Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

If you're interested in the issues of “localvorism” (local food movement), a gardening journal, do-it-yourself family farming, growing seasonal organic foods, the policies and economic issues of industrial farming, anecdotes about dedicated small local farmers, food culture, and seasonal recipes, then you may be interested in reading this book. Barbara Kingsolver and her family decide to move from Arizona to their rural farm in southern Appalachia and live and work there for a year as an experiment to see if they could live off the fruits of their own labor, both from their farm and their live stock.

Photo credit: Amy Rudberg

Each chapter begins with a lovely illustration by Richard A. Houser, and Kingsolver lyrically delves into the intricacies of such topics as searching for morel mushrooms in the woods, growing luscious heirloom tomatoes from seeds, raising baby turkeys and then slaughtering them for food, making mozzarella cheese from scratch, and canning an overabundance of vegetables for the winter. Also in each chapter, Steven Hopp (Kingsolver's husband, who is a biology professor) writes mini essays on agriculture, farming, food policy, sustainability, fair trade, and related topics; Camille Kingsolver (Barbara Kingsolver's college- age daughter) ends each chapter with a short commentary on the foods discussed in the chapter and provides a few creative recipes and a menu for a week.

The book provides some general rules for applying “ethics in a modern grocery store”:

    Consider buying seasonal food in your area and get them from a farmer or ask a grocer to obtain them from a local source.

    As much as possible, prepare and cook your own food and make meal plans for the seasons.

    Remember that products with few ingredients probably have burned less fossil fuel.

    Consider travel distance for fresh fruits and vegetables – the longer the distance, the more energy is consumed.

    Remember that all fresh produce contains a lot of water and it takes energy to move water so favor dried fruits or vegetables, dried spices, nuts coffee beans, dry beans, and grains.

    All refrigerated or frozen items use energy to keep them cool from its point of origin to you.

    Organic methods use fewer pesticides.

At the end of the year, Kingsolver finds that they had planted enough to feed themselves (although they had too much squash), not everything could be made from scratch, their shopping routines had drastically altered, there were some nonlocal splurges balanced with local products, and they spent about 50 cents per family member, per meal (less than what she spent in the years when she qualified for food stamps).

Kingsolver believes that “small, stepwise changes in personal habits are not trivial” and that individuals can make a difference because we can change our buying habits and perhaps change the nature of farming as a result.

Related articles:

“Oak Park Family Keeps Its Diet Local,” by Janet Rausa Fuller

The following New York Times articles require you to log in free of charge before directing you to the article.
“If It's Fresh and Local, Is It Always Greener?” by Andrew Martin

“Preserving Fossil Fuels and Nearby Farmland by Eating Locally,” by Marian Burros

“Our Decrepit Food Factories,” by Michael Pollan

Chicago connections:

Chicago Farmers Markets


Green City Market

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