Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

by Cheryl Truman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

13 June 2007


“At its heart, a genuine food culture is an affinity between people and the land that feeds them. Step one, probably, is to live on the land that feeds them, or at least on the same continent, ideally the same region. Step two is to be able to countenance the ideas of `food’ and `dirt’ in the same sentence, and three is to start poking into one’s supply chain to learn where things are coming from. ... This book tells the story of what we learned, or didn’t; what we ate, or couldn’t; and how our family was changed by one year of deliberately eating food produced in the same place where we worked, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air.”
—from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

You know who you are: You visit a farmers market occasionally and buy enough stuff that you kid yourself and the 147 people you know whenever you venture into high farmers market territory into thinking that you’re a supporter of locally grown produce.

cover art

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Barbara Kingsolver


Sort of. When it’s available. And when you’re not at a chain restaurant or a drive-through or the convenience store, where they stock 28 varieties of bottled water and have never, ever heard the words “fair trade coffee.”

But you know, and I know, that when your politically correct pals turn their backs, you’re straight into the supermarket loading up life rafts of Diet Coke and Lean Cuisine. We’ll let the Pop Tarts and Red Bull be our little secret.

And we also know that sometimes the goods at the farmers market should come with warning labels: These peaches were trucked in from South Carolina, which is so not the next county over.

The idea of eating what’s really available locally—and restraining our consumption of goods that are hard on the environment because they require a lot of processing or transportation—doesn’t strike us as especially vital. If Starbucks weren’t good for us, why would there be one on every corner? It’s much-needed caffeine, we tell ourselves, and our lives are stressful enough without the added burden of caring intensely about the zucchini cycle.

For a year, Kentucky native Barbara Kingsolver and her family resolved to live as “locavores,” people who eat what’s available locally, and she has written about the experience in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

In Kingsolver’s Virginia neighborhood, that meant a lot of tomatoes and kale, although it also included asparagus, corn, beans, hazelnuts and peaches. The family did buy olive oil and spices, but only because a reasonable local substitute was not available (Virginia is not oil-making and cinnamon territory).

What Kingsolver’s family eating plan did not include: Little Debbie snack cakes, tubes of convenience store salted cashews, and bananas, which eliminates banana pudding, which pretty much eliminates the point of living in the South, but there you are. At least you still get peach cobbler.

The family grew its own food, froze and canned foods in season and even took on the task of raising “heirloom” turkeys: Bourbon Reds, so named because of their origins in Bourbon County, Ky.

The balky, lazy animals could be their own comedy series. Kingsolver’s turkeys can’t figure out mating without substantial prodding and hints from Kingsolver, and the idea of sitting on eggs eludes the turkey moms for a longish stretch, during which the reader is moved to speculate that this lack of turkey intellect—or, heck, even instinct—might be enough to make you just a shade less remorseful next time you dig into that mesquite-smoked turkey footlong at Subway.

Kingsolver vows to give the animals a good life—far better than those animals raised in compact indoor feedlots on feed laced with antibiotics—and a good death providing food for her family.

There’s a burgeoning critical backlash against “I spent a year doing an unusual thing” books, also known as “stunt books.” There’s Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine. No Impact Man by Colin Beavan, writing about living with his family in New York without electricity and toilet paper. The guy who spent the year reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the woman who spent a year saying yes to all dates, the Denver Post reporter who is going to chronicle daily sex with his wife. And there’s even another book about local eating out there, this one based on the “100-mile diet,” eating only food produced within 100 miles of your home: Canadians Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon wrote Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally.

Even if this is stunt writing, it’s a good stunt, and Kingsolver’s not one for overprecious writing. “A normal-ish American family content on the fruits of our local foodshed”: a pretty good idea to ponder as the summer heat coalesces and you grab the keys for an SUV-fueled jaunt to the farmers market.

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//Mixed media