This is the story of a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew… and of how our family was changed by our first year of deliberately eating food produced from the same place where we worked, went to school, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air.
So what happens when a family decides to become die-hard “locavores”—growing or raising all their own food (or buying locally-grown organic items)? That’s the premise of this wonderful book by Barbara Kingsolver.
I’ve had people who, once they saw what I was reading, asked “How in the world do you write a book that big about that?” It does seem like a bit of a stretch, but let me tell you I have rarely enjoyed reading a book so much. Kingsolver is a successful novelist, and if you’ve ever read any of her novels, you’re familiar with her poetic soul, her off-hand way of turning a phrase, or her ability to find beauty in the oddest of places. Those elements are all present here and make what could have been a dry, preachy book into something akin to reading an artist’s biography.
Kingsolver’s lucky enough to own about 100 acres of land in the mountains of Virginia. But she doesn’t live in a mcmansion on those 100 acres. She (and her husband and 2 children) have kept the old farmhouse pretty much as it was for the past 100 years… poorly insulated, wood-burning stove, single bathroom, and, oh yes, gardens, orchards, and livestock. They fed their family of 4 for an entire year by raising a huge assortment of heirloom vegetables and fruits, keeping chickens and turkeys, and visiting their local farmer’s market for anything they couldn’t grow themselves. Along the way, they threw a huge 50th birthday party for Barbara (including dozens of friends from all over the country who were treated to a weekend of locavore cuisine), traveled all the way up to Canada (without breaking their convictions to eat only local food), and survived the winter with the (literal) fruits of their labor stored in jars and hanging from rafters.
But to give you a better feel for it, I’d rather just quote some passages:
Once you start cooking, one thing leads to another. A new recipe is as exciting as a blind date. A new ingredient, heaven help me, is an intoxicating affair. I’ve grown new vegetables just to see what they taste like: Jerusalem artichokes, edamame, potimarrons. A quick recipe can turn slow in our kitchen because of the experiments we hazard. We make things from scratch just to see if we can. We’ve rolled out and cut our pasta, raised turkeys to roast or stuff into link sausage, made chutney from our garden. On high occasions we’ll make cherry pies with crisscrossed lattice tops and raviolo with crimped edges, for the satisfaction of seeing those storybook comforts become real.
When I was in college, living two states away from my family, I studied the map one weekend and found a different route home from the one we usually travelled. I drove back to Kentucky the new way, which did turn out to be faster. During my visit I made sure all my relatives heard about the navigational brilliance that saved me thirty-seven minutes.
‘Thirty-seven,’ my grandfather mused. ‘And here you just used up fifteen of them telling all about it. What’s your plan for the other twenty-two?’
Good question. I’m still stumped for an answer, whenever the religion of time-saving pushes me to zip through a meal or a chore, rushing everybody out the door to the next point on a schedule. All that hurry can blur the truth that life is a zero-sum equation. Every minute I save will get used on something else, possibly no more sublime than staring at the newel post trying to remember what I just ran upstairs for. On the other hand, attending to the task in front of me—even a quotidian chore—might make it into part of a good day, rather than just a rock in the road to someplace else.
Every gardener I know is a junkie for the experience of being out there in the mud and fresh green growth. Why? An astute therapist might diagnose us as codependent and sign us up for Tomato-Anon meetings. We love our gardens so much it hurts. For their sake we’ll bend over till our backs ache, yanking out fistfuls of quackgrass by the roots as if we are tearing out the hair of the world. We lead our favorite hoe like a dance partner down one long row and up the next, in a dance marathon that leaves us exhausted. We scrutinize the yellow beetles with black polka dots that have suddenly appeared like chickenpox on the bean leaves. We spend hours bent to our crops as if enslaved, only now and then straightening our backs and wiping a hand across our sweaty brow, leaving it striped with mud like some child’s idea of war paint.
Emily and I have always loved to garden, but reading this book has infused me with big time plant lust. I’m serious. Kingsolver talks a lot about heirloom variety vegetables—older vegetable and fruit species which have retained the oddities of flavor, color, and shape that grocery store varieties have had bred out of them (it’s more important to grocery stores that your tomato can survive a trip from New Zealand and 2 weeks on the shelf looking perfectly round, red, and spotless than that it taste good). Just look at some of these amazing varieties available from the Seed Saver’s Exchange:
With all the wild varieties available, it makes you wonder if “tomato” denotes as wide a variety of flavors as, say, “candy” or “soup.” I feel like someone who’s rejected coffee all his life because he’s only tasted coffee crystals. Now I’m looking through the equivalent of a Gevalia catalog, trying to restrain myself from ordering everything in it.
So, if you’ve got a little plot of land in your back yard, read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, order some seeds from the Seed Saver’s Exchange catalog, and have fun watching plants grow.