Saturday, November 17, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

First I should say I'm a big Barbara Kingsolver fan from way back. Looking at the list of her books, I realized I'd read all of them except her poetry and two books of nonfiction. I've read all the essays and all the novels. I've been waiting impatiently to read this book and I wasn't disappointed. (But I hope she's going to write a new novel soon.)

This book is about a family project; Kingsolver, her husband Steven Hopp, and their two daughters, Camille and Lily, moved to Virginia and ate local for a year. Most of their food came from their own farm, but they also frequented farmers' markets, went on vacation, both domestically and internationally, and wrote about it all. The book itself is a family project, too - Hopp has a sidebar in almost every chapter written from his perspective as a professor of environmental studies, Camille rounds out every chapter with an essay and recipes, and those are Lily's hands on the front cover, holding the Christmas lima beans.

This whole "eating local" thing is brand-new to me, but I'm interested in it because an NGO here in Tecwil (The Country Where I Live) is starting a campaign to encourage people here to buy and eat locally produced food. It's not as simple as it sounds. Sure, we have plenty of outdoor markets - with our tropical climate, fruits and vegetables aren't going to be difficult. But just about everything else is imported. I'd bemoaned that fact before, and I knew a little about the reasons, but reading this book has me all fired up and ready to do my bit to change things.

In this country, farmers just can't compete with North American agriculture because they don't have the equipment or the technology. Past governments allowed food to enter from overseas without any tariffs or restrictions, and gradually local farmers stopped producing their crops because they couldn't sell them - the imports were cheaper. This is the story of local rice, and in a country where you haven't eaten if you haven't had rice, this is a tragedy. Every cook in this country begins with garlic. The garlic is all imported. The list goes on. This country, which used to export food, cannot feed itself.

This country is an extreme example, though, of what's happening around the world. Most Americans eat food imported from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. We aren't aware of seasons, because anything we want is available year round. We've sacrificed flavor, because of course if something is going to be able to travel that far, it has to be hardy and it has to be picked too soon. We've sacrificed variety, because the seed companies are in charge now of what gets grown, and heirloom varieties of plants - and animals - are disappearing. (I never heard of heirloom varieties before - don't they sound wonderful?) And what would happen if our food supplies were interrupted?

In spite of being so chock-full of information, this book is also fun to read. Kingsolver's writing is as marvelous as ever, and on every page there were passages I wanted to read aloud. She is a poet of farming. She had me convinced I should start making my own cheese. Yeah, right. I don't even cook. But with this inspiration, I may start!

Here is the website associated with the book, full of resources and additional reading.


Anonymous said...

I followed your link from Semicolon, where I linked to a similar book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Reading it has changed my shopping patterns, and I am buying more local and less industrial than before.

Staci Eastin said...

The Poisonwood Bible was such a wonderful book. I may give this one a try, too.

Thanks for the review.

Heidi said...

This book is on my to-read list. I've heard such great things about it! Thanks for your thoughtful review.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review! Sounds like a great book. It reminds me of Wendell Berry. He's written tons on the local vs. global economy too--its effect on "culture and agriculture," pretty much every level of being. It helped me realize what a helpless consumer I am, and how such power as I have is exercised through choices about what to buy. (Actually it made me want to run out and start a subsistence farm, but--! No cultural inheritance=no knowledge base. The farm would die while I sat inside reading about it.)

Ruth said...

Writer2B (may I call you 2? or B?), she mentions Wendell Berry in the acknowledgments. Here's what she says: "Wendell and Tanya Berry were there all along; everything we've said here, Wendell said first, in a quiet voice that makes the mountains tremble."

Anonymous said...

She sounds like a true Berry fan!

Please, let's not stand on formalities. B will B fine. :-)