Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I originally intended to post this review on the ecojustice blog but Emily, Stefanie, and Mandarine have all recently posted beautiful, insightful posts over there so instead I urge you to go read their posts – I will write there in a few days on a different topic.


I’ve really struggled with how to write this review, and I think that is because, like all good nonfiction, reading it made me think not just about the material on the page but the larger implications of my lifestyle. I’ve couched this review a hundred different ways in my head and never settled on one satisfactorily enough to sit down and actually write it. I still haven’t, but I’m going to have stab at it anyway. Here it goes.

I am not a “foodie,” but I spend the majority of my Saturdays in Pittsburgh’s strip district, shopping at the local farmers’ market and then the local Italian, Greek and Mexican shops. You will never see me in a William Sonoma, arguing over the various quality of Kitchen Aid mixers or asparagus peelers, and you certainly won’t see me hovering over my kitchen sink, groaning as I stuff my face with fresh strawberries and swearing I will never, ever buy non-seasonal strawberries again! Don’t get me wrong – I never will buy non-seasonal strawberries again, but not because I am so obsessed with the food itself…I won’t do it because I believe buying locally, from farmers, and buying seasonally, is the right thing to do, for the environment, for the economy, for my community, and for our health. And I also believe those of us willing to make the sacrifice, to skip the big grocery stories and plan meals around the seasons and buy organic, local meat make up a fairly small contingent in this country.

How can I put this differently? Okay, let’s try this: I believe buying locally grown food, and walking as much as possible instead of driving, and carrying clothe grocery bags instead of plastic, and recycling everything possible, and having a job that is in service to something, and using energy efficient light bulbs, and watching our water consumption…I believe all of that is incredibly important. I believe my health, and the health of S., is important. Beyond that, I believe the health of my community, my family, Americans, the world – is important. But I also believe only some of us have the financial wherewithal and ability to make the effort to do what is right. I can afford to spend my time pondering what to do with my fresh asparagus because both S. and I have lucrative jobs, health insurance and the ability to argue early each Saturday morning, between the luxury of sleeping in, and the luxury of buying food – whatever food we want – from wherever we want, regardless. Most people don’t have this choice.

I finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle feeling obligated to do more for the world I am so blessed to inhabit, and also overwhelmed with how do do this. Regardless of the easy tips Steven Hopp provides the reader so you, too, can enjoy tomatoes grown by grit and God’s love, Kingsolver could do what she did because, let’s face it, she works from home and has the time to commit a year of her life to growing her own food. When I first finished the book I had to squash the compulsion to immediately start container gardening and learning how to can. One thing at a time, I told myself. It’s enough, this year, to learn to eat mostly locally.

Oh, damnit. I’m really not returning to the text, am I? I’m all reaction, no analyzing. Let me just say this – Kingsolver’s book is stellar. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in food and/or the environment. Her passages about when she’s cooking she can feel her female ancestors around her make me want to run out and buy the ingredients to make chicken and dumplings, if only to return the smell of my grandmother’s kitchen to me for a couple of hours. She made me feel okay about how much I love to cook (even though I don’t like the food network), and sometimes I do feel self-conscious about my love for my kitchen (even though I don’t own anything special, utensil-wise), and preparing meals. She taught me how to properly cook vegetables, and provided a wonderful recipe for strawberry/rhubarb crumble, which I made and took to a cookout recently. Kingsolver has long been one of my favorite writers and being welcomed into her house and kitchen, as she does in this book, was a wonderful reading treat. But she also stressed me out a bit, as well. No high fructose corn syrup, ever? It’s all fine and good not eating candy bars or cola, but WHAT ABOUT TONIC WATER?  Could I go a whole summer without the tang of a vodka tonic hitting the back of my throat, all because a system I don’t fully understand screwed up farming in American and now corn is a commodity? Let me tell you, I’ve already had several.  And packing a cooler full of fresh, local foods for road trips? The only time I allow myself to eat McDonald’s is on road trips….maybe three times a year? But oh, how I love it then!  A balance must be struck.

Here is what we are doing, in our little household of two, for now. We are waking up early on Saturday mornings and supporting local farmers and local shop owners.  The only meat we eat is hormone and antiobiotic free, and mostly local. We do not keep junk or snack foods in the house, and moreover, with the food crisis currently happening, we do not waste food if we can at all help it. The all-natural hot dogs I bought for S. that he hates will be grilled up and cut into baked beans, for and we will dine like children.  Rotten bananas will always be turned into banana muffins. But, for the time being, at least, we will eat in local restaurants without questioning where the food comes from, and when friends have us over we will gratefully share whatever they prepare for us.  When we head up to the cabin in September, we will eat cheeseburgers.  But we will keep trying, and trying, and trying – this whole eating thing – my – it has grown so tricky.

Hmm. What an odd-ball review. I’d meant to do better by one of my favorite writers. I think I’m still muddling through what I’ve learned. But I have managed to complete the first challenge from the ecojustice challenge….I read one book on the topic, and we are easily eating more than two meals a week locally. I can’t wait for next quarter!

Oh, and the part that stressed me out a bit, from the book? Bananas! Do I really have to give them up?

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7 Responses to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

  1. toujoursjacques says:

    I’m on my way to the airport in a couple of minutes, but I wanted to respond to this marvelous post. I think you are doing fabulously! And you’re right. A balance must be struck. And slow and steady change is never a bad thing.

    More than this, I want to say your exasperation over not being able to write a ‘proper’ review helped me to understand why I myself no longer write them. I’m not sure anymore what a ‘proper’ review might be, but I would much rather read posts like this one any day of the week. And I simply cannot imagine a better tribute to a book (or a better indication of taking it seriously) than the sort of engagement with it evidenced here. Thanks Courtney!

  2. Andi says:

    It is definitely necessary to strike a balance. I also had to squelch the urge to buy a canner. lol The little things (cloth bags, eating locally, etc.) are enough, and I think Kingsolver did a good job of putting that particular point into perspective as she wound the book up. I think she realizes she’s in the minority as far as time and gardening area, but I think she could’ve emphasized the “do what you can” factor just the tiniest bit more.

    I read a GREAT book that discusses the small everyday environmental changes: Green, Greener, Greenest, by Lori Bongiorno. Definitely give it a go if you feel the urge, although it’s actually probably all old news for you. I knew a lot of it, but it was nice to have some extra resources to refer to. Lots of great websites and such.

  3. Cam says:

    Is there really such a thing as an aspargus peeler???

    Great post, Courtney. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has been resting unread on my nightstand for several weeks. I really should read it soon.

  4. Emily Barton says:

    Oh, your reaction to this was so much like mine! I, too, found her to be a little disingenuous talking about being a “working mom.” Yes, she works, but she doesn’t have a 30+-minute one-way commute to a place she has to be for eight and a half hours a day like so many of the working moms I’ve known. And I, like you, wanted to race out and buy containers for container gardening and learn to can. I took a step back from that and instead, just asked a friend of mine if I could come over and watch her one day when she’s canning this summer/fall. However, Kinsolver’s book really did make me think. I think all of us are doing much more than the average person, and maybe that will help raise the average a little? Let’s hope.

  5. Dorothy W. says:

    Great review, Courtney — I do like the way you write about the book and your reaction to it! You capture your response very well and make the book sound hugely appealing.

  6. Courtney says:

    Thanks all, for the comments. I have to admit it is late here on a Wednesday night in Pittsburgh and I have an early morning tomorrow for work, and I have not eaten locally or, in fact, even eaten well. It is certainly a bit dispiriting and I sort of long for Kingsolver’s seemingly (although I know better) simplistic approach to her life, family and food – I find myself admittedly exhausted!

  7. Stefanie says:

    I knew I was saving your review for a good reason! I wanted to read it when I wasn’t in a hurry and I have been duly rewarded. Once you start to think about food you can’t stop because everything is so connected. I laughed at the image of you eating strawberries out of season! I don’t think you have to give up bananas. Michael Pollan mentions in one of his books that we should eat the food that is grown locally and not feel bad about buying food that cannot be grown in our area. Coffee, bananas, and lots of other food can’t be grown in the US. This is when it becomes important, I think, to be even more conscious about how food is produced and I always buy fair trade coffee and organic bananas. I buy organic chocolate but haven’t made the jump to fair trade chocolate yet.

    You make a good point about cost. Kingsolver had the luxury of doing what she did. We have the luxury of being able to buy the food we want even if we have to pay a premium for some of it. A big part of why good food is expensive is because of government farm policy. Agribusiness is subsidized as is sugar and a lot of other bad for us food like corn syrup. And giving up corn syrup is hard, but not impossible. We’ve cut it out of all our food. It means more fresh food, more cooking, more work, but it also means less processed and more nutritious and healthier food. Good luck!

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