Sunday, August 26, 2007

thoughts on "animal, vegetable, miracle"

Disclaimer: This is kind of random, kind of disorganized, and totally my own opinions.

I'm not one to review books...mostly because I'm not one to read books anymore, sadly. What can I say? These days I tend to spend my precious free time sewing, knitting, or catching some extra zzzzz's.

But I was drawn in by the hype surrounding Barbara Kingsolver's latest offering - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a year of food life. I really like Barbara Kingsolver and have enjoyed almost everything she's written, so I thought I'd check this one out. After waiting and waiting for it to become available from my local library, I finally got it, and plowed through it in just a few days.


First I have to say I enjoyed it. That's important! I wanted to keep reading it, and I recommend it just for it's entertainment value. She writes a good story. For those who don't know, a very simple explanation of the "plot" is this: BK and her family move from the Southwest to Appalachia to spend a year "living off the land" so to speak. They grow all their own produce, eat local meats and dairy, and do their best to source all of their edibles within their community.
But that's a lame way to really explain this book. It's about that and so much more. I could probably write for days and days about it, but I'll just share a few thoughts.

Her writings about eating in Italy are totally, 100% right on. If you love food and have a desire to travel, save your money and go to Italy. I was extremely lucky to have this experience as well, and BK describes it to a T.

The book made me want to immediately head for a local farm market and buy fresh stuff. I realized that I shop in exactly the manner she describes as her "old" life - I go into the supermarket and just get whatever I want, whenever I want it. However, as I read I really found myself grappling with this "problem" (if you see it as such). I like bananas. I love coffee. Sometimes I want a tomato in the middle of winter. California berries? Delicious. Citrus fruits and juices? Delicious and necessary for prevention of, you know, scurvy. I just can't see myself telling my child "no more bananas" because we don't grow them locally. And wow, there is NO WAY I am willing to give up coffee and tea (nor does's an exception to their local eating rule but her family bought only fair trade).

I also happen to believe that importing stuff like coffee and bananas can be good and beneficial. Really! I know the major winners are always the importers, but I'd like to see a lot more info about the growers before I write them off as the losers in the import equation. We do offer them a market for their goods...I happen to think that's a positive thing. But then again, I'm a Republican and a capitalist and all that, so, whatev. Another topic for another day.

I also realized that I am already doing many things right. She talks a lot about the benefits of organic vs. processed, and local vs. trucked-in-from-distant-lands, and I can't always afford organic or avoid imported items. But at least by buying good stuff I am already ahead of many Americans. There are no pop-tarts on my shelves, we eat breads and cereals with whole grains (ie, no white bread in my house ever), I always have fresh fruit in my cart, and either fresh veg or the plain, flash-frozen kind with no additives. My kid drinks milk and 100% juice and water, but that's it. I buy and use real butter, milk, and cream, and purchase the best cuts of meat I can afford. In fact, I've even started doing a majority of my baking, from bread to cookies to cakes, from this book, just to make our treats a tad better for us.

So hooray for me. But I found myself sort of rolling my eyes at some of the things the author and her husband (who contributed in sidebars) suggested about creating change in our country. I mean, come on. We have all been to WalMart and seen the carts loaded with soda and chips and cookies and frozen dinners and crap. We all hit the grocery store at least once a week - do what I do and skip the trashy magazine covers in the checkout line. Instead, be a cart voyeur. Look at what the lady behind you or in front of you is loading onto the conveyor. I've turned into kind of a nut about health since having a child. I've always tried to be healthy in general, but now that I'm fully responsible for another human being, I've gone slightly off the beam. So the majority of what I load into my shopping cart is GOOD ACTUAL REAL FOOD, or the ingredients to make good foods myself. Look around the store next time you go and check yourself. Check the people around you. It will make you a little bit sick, I bet. Just observe what people are feeding their families. Their children. Eew.

We're not going to change the country anytime soon. All the subsidies will continue to go to the corn and soybean folks, and crap will continue to flood the market. But at least people will continue to farm in a healthy way in little pockets throughout the country, and I do believe we all have access to a farm market wherever we live (did you know you can often use food stamps there, and many accept WIC too? I certainly did not). Perhaps we can't all afford organics and grass-fed or grass-finished beef, but we can do a little better for our families and skip the lean cuisines and McDonald's, right? And, is a secret: the farm market produce I investigated on Friday afternoon? It was cheaper than the stuff at the supermarket, so for me, at least, the excuse that fresh stuff is too expensive doesn't fly. Check this out for yourselves and share what you find - how are your local prices? As an added plus, Daughter got a huge kick out of seeing, touching, and talking about all the interesting vegetables and fruits we saw. A great learning opportunity, and something to do when you're sitting around the house doing nothing.

I have a friend who has decided to eliminate all high-fructose corn syrup from her diet and the diets of her husband and two children. Well, bully for her, but I won't go that far. My daughter has more than passing familiarity with the Oreo. She loves graham crackers. She will only drink milk if it is flavored with chocolate. Hello, that is ALL hfcs, but I feel it is better that she drink the milk than avoid the hfcs (and also, Hershey makes a syrup with calcium and vitamins...not perfect, but better than the regular stuff). Now, that doesn't mean I give her free reign to consume that stuff - Oreos are a very occasional treat. She eats a few graham crackers here and there, usually with apple slices or raisins as her snack. But I figure, heck, I grew up eating all that stuff too, and I turned out to be a pretty healthy adult. The key is moderation, don't you agree?

I would love to turn my backyard into a garden. I would love to emulate BK and her family. In fact, I'd love to meet the woman now that I've read this book, and visit her farm and learn more from her. I would even dig observing the 'harvesting' of the roosters and turkeys. Gross, but fascinating!

But I don't see it happening. Her experiment involved the efforts of her whole family, and she was working on a scale I can't imagine - really what they created was a tiny farm, resulting in hundreds of pounds of tomatoes and zucchinis, a freezer and pantry filled with the bounty of a summer's worth of work, sunup to sundown, with all hands on deck. And I don't know if I have the discipline required to eat only what is locally available to me. I know my family would balk at it.

What I can do is take her advice to buy what is in season right now and make use of my freezer. I'm already kicking myself for not buying more blueberries when they were abundant and cheap, but I will start now and pick up produce that can be frozen so that I'm supporting local farms and using good ingredients through the winter. With autumn almost upon us I'm looking forward to apple desserts - pies and cobblers - but I never thought to slice up the required amounts and freeze them for future baking, until I read about it in this book. Awesome idea, and if the filling is already prepped, I can whip up a pastry and make a pie in minutes. Sah-weet. And NY State apples? Awesome, and so cheap when in season. We're lucky to have them, as well as NY cheddars and local maple syrup. Daughter has been coming along for the trip to buy maple syrup right from the barn where it's been boiled down since she was wee, and I'm hoping to take her on an apple-picking expedition this fall. So much fun, and it's educational and healthy. If you have agriculture of any kind where you live, have your kids seen it? Take them, I bet they'll love it**.

I believe somewhere in the book it is suggested that if you can add only one organic thing to your diet, make it dairy. So while I am skeptical about the effect of hormones in our dairy (my sisters and I drank regular ol' cow milk and went through completely normal puberty), I may start buying organic milk, and possibly organic eggs, because I hear they taste completely awesome. Those are some expensive things, but I figure if my husband can go out for lunch each day, I can spend $5 or $7 per week on milk and eggs!

So, having read this book, I am newly inspired to basically keep doing what I'm doing. My family isn't "green" per se...we kind of recycle but we're not too good at it, we use detergents with phosphates because they clean the clothes better than the other stuff, and I happen to believe that a product doesn't clean well unless it burns my nose when I spray it on. BUT, I have switched to cloth diapers, I grow herbs now and plan to grow a few more things next summer (a few tomatoes, some zucchini, maybe some root veg like onions and garlic if they will grow well in my climate...need to research that), I sometimes remember to bring cloth bags to the supermarket to avoid the plastics, and I have cute kitcheny fabrics waiting to be turned into many cloth napkins so I can stop buying paper ones. We will continue to eat in as healthy a manner as possible...but that doesn't mean I'll never buy another Oreo or never hit another drive-through.

I think we all have to do what works for us, and what is best for our families. As wives and mothers, whether we like it or not, most of us have the responsibility of feeding our families. We can look at that as a curse, or a gift. I happen to believe it's a bit of both, depending on the day! But whatever it is, it is a serious thing, and we would do well to remember that.

Read the book. Try the recipes. I look forward to hearing what other people have to say about this pretty great book as they finish reading it. If you've read it, or have general thoughts about this, do leave a comment.

**When I taught preschool to 3 year olds, we made applesauce together using in-season apples and a crock pot. At snack time almost every child refused to eat it, despite the fact that they regularly ate the applesauce we sometimes served with lunch. I asked why and the response was: "I've never had the kind made from apples!" IS THAT NOT SAD?!?!?


Anne said...

Hi - long-time lurker popping up here to say that over here in the UK our family has a similar philosophy on food. (And I'm a leftie and my dh is left-of-centre politically - hey ho!)

We support the local farmers' market when it's held once a month, we get a large veg box weekly from the most local organic supplier, and we grow a (very) few veg of our own.

Oh, and we've started keeping chickens. It's sooo much easier than I expected (admittedly that's partly because it was dh's idea, so _he's_ responsible for cleaning them out!) But getting 2 or 3 eggs a day, knowing that they are as organic as anything else in our garden, is wonderful.

And although we make sure that the meals we provide our children with are nutricious and healthy (we're lucky - they happily eat veg, and brown rice and lentils are favourites), we don't deprive them of sugar-filled treats when appropriate. They attend the local primary school (well, R (3) starts at pre-school next week, and A (5) will be going into Year 1), where I think being able to socialise with anyone and everyone is more important as having a perfect diet.

I've gone on far too long - I'll shut up!

(But do think about chickens...)

Karen said...

Interesting stuff. I might check that book out.

I looked at organic eggs last night at the store. $3.99/dozen. The non-organic? $1.79. The price tag on organic stuff just scares the pee outta me.

I will check out some local fruit/veggie stands though. That sounds fun.

Could you post your applesauce recipe? That sounds delish.

Pam said...

What a fantastic post! I shop along the same lines as you and since my husband has celiac (wheat/gluten allergy) I do a lot of shopping at Whole Foods. Since I hate having to be super careful about cross contamination, I cook the same thing for all of us so my kids get a lot of different whole grains, there are no preservatives in gluten free foods and believe it or not, even Whole Foods has good prices. You just have to watch for sales and stock up when you can. We have a great farmers market that I don't get to nearly often enough but even their prices are better then the local grocery store.

Really, such a good post. You should consider sending it into a parenting magazine or something like that. Very down to earth, very informative. Thanks!

Oh, my mom has made homemade applesauce with my kids at least once a year forever. They love it! Would be a lot of fun to get some moms together for an afternoon and make different kinds of applesauce to take home for the kids. I think I'll have to throw something together!

Kila said...

I loved this post, and was thrilled to find someone else who "thinks like me", LOL.

It is appalling what people eat these days, and walking through a grocery store just makes me sick because 80% of it is GARBAGE. My kids love to eat fresh fruits and veggies, and people act shocked, even horrified, right in front of the kids, who then wonder what is wrong with them, LOL. Most of their schoolmates bring cold lunches consisting of nothing but candy and/or cheap desserts. Very sad.

Now I'm hungry for homemade applesauce! Haven't made that yet this year.

April said...

Hi, Kate... liked this post - very interesting! I'm probably similar to your healthy eating habits. Another GREAAAAT! book with awesome recipes (helps give application on how to change your own recipes, too) is 'Food and Love' by Gary Smalley. There is the book and then there is the cookbook. Both can be found VERY cheaply on (I think I paid like $2.00 or something nominal.) Anyway - just wanted to praise you on your post.

omly said...

I avoid HFCS myself, but not necessarily for the reasons that everyone else does; I just have found that it is a migraine trigger for me. For the most part though, I don't even find that I miss it much. (Except for peanut m&ms....)

I think that we eat pretty well in general, and we have a CSA farm share that gets us lots of local, mostly organic produce. It has been really great for teaching my daughter about when things are in season. Also we freeze and can a lot of extra produce so that we can have it in the winter.

But... this doesn't get us through the whole year. In New England it just isn't possible to eat exactly how I want to solely on local food, at least with the time I have to devote to it while being both a mom and a grad student. You just have to do the best you can, and part of that is making trade offs.

Interesting post, thanks for sharing. I have added this book to my wishlist.