Kate's Reviews > Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
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's review
Jan 30, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: sustainability, creative-nonfiction

** spoiler alert ** I have always been a fan of Barbara Kingsolver's work; her novels have a comfortable quality to them that makes me return a few times (except for Prodigal Summer, which I really didn't care much for). But once I discovered her nonfiction, my world changed. She was the first creative nonfiction writer who caught my eye and made me laugh, cry, and feel enraged. Had I not read her work, I doubt I ever would have been interested in writing creative nonfiction to begin with. I tell you all of this so that you can recognize any possible bias in the following statement: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a splendid book.

The basic premise of the book is as follows: after much consideration of fossil fuel dilemmas, the struggling plight of local farmers, global warming, and an intense dedication to organic food processes, Kingsolver's family of four decided to go one year eating only things that came from within their county. They allotted each person one specialty item (her husband's was coffee; hers were spices like cinnamon, etc.) and bought bulk flour, but otherwise stuck more or less to the plan. They began in April and finished in April, and grew a massive amount of their own food (including poultry/eggs), supplementing it with farmers' market runs.

AVM is strong for a number of reasons. Like her previous nonfiction works (High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder), she strikes a solid balance between personal exploration and education. So in places she reflects on the entire experience--perhaps a couple pages on the appearance of asparagus and her personal and familial relationship with it, as well as a description of the patch they currently have--and then a few pages later, we learn about a particular facet of, say, the development of GM (genetically modified) seeds and the power they gave to agribusiness through copyright and patent laws. This fluidity is paced fairly well--there are only occasional places where she feels too preachy or gets too personally tangential, and they're tucked in with enough interesting details to make them almost unnoticeable.

Be clear: this is not a how-to book (as she notes in the first couple chapters) and it is not necessarily designed to convince you that you need to do the same (she's not the local food police). Instead, she honestly highlights their struggles and joys, illuminates their reasoning for the whole project, throws in some fun anecdotes, and just generally expresses her passion for the whole subject.

In spite of its 300+ pages, the book is quite accessible and unintimidating. Most chapters are 20 pages or less. The book is broken up even more (in a pleasant way) by informative sidebars from her husband Steven--which generally discuss resources, activist opportunities, laws, etc.--and the end-of-chapter pages by her eldest daughter Camille (now 19)--which include menu suggestions and a few recipes. Camille's sections are the only ones that get remotely "how-to," and that's only because of the recipes. The recipes are straightforward and, thus far, quite tasty (I've already made the Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp, which is hands-down one of the best summer desserts I've ever tasted or baked).

I grew up in a family who grew nearly every piece of produce it consumed, but this book was still really educational and inspiring. Kingsolver brings an exquisite eye to detail to all her descriptions of plants, seeds, etc.--so much so that I actually ate asparagus for the first time in eons (I've always hated it) on Saturday. (Camille's suggestions on cooking it proved true--it was quite tasty.) Those of you who are already green thumbs will enjoy the insightful, humorous prose here; those of you whose thumbs might best be described as black can live vicariously through Kingsolver.

And folks anywhere on that continuum might be inspired, and although this won't tell you how to do everything, it can point you in the right direction. The text itself mentions a lot of resources (cookbooks, seed sources, etc.), but there's a handy resource list at the end, including books, websites, organizations, and so forth. The plethora of cookbooks on turning local/farmers' market finds into delicious meals makes this book worth its weight in gold. You might also be prompted to try something really new for you--I had always been intimidated at the thought of making my own cheese, but the chapter on it and the resources provided has inspired me to attempt mozzarella, at least.

Right now, the book is only available in hard cover; list price is $26.95 (Borders has it 20% off, which is where we got it). If that's too much for you, go check out The AVM Website to get recipes, more info on the book, a resource list, and some updates since the book's writing.
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