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Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

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This autumn weekend I was shopping at Whole Foods, and passed by the vegetable section which prominently displayed asparagus. My first impulse was to pick up a bundle of asparagus and place it in my cart. I am a huge asparagus fan, and can prepare, bake, broil, grill, chop, and devour it at every meal. However my brain kicked in with full force and declared, “This time of the year is not asparagus season.” Thanks to Barbara Kingsolver and her memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I opened my way of thinking and learned the importance of avoiding vegetables and fruits that weren’t harvested in the current season and/or grown locally. You see, asparagus is a spring vegetable, and should be enjoyed that time of the year. Sigh.

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver’s enthusiasm is infectious as she and her family document a one-year experiment, procuring as much of their food as possible from neighboring farms and their own backyard. Barbara wrote the central narrative, while Steven (Kingsolver’s husband) digs deeper into various aspects of the food-production science and industry. Camille (Kingsolver’s daughter) offers a 19-year-old’s perspective on the local food project, plus nutritional information, meal plans, and recipes.

In a nutshell, the Kingsolver family:
• Moves from Arizona to the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia to live on the family farm and, as much as possible, “live off their land and livestock”;
• Stresses the importance of buying “local” and supporting local farmers and farmer markets;
• Understands that it is not so difficult to change the ways you spend your hard-earned dollars when it comes to food;
• In a “non-preachy” way, challenges each and every one of us to change our behavior when it comes to food and livestock.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is so much more than a lecture on seasonal eating. Kingsolver succeeds in demonstrating that it’s not merely possible but in fact preferable to eat locally and seasonally, both in terms of taste and simplicity. By keeping to the seasons of the year and to what’s available at your farmer’s market, in your garden, or in your CSA share, not only are you getting what’s freshest and tastiest, but deciding what’s for dinner is also much simpler than if you’d walked into your “local” giant superstore. After reading this book, I have avoided our local super-chain, Safeway, like the plague.

My, have times changed! Growing up on the east coast in the mid-1970s and ‘80s, I vividly remember the summer being strawberry season. We did not have the choice or ability to walk in to our local market and purchase strawberries any other time of the year. It wasn’t an option. I anxiously awaited my first bite of strawberries, Jersey corn, blueberries, and watermelon – and enjoyed these gifts from the earth all summer long. In the fall we enjoyed squash, pumpkin and apples. Yet today, we can get any fruit or vegetable from different parts of the world at any time. As Kingsolver shares, try to calculate the amount of money, genetically altered seeds, pesticides, oil, transportation, etc. it takes just to give us poor quality, out of season produce. Why not wait (I know, that is a hard concept in our world of immediate gratification) until they are in season?

So I passed up my asparagus purchase. I avoided the lovely basket of strawberries, which stated they were from Peru. Instead, I spent our dollars at a local farmer’s market purchasing tomatoes (thank god heirloom tomatoes are finally harvested and ready for sale), basil, squash (hooray for autumn squash), lettuce (wide variety this time of the year), carrots, beets, and so much more. Oh, and apples and figs during this season helps me forget how much I really miss asparagus. Well, sort of…

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