Nonfiction: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

vegetableWhen my coworker handed me this book during Non-Fiction November, I couldn’t resist reading it right away. The premise sounded wonderful: Barbara Kingsolver and her family decided to live off the land for one year, only consuming what they grew themselves or what was produced close to their home. Of course it helped that they already had a large piece of land in Appalachia, ready for small-scale farming. If you have read Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, then you will certainly recognize the setting. I was very enthusiastic about reading this book, and for a while, it was indeed very interesting.

For a few years now, my family has made an effort to support our local farmers, not only because locally grown, fresh food tastes much better than supermarket fare, but also because in the area we live, farmers need all the help they can get to stay in business. Before reading this book, though, it had never occurred to me that this country could drastically reduce its consumption of oil by simply choosing local produce that has not been transported for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. One more reason to visit the farm stands down the road, especially if they offer heirloom produce! So far, Kingsolver and I were in full agreement. But after reading about a third of the book, the somewhat preachy tone started to rub me the wrong way.

I had hoped for some anecdotes, some humor, some tips and tricks for the average person. Instead, I found myself slightly annoyed by how perfect everything seemed to be, how smoothly everything was running. Good for the Kingsolvers! I am happy that their experiment worked so well, but I found very little practical advice that would work for me and my family. I am not willing to dig up the backyard to grow vegetables because then the kids couldn’t go sledding there in the winter. I am too lazy to spend my August evenings canning tomatoes and figuring out what to do with all the zucchini. I have no interest in keeping chickens—and I can’t even imagine my kids’ outrage would I suggest keeping a chicken so that we can slaughter it later. I have a hard enough time getting my kids to eat healthy; I don’t need to push the envelope by serving rhubarb in March because there’s no other local produce available.

And just when I resolved to make an effort and go to the all-year farmers’ market two towns over at least once a month, Kingsolver tells me that it is not worth it because the green leafy vegetables I am likely to get there are probably hydroponically grown, rather than in healthy, wonderful, organic soil. But as she herself points out, it can be very expensive to buy local, organic food, especially in the off-season. The only solution to this problem would be to set up a heated greenhouse and grow it yourself. Again, that won’t happen at my house.

I think what bugged me was that there was no clear line here between memoir and advice. If she had simply recorded her experiences of the year, it would have been fine. But too often, the book attempts to give advice that is not practical for most people. So overall, this book wasn’t quite right for me. I will set this one free in the hopes that someone else will enjoy reading it more than I did. In the meantime, I’ll be on the lookout for more books about how I can incorporate local foods into our daily life.

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19 comments

  1. My book club read this and I could hardly finish it. Yes, she was so preachy. And so ‘anti’ modern agricultural technology. I also felt that she handed out a lot of misinformation, though it’s been too long since I read it to give you an example. Needless to say, I was not impressed with her book.

  2. I think I’ll probably pass on this one, because I’d definitely be looking for more mishaps and practical advice on how to deal with them and it doesn’t seem like this book is really about that.

  3. I’m a strict but lazy vegan who grew up on a farm where we produced all our own food, except for staples like flour, sugar and salt, etc. It was a LOT of work. Gardening, preserving fruit, making jam, baking, and all the rest was a full-time job, and I remember the ghastliness of eating the same in-season vegetables for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. I grew up loathing vegetables! 🙂 And it was horrible when the animals and poultry I looked after were killed. I think we’re lucky to be able to buy quality produce at the supermarket, which is basically the same stuff we can buy at farmer’s markets, but it’s cheaper. 🙂

  4. I’ve been on the fence about reading this. As someone who lives in a city and who has dug up her yard to plant a garden and longs for impossible acreage for a farm, I feel like this should be a book to read and love. But I don’t like being preached at so I continue to sit on the fence!

  5. I really enjoyed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but I can definitely understand your issues. There definitely needs to be an understanding that not everybody can basically run their own farm! As you say, a bit more of the “this is how we did it” tone without the “and everyone should do this too” would have been good.

  6. I read this book a few years ago and loved it. I can’t remember everything about it, but I do agree it might have seemed a little too perfect, with everything seeming to work out so well for them. But, I keep remembering the fact that they cheated and kept boxes of Kraft Dinner in the cupboard. Also, it’s easier if you just happen to have the land for a good garden.
    Mostly, I found it inspiring, and we try to do what we can. Every little bit helps. Like you, we use the Framer’s Market for most of our produce. We also have a garden, but some years it does better than others. We would like to have chickens. but it doesn’t make sense to, since good friends of ours have some, and we just buy our eggs from them. Buying local eggs and meat is just as good as raising it yourself! I even used to make all my own bread, but as the kids got older, they decided they didn’t like it anymore and would only eat store bought bread. It bothered me at first, but now I’m just enjoying not having to make bread all the time.

    I really enjoyed reading her take on vegetarianism. She made some good points against it that I would love for my mother-in-law to read. (Not that I am against vegetarianism, but I think some people stop eating meat for the wrong reasons.)

    Another book that I read around the same time that I also loved is The 100 Mile Diet. It’s more about eating locally when you live in an urban area. I think the author lives in Vancouver. For a year, they live a hard-core 100 mile diet, which isn’t for everyone, but it shows what can be done and other things that need to be made easier for people who want to eat locally. Maybe you would like that one better!

    • Thanks for the book suggestion. I will see if I can get a copy of The 100 Mile Diet. I bake our bread as well, and since reading this book, I started experimenting with different flours. So far, I am lucky that everyone is still eating it. 🙂 I forgot that I wanted to mention her take on vegetarianism. That part was interesting.

  7. I’m afraid I get very tired of being preached at by people who don’t live ‘ordinary’ lives. I guess if you’re wealthy and don’t work nine-to-five, and can hire help with the housework or the kids – or the garden – all these things might be possible. But most of us can only do the best we can, and I get fed up being expected to feel guilty about it all the time…

    • The part about getting her turkeys to mate and hatch the eggs they were laying was certainly entertaining. There’s no question that this was a well-written book, I just got a bit tired of the “this is what you should do” attitude, when it was all things that are hard to incorporate into most people’s lives.

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