I was shocked when I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I didn’t expect to like it that much, and there were bits of the writing that weren’t really my cup of tea. But I liked the story. A lot. I think I picked it up in the Books-I-Don’t-Want-Anymore box in the lunchroom at my old job, and I couldn’t put it down.
I’m finding the same is true with Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in the Life of Food, in which she chronicles her family’s decision to drop off the industrial food chain. They’d always kept gardens (and occasionally chickens), but this was a concerted family effort to raise their own food for a year, and buy what they didn’t raise from their local community. They started a breeding flock of Bourbon Red turkeys, they expanded their kid’s flock of laying hens, and they planted a bazillion varieties of fruits, vegetables, and everything else they had room for — garlic to peanuts to potatoes to tomatoes to zucchini.
And they made their own cheese. Imagine Friday pizza night with handmade dough, fresh sauce from your own tomatoes, whatever fresh herbs you feel like tossing on the pie, and mozzarella you made that day with milk from a local dairy… Am I alone here? That turns dinner into an accomplishment, not just a meal.
Of course, it helped that they owned a 100-year-old farmhouse that they could move to from Tucson. And that both parents are well-established in their careers. They saved a goodly amount of cash over the course of a year, but they didn’t really have to, which…I do think makes it easier. (I am charmed by the things growing on my balcony, but I’m not going to starve through the winter if they don’t produce enough — it’s a well-meaning experiment, albeit on a smaller scale than Kingsolver’s.)
I’m still not a big fan of her writing style, and although she tries really hard not to sound sanctimonious in this book, she sometimes does. I’ve had some difficulty writing about my food production and purchasing decisions here, though, so I’m trying not to fault her for that. The problem, sometimes, with talking about biggish decisions made with good intentions is that it can have an unintended effect whoever’s listening, or reading. We all have to make decisions about food and budget and lifestyle, and talking about why we decide to pursue a certain path can come off like a referendum on someone else’s path.
Have you ever talked about how much you’re benefiting from exercise and heard the other person start to justify why they’re not exercising, even though you haven’t asked and were talking about your experience and not theirs? Same principle.
Anyway, it’s the story of the food that I’m really interested in. Kingsolver and her family (her husband and eldest daughter contributed essays and recipes) tracked their experience through the growing year, including an unanticipated issue with a lovesick turkey. Looking at gardening month by month helps me understand what longtime gardeners just seem to know, and it’s extremely helpful that her family lives in my region and growing “zone.”
I’m pretty good at getting things to grow, but I’m far enough removed from the growing season that I don’t always know when things are supposed to happen after that. Following along, month by month, I now know I will be drowning in zucchini in a couple of weeks.
Clearly, this level of experiment requires a home with acreage, some extra pairs of hands, and a commitment firm enough to carry you through the poultry harvest. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has enough about plain old gardening, though, to be helpful for me. If Michael Pollan’s books gave me the facts and political background to get started, AVM gives me enough hands-on advice to help me act on my decision. If you’re interested in how and when things grow and why they grow a certain way, I’d recommend it.
And the recipes aren’t bad, either.