January 31, 2010

Animal Vegetable, Miracle - Barbara Kingsolver

I love a good non-fiction book that reads as well as a novel, and is impossible to put down! I am hit-and-miss when it comes to Barbara Kingsolver's fiction (I loved The Bean Trees but didn't care for The Poisonwood Bible), but this book is definitely a hit in my opinion. It is the sort of book that I would pick up in the evening, and put it down, what felt like a few minutes later and realise that I had read waaaaay past my bedtime!

As far as content goes, the subtitle is "A Year of Food Life", and documents the family's attempt to eat locally for a full year following the growing season from March to March. I have to admit that she was preaching to the choir - I have my own garden, frequent the local farmer's market, and try to eat according to the season. I only eat local meat and eggs, do my best when it comes to fruit and vegetables, buy organic milk that is a provincial (rather than national) brand, and avoid processed foods. However this book put my small efforts to shame.

Some of the funniest writing came in the family's dealing with the farm animals that they were raising. Now I have kept chickens in the past (the picture in my profile is taken with Chanel - a particularly bad-tempered chicken that it was a pleasure to eat!), and can relate to some of what the family went through, however a city by-law prevents me from having any livestock within city limits at this time. A sample quote:

"The previous morning we'd sequestered half a dozen roosters and as many tom turkeys in a room of the barn we call "death row." We hold poultry there, clean and comfortable with water but no food, for a twenty-four-hour fast prior to harvest. It makes the processing cleaner and seems to calm the animals also. I could tell you it gives them time to get their emotional affiars in order, if that helps. But they have limited emotional affairs, and no idea what's coming. We had a lot more of both."

The writing was honest - she admitted to buying foods that they couldn't access locally (coffee, flour for homemade bread, pasta) - and very informative. As well as the documentation of the family experience of the year, there are also recipes for food mentioned in the text, sidebars that explore some aspects of american food production, and most chapters end with her 18-year-0ld daughter's perspective on the experience.

I do appreciate the irony of reading this book in January in Thunder Bay when the only produce available at the local farmer's market are potatoes (and the usual meat, fish, eggs, and cheese). However this issue was addressed in one of the later chapters - in order to eat locally year round, you need to plan in the summer when you can freeze or can or preserve the locally available produce to see you through the winter.

And I was rather jealous of her gardening season in Virginia which is approximately twice as long as the gardening season in Thunder Bay! What - planting in early April?! The ground is still covered with snow with more snow likely for the rest of the month. Seeds can go in the ground here by the last weekend in May, but nothing with leaves for a few weeks later since we get frost most years until mid-June. But this book also made me appreciate what we do have available locally - unlike the Kingsolver-Hopp family, I can buy local wheat flour (locally grown and ground), as well as local fish (one of the advantages of living on the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world - fresh and frozen lake trout, whitefish, pickerel...).

Two things that I plan to try based on this book. 1) Cheesemaking. This is something that I have wanted to try for a while, but assumed that it would be complicated. This book assured me that it is not, and pointed me to resources to help. We have lovely local Gouda cheese, but having been raised on local Cheddar, I would love to be able to make my own! And 2) Canning or freezing more from my garden / the market to see me though the winter. I have always frozen my garden produce (my green peas saw me through to December, and I still have raspberries in the freezer), but want to make it on a larger scale. Theresa, the Tomato Queen, sells the best tomatoes I have tasted outside of Africa, and next summer I plan to buy them in bulk to see me at least part-way through the winter.

Anyways, I guess that is all off-topic, but in summary, a great book. Well written, thought-provoking, and inspirational.


Buried In Print said...

I found this book inspiring too, although I most enjoyed the sections in the author's own voice (rather than the bits that her family contributed to the book. It reminded me of The Prodigal Summer, which I also really enjoyed. The Lacuna keeps waving to me from the New Books shelf in the library too: perhaps you are similarly tempted...

Kate said...

I've seen The Lacuna but haven't been tempted. I do want to read Pigs in Heaven (sequel to The Bean Trees) though.

Wanda said...

I think you may be the first person that I've come across who didn't like The Poisonwood Bible.

I know the challenges of a short growing season. Last year was particularly bothersome with Hurricane Bill flatening our corn. The five straight weeks of fog didn't do much for my tomatoes either but the cucumbers didn't seem to mind, we had plenty of those.

Good luck in your garden! Cheesemaking sounds interesting, let us know how it goes.

John Mutford said...

I've not yet read a Kingsolver, but this looks like a good place to start. I had no idea cheesemaking would actually be easy. I wonder why no one I know does it.

Kate said...

Wanda - I've actually talked to several other people who didn't like The Poisonwood Bible. I'm not alone!

John - definitely a good place to start. This is the book that I bought with the proceeds of the Twilight dare from my cousin. A much better read in my opinion!