been joined this time around by those simply curious about their food’s origins and eager to make a change that lessens their impact on the environment and supports local business.
Or, as Kingsolver says, “people who feel a need to answer some of the big, scary environmental and cultural questions on our horizon with solutions in their day-to-day lives.”
Still, she notes, a compelling book is not a lecture. You can’t hector people and expect them to pay $26.95.
So it has to be a cracking good read, too.
“I feel compelled to make this a really good story, give the readers a reason to turn the pages,” Kingsolver says. “It had to have good characters. It had to be scenic and have a plot and resolution. It still required a lot of writerly choices.”
Hence we see Kingsolver’s family struggling with a variety of problems: daughter Camille goes to college and finds her food options dramatically fewer in a pizzarific environment; the family puzzles over what to eat in March; the Bourbon Red turkey herd that Kingsolver is determined to establish is filled with animals who are never so creative as when they are finding new ways to be stupid.
Despite the commercial success of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver says, she’s not revisiting the local-food debate for her next book. Instead, she’s writing a novel set in Mexico and the United States in the first half of the 20th century.
Although she’s done with local food as a book subject, she’s still a proud practicing locavore. Even her splurges—such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon—are made with some calculation about the level of sustainability involved.
“We’re not trying to start a new religion,” Kingsolver says. “We never intended to be puritanical about this. ... We wanted to do something that felt reasonable and enjoyable to us.”